He launched a career on YouTube running his mouth on celebs, but in less than a year Yoshikazu “GaaSyy” Higashitani has gone from that to running successfully for office to running from the law. Politics reporter Gabriele Ninivaggi joins the show this week to discuss what this parliamentary upstart’s rise and fall says about how politics is done in Japan. And, who exactly are the Party Politician Girls who replaced him?

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Shaun McKenna  00:09  

Hello and welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Shaun McKenna. 

Japanese politics. (Yawn) No, no, hear me out. 

This month the Japanese parliament expelled a member of the Upper House the first time this has happened since 1951. Now the parliament, typically referred to as the Diet is no stranger to celebrity politicians or single issue political parties, but this may be its first real taste of internet-style chaos energy, and the results have been pretty wild. Have you ever wondered what would happen if the world of DeuxMoi collided with C-SPAN? It might sound something like this:

News clip  00:44

Shaun McKenna  00:54  

What you heard just there was Upper House President Hidehisa Otsuji announcing the expulsion of Yoshikazu HiGaaSyytani from the Diet. HiGaaSyytani, a celebrity-gossip YouTuber known to his fans as “GaaSyy” — which is spelled big g, small a, small a, big s, small y, small y — is 51 years old and in last July's election managed to grab a seat in the Diet thanks to Japan's proportional representation system. That means his party, the NHK Party — who don't actually like national broadcaster NHK, more on that later — received enough votes overall to allow them seats in the Diet’s Upper House of Councillors. This week, we'll look at GaaSyy, his brief stint as a lawmaker, the party that supported him and what they're doing ahead of countrywide April elections, and how websites like YouTube are providing a path for outside-the-mainstream candidates to possibly get seats in the halls of power.

I’ve asked Japan Times political reporter Gabriele Ninivaggi to join me on today's show to talk about this whole spectacle, Gabriele, welcome to Deep Dive.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  02:05  

Thanks for having me, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna  02:06  

Who said politics was boring, right? 

Gabriele Ninivaggi  02:08 


Shaun McKenna  02:10  

I think the best way to tackle this story is to start from when GaaSyy was elected back in July. What was the general reaction to this YouTuber winning a seat in the Upper House.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  02:20  

So actually, GaaSyy, I didn't receive substantial media attention until early 2022. He had made a name for himself in the entertainment industry, but wasn't really popular with the public at large until last year, I would say. And considering that after July's election, the NHK Party had just two seats in Parliament, and the elections just confirmed the LDP supremacy in the Upper House. At the time, GaaSyy himself didn't really receive much media attention. We also need to remember that he conducted his electoral campaign mostly online, or lying on social media or just making use of audio recordings on the streets to encourage people to vote for him. And during the campaign, he pledged to carry out his duties as MP entirely online underlining how it's time for the Diet and other political institutions just to open up to a wide range of values. And it's time for Japan to rethink the entire nature of the Diet and the profession of lawmaker itself.

Shaun McKenna  03:15  

Mostly just by trying to get these institutions to be more online. 

Gabriele Ninivaggi  03:20  

Yes, correct, just moving the operations of the parliament online.

Shaun McKenna  03:23  

  1. In terms of YouTube popularity, where is he compared to Western YouTubers? Like is he a Logan Paul or a Contrapoints, or…?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  03:32  

He's not nearly that big, actually, he had nearly 1.3 million subscribers before the page was actually taken down in July. But the impressive thing is that he got over a million followers in less than three months before he ran. And he did so mostly by exposing celebrity secrets and just making a name for himself as a muckraker.

Shaun McKenna  03:53  

OK, so this fairly popular YouTuber wins the election. How did he manage that? 

Gabriele Ninivaggi  03:59  

So first, I think we need to mention that in Japan, the hurdles for proportional representation, especially in the Upper House, are very low. A party needs to get just 2% of votes to obtain a seat in the Diet, so that's a big element. And in general, I would say that the NHK Party did much better than expected, we need to remember that they started as a single issue party focusing on the national broadcaster’s, which is of course NHK, subscription fees. And in a country of over 125 million people, they managed to find 287,000 voters to agree with them. So they met the threshold to obtain seats.

Shaun McKenna  04:32  

OK, so basically the NHK Party started maybe in 2013. It's gone through various names, and its main issue is that in Japan, the national broadcaster collects like fees from people who watch it directly so people go door to door. And this is something that the party had an issue with.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  04:54  

Correct. It works a little different, actually. Because if you own a television, you need to pay NHK subscription fees. Regardless of whether you actually watch it or not, if you own a television and that television is registered, then you need to pay the fee, which is, of course, something that most people do not agree with. 

Shaun McKenna  05:08


Gabriele Ninivaggi  05:09 

Especially recently.

Shaun McKenna  05:09  

I pay my fee.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  05:10 

I do not. 

Shaun McKenna  05:13  

Do you have a TV?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  05:14  

I do not have a TV. That's the reason why I don’t pay the fee.

Shaun McKenna  05:16  

Ok, that's better, that's better.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  05:17  

But you know, getting back to GaaSyy. He's also quoted as saying, I'm going to wake up all the lawmakers who are sleeping the Diet, and I'm going to do it so well, that there will never be another lawmaker like me, so please watch me.

Shaun McKenna  05:29  

Hmm, that sounds a lot like the rhetoric that comes from a new breed of politicians we're seeing overseas. But as a candidate, does GaaSyy talk about affecting change for voters? Or like, what else does he run on? 

Gabriele Ninivaggi  05:42 

So he mostly promised to clean up parliament, clean up the entertainment industry and improve working conditions within the entertainment industry?

Shaun McKenna 05:49  

And one thing to note about GaaSyy is when was that he was living in Dubai at the time, right? People knew he was not in Japan.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  05:56  

Correct. So it GaaSyy left Japan before he even campaigned for the NHK Party. As I said earlier, he started exposing celebrity scandals before running. But then he was also accused of intimidating and defaming celebrities, one of whom is reportedly the actor, Ayano Go. So he's charged with obstruction of business, and it is alleged that his actions actually forced someone to withdraw from a business. There's also a reported allegation that he swindled money from people by telling them they would get to meet the famous K-pop group, BTS.

Shaun McKenna  06:29

Ooh, dynamite.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  06:30 

That one. GaaSsy denied the allegations himself and maintained that he's the victim of a false criminal complaint.

Shaun McKenna  06:36  

And that's what's keeping him in Dubai. And to clarify what you said, basically, in Japan, there is an obstruction of business law, and it's illegal to prevent other people from making a living. That's kind of the basis of that law. 

Gabriele Ninivaggi  06:51

Basically, yes. 

Shaun McKenna  06:52 

So GaaSyy celebrates his win over video chat from Dubai. Can't he just do his job from over there?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  06:59  

Well, he thinks he should be allowed to do so. But there is another law that says every lawmaker is supposed to attend the opening session of the Diet in person.

Shaun McKenna  07:08  

Does he come back to Japan for the start of the parliamentary session? 

Gabriele Ninivaggi  07:11  

No, he doesn't, because he's still worried about being arrested, even though as it is pointed out widely. a sitting member of parliament, according to the Japanese Constitution, cannot be arrested.

Shaun McKenna  07:21  

OK, so this sets up a bit of a showdown. And that's where many listeners may have started hearing about GaaSyy for the first time.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  07:28  

Yes, the Diet is pretty much unanimous in the idea that he should have to return to Japan to attend parliament. But he keeps on suggesting that he may return but he always changes his mind at the last minute.

Shaun McKenna  07:40  

By this time the Diet has started disciplinary procedures. They now want him to return to apologize in person, correct? 

Gabriele Ninivaggi  07:48  

Yes, correct. So according to the Diet law, there are four steps to these procedures. The first one is a warning where the lawmaker is just warned and asked to attend parliament. The second one is the apology where the lawmaker’s asked to go to parliament in person and apologize in front of the plenary session. Then there is a suspension. And then the fourth, which is the expulsion, is the most severe reprimand.

Shaun McKenna  08:10  

As far as history goes. I did some reading and it seems the last lawmaker to be seriously reprimanded by Parliament was another celebrity politician, the former professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in 2013. He took an unsanctioned trip to North Korea, and then received a 30-day suspension for it. As our listeners may have guessed, GaaSyy does not return to apologize in person, right?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  08:32  

No, he doesn't. He did not come back for the opening. And now he does not come back for the apology. He does leave Dubai, however. But then instead of heading back to Japan, he heads to Turkey to observe the aftermath of the earthquake, which hit Turkey in early March. After that, he goes back to Dubai. And on March 14, that panel, the disciplinary panel of the Upper House, skips the suspension and recommends a full expulsion. 

Shaun McKenna  08:57  

Why did they skip the suspension? 

Gabriele Ninivaggi  08:59 

Well, he never attended parliament anyway. So they figured it didn't really make sense to suspend him.

Shaun McKenna  09:03  

I guess so. You know, I mean, on one hand, there are these rules that have to be followed, right? On the other, he didn't lie to the voters. He was pretty upfront about being outside of Japan when he ran, could parliament be seen as kind of going against the will of the voters if it expels him as a lawmaker?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  09:21  

Yes, I guess yours is a fair point. And some demonstrators actually and also some members of GaaSyy’s party actually gathered outside of the parliament to protest and the aftermath of the expulsion. But I would say most people and public opinion in general thinks that GaaSyy neglected his duties as a lawmaker, and also his party has been receiving money, taxpayer money for all this entire period. GaaSyy himself received ¥18.4 million by the end of February. And GaaSyy himself wasn't really doing anything for voters in first place. So he came to office to expose hypocrisy but at the end of the day, the voters need their lawmakers to actually represent them in parliament.

Shaun McKenna  10:07  

On March 15, GaaSyy is expelled from the parliament after a nearly unanimous vote. The only one to support him is his lone fellow NHK Party member in the chamber Satoshi Hamada. This means GaaSyy is no longer a lawmaker, and therefore he's no longer exempt from arrest by the Constitution. So what happens next?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  10:25  

So what happens next is that the police secure an arrest warrant not just for GaaSyy, but also for his video editor and the company that collected revenues from his YouTube channel. The channel was shut down last year, but GaaSyy, he still runs a TikTok and Instagram account. And so he's making money out of those. And most recently, the Foreign Ministry ordered GaaSyy to surrender his passport and he needs to do so by April 13. And last week, the police started conducting property searches in GaaSyy’s family home in Hyogo Prefecture in western Japan, where he had registered his residency before leaving to Dubai.

Shaun McKenna  11:00  

OK, so what happens if he doesn't surrender his passport?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  11:04  

So the passport will be void after April 13. And the police have signaled that they're planning to put him on an international wanted list. 

Shaun McKenna  11:12  

Wow, all this in less than a year. So some reactions to this by other politicians. You have Michihito Kaneko of the Nippon Isshin Party, saying that parliament needs to address the broader public distrust of politics that the GaaSyy saga has shone a light on. And then Satoshi Hamada, the other NHK Party member in the Upper House, and its policy chief, he points out that parliaments and local assemblies all over the world are moving their operations online and it's a shame that the Diet couldn't accept GaaSyy’s apology via video. Then this is where things get even more complicated. So the NHK Party's leader Takashi Tachibana, who himself is quite a character, he resigns to take responsibility for the GaaSyy mess. And he's replaced by former actress Ayaka Otsu. When this happens, the party also changes its name. This is the best part Gabriele, what's the new name?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  12:06  

So the new name is Seijika Joshi 48 To.

Shaun McKenna  12:09  

And what does that roughly translate to? 

Gabriele Ninivaggi  12:14  

Something pretty much like Party Politician Girls 48.

Shaun McKenna  12:15  

Fantastic. So, here's Otsu speaking to reporters about Party Politician Girls 48 in a clip from Kyodo News. Shout out to Jeffrey J. Hall on Twitter for providing the context on this one.

News clip 12:28

Shaun McKenna  12:32  

So a reporter asked her about her position on tax cuts. 

She responds that she would like to pass on that one for now please and thank you. Gabriele, I used to cover music at The Japan Times and, naturally, I caught the reference here to idol-pop group, AKB48. I think to fully understand what's going on here, we need to know a bit more about the background of the now-defunct NHK Party, and where this affinity for working with minor celebrities comes from.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  13:03  

Right. So GaaSyy caught the attention of Takashi Tachibana, who's the former head of the party, and he's the guy who launched the original version of the party before it was called the NHK Party. And the party was founded in 2013 as the NHK Jushinryo Fubarai To, but then they adjust the name to NHK Kara Kokumin o Mamoru To, which roughly translates as the Party to Protect the People from NHK.

Shaun McKenna  13:27  

Why do people need protecting from NHK?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  13:29  

So Tachibana himself is a former employee of NHK, the national broadcaster. And the way NHK works is that if you live in Japan and want a television you need to pay the fee, as we said earlier. So the way they collect the fee is that they send people door to door to ask people to pay, but Tachibana, make some claims about how NHK collects the money, and he alleges they use nefarious methods. He mostly doesn't believe that people should have to pay for NHK in the first place, especially if they don't want it. 

Shaun McKenna  13:56  

OK, so it's important to note to our listeners that this party is kind of fringe, but it does have two seats in the Upper House.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  14:03  

Right. It's interesting how the NHK Party has managed to get seats in the parliament. In about 2012, before the party exists, Tachibana realizes that he won't be able to take the message on the collection of NHK to mainstream media, because it's too fringe to be able to get any airtime at all. So he launches his own channel and begins broadcasting. This coincides with a general anti-mainstream media mood that's bubbling up on the internet, and Tachibana then forms the party has he maybe realizes that elections aren't just for winning, they're for self-promotion and brand-building.

Shaun McKenna  14:35  

So the NHK Party fields just under 40 candidates in the 2019 Upper House elections and wins people over with catchy slogans and funny YouTube videos. This is how they're able to get enough votes for the proportional representation seat in Parliament. If you're interested in learning more about the party, Max Guerrera-Sapone wrote a great piece about its history for the Asian Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. I'll put a link in the show notes. Gabriele, how does Tachibana score more views on YouTube?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  15:03  

So Tachibana uses the YouTube channel to outline how people can safely sort of avoid paying the NHK fees. What he really wants to do is just encouraging candidates to use YouTube just to speak directly to constituents and voters. 

Shaun McKenna  15:17  

To sum up most of what is happening in terms of political culture. These new candidates are starting to realize that they can get around the gatekeeper nature of the Japanese media by using YouTube, and Guerrera-Sapone also points out that YouTube's power vis-a-vis the mainstream media is further cemented when Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike he uses it to get her message out to young people during the pandemic. Here she is speaking to Hikakin, Japan's most popular YouTuber.

Hikakin clip  15:42  

Gabriele Ninivaggi  15:58  

Right. So Koike just goes on HikakinTV to talk about social distancing during the pandemic and the video is watched by over 11 million people.

Shaun McKenna  16:04  

So what's going on here is the NHK Party's way of online campaigning is finding its way to established politicians. But I mean, it's not like those politicians are copying the NHK Party, this is more of a sign of how the media landscape overall is changing. Party Politician Girls 48 are also using YouTube. What's their deal, is it still beef with NHK?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  16:25  

Yes, so Seijika Joshi no To existed as a political group before, it wasn't just a party, it was active mostly at a local level. A quick look at a website shows that most of its members are young women, and some of them are as young as 25 years old coming from sectors such as entertainment mostly, and they've been active in local politics, mostly a city council members in the area of Tokyo, but also in other areas across the country, for example, Hokkaido. Their approach to politics is very direct. There's clear references to their past, and they are now fielding approximately 40 candidates at the local elections in April, including, of course, Otsu herself who's running for Kanagawa governor. So when Tachibana kind of hands over the NHK Party name and position to Seijika Joshi no To, that, of course, allows them to receive subsidies from the state, and they're now able to get almost $2.3 million U.S., and, of course, a much bigger platform nationwide.

Shaun McKenna  17:20  

Actually, it's been reported for some time that Japan has not been keeping up with other countries in terms of gender representation when it comes to politics, is Party Politician Girls 48 in any way an attempt to draw attention to that fact.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  17:33  

Yes, so this is exactly what also mentioned when Tachibana stepped down and herself was nominated party leader that she wanted to keep on track with the NHK Party policy goals and priorities, while at the same time lowering the hurdles of political representation for women in a country which is, of course, notoriously known for gender inequality, not just in politics, but at a general level. So my personal take is that their effort might be directed mostly to raise further awareness on this issue, both at a local and national level, but they still need to build a name for themselves, especially nationwide.

Shaun McKenna  18:06  

Gabriele, is this what Japanese populism looks like?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  18:10  

So I've spoken to a professor from my article Jiro Mizushima from Chiba University, and he said that, in general, GaaSyy’s assertions are very populist. GaaSyy’s not the first celebrity to enter Japanese parliament at all, but the fact that the entire NHK Party is very populist and GaaSyy’s critiques of the political elites and claims to break the domination of established parties come to the fore. So what Mizushima said is that he doesn't think that the NHK Party or its successor really aims to join the government, it's mostly a matter of indirect influence. You know, by sending out a constant message on a single issue, even small parties can have some influence on policy-making when they secure seats in parliament, especially in terms of representing people who feel disillusioned towards the established parties. But, you know, still a lot of people aren’t that disillusioned, especially compared to other countries.

Shaun McKenna  19:02  

Right, so you get into politics for the platform and you build the brand. OK, so Gabriele, you're from Italy, and populism has been a part of that country's political system for decades. In recent years, however, there's been a bit of a surge in populist movements. The Brothers of Italy Party, for example, whose leader, Giorgia Meloni, is currently the prime minister of Italy. They're described as a right wing populist party with strict stances on immigration, abortion and LGBTQ issues. Are you able to compare Italian populism with Japanese populism? Like what do you see as a difference in the way that the two countries approach it?

Gabriele Ninivaggi  19:41  

So this is a very interesting question. Overall, I think there are more similarities than differences. You know, Steve Bannon famously quipped when he came to Japan have visited the LDP headquarters that former Prime Minister, late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was Trump before Trump. And in a similar way, Italians often joke that Silvio Berlusconi, who's a famous media tycoon who has been prime minister for three times in Italy, was Italy’s Trump, too, back in the days. So overall, I think most experts agree that Japan has been immune to that kind of right-wing populism that Europe and the United States have experienced because it wasn't affected by mostly two elements: So there's a demographic element, and Japan has, of course, a very low percentage of immigrants compared to those countries, and also hasn't had to deal with the effects of globalization in terms of loss of jobs and loss of economic competitiveness, especially in the countryside. Inequality is on the rise in Japan, too, but the rural-urban divide is not as deep. But overall, just the very base of populism,so this juxtaposition between people and an alleged elite and this critique, constant critique of the establishment have been present in Japanese political landscape, too. So former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is often said to have been the first populist in Japan mostly for the way he communicated and appealed directly to the voters. But in the last decade, parties like Nippon Isshin no Kai or Yuriko Koike’s Tokyoites First, at a local level have tried to appeal directly to voters just lashing out on the establishment bureaucracy and entrenched elites, but often in a way that also led them to pursue a pro-business or neoliberal agenda without sounding too extreme, and still within the framework of the system. This is the key difference with these three new parties, which are, of course: the ex, former NHK Party; Sanseito, which is a bit more right wing; and Reiwa Shinsengumi, which is on the other side of the spectrum, very left wing, they don't mind being called extreme left populist, themselves. So these three parties are much more extreme in their claims and are therefore similar to other parties in the West, for example, as you mentioned, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. But what distinguishes these parties and what makes Japan stand out in this, is that these three parties are still very small, as I said, they just got a roughly 2% of votes in the last Upper House election, which is, of course, not comparable to what happened in Italy and other countries in Europe. So in Japan, it's often been said that there is, so far, there hasn't been any political space for an anti-establishment party. It's hard for them to organize and build a name for themselves, nationwide. So I think this is slowly changing. It will change in the next maybe not a few years but the next decade or so. But right now, I think it's a little hard to make comparisons.

Shaun McKenna  22:31  

Well, Gabriele, thanks very much for coming on Deep Dive.

Gabriele Ninivaggi  22:34  

Thank you, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna  22:39  

Thanks again to politics reporter Gabriele Ninivaggi for joining us on Deep Dive. I'll put links to his socials in the show notes.

Elsewhere in the news this week, a Japanese national is being detained in China on suspicion of spying. The 50-something employee of pharmaceutical company Astellas Pharma is one of five Japanese nationals currently being held in China. Kathleen Benoza has written about it over on japantimes.co.jp. Also in the news, while protests continue in France over a proposed raise in the age of retirement, Japan has raised the retirement age of national and local civil servants here from 60 to 61. The plan is to raise the age by one year every two years until it reaches 65 In fiscal 2031. And a high school in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, refused to allow a student to take part in his graduation ceremony after he wore his hair in cornrows. The 18-year-old student, who has a Black father and Japanese mother, was made to sit in the back of the venue and was told not to respond even if his name was called. The school had earlier told the student to cut his hair as its rules call for “tidy and student-like” hairstyles. Japanese schools are notorious for some rules regarding hairstyles and fashion that many see as outdated. If you've enjoyed this week's episode, please be sure to leave us a rating or review on Apple podcasts, Spotify or whatever podcasting platform you use. It actually helps others find the show.

Production for Deep Dive is by Dave Cortez, our intern is Natalia Makohon, the outgoing song was written by Oscar Boyd and our theme song is by the Japanese musician LLLL. Until next time, I'm Shaun McKenna, podstukaresama.