Anti-nuclear activist, Taro Yamamoto stated his intention to continue as a politician on Tuesday, despite facing censure in the Diet for handing a letter, out-lining the situation in the Fukushima clean-up, to Emperor Akihito at a royal garden party last Thursday. This taboo breaking action has since caused a storm of protest from commentators in the media and politics who found the action arrogant and disrespectful.
By personally giving the 79 year old Emperor such a letter, Yamamoto San ignored several strict protocols against drawing any member of the apolitical monarchy into what is by default a political debate. Calls for harsh punishments from other politicians, especially in the pro-nuclear, ruling LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and members of the far-right, might now cause problems for the career of this independent lawmaker who was only elected to the House of Councillors in July. Indeed some politicians, that might have been considered natural allies such as Kazuo Shii, leader of the Japanese Communist Party and a noted anti-nuclear campaigner himself, have also questioned the thinking behind Yamamoto’s action with Kazuo San saying that “[Yamamoto] did not understand the constitution.”
The former actor has said, he regrets causing the Emperor any trouble and that he was not sufficiently aware what the consequences of his action would be. For example he says he did not expect the delivery of the letter to be so widely reported and has accused the media of allowing his actions to be used for political purposes that attack him and the anti-nuclear movement. He strongly denied intending to use the Emperor to further his own political purposes however saying he only wished to inform him of the situation affecting Fukushima residents and the health issues of those that are tasked with the clean-up there. Criticising some of the politicians now calling for him to resign he pointed out that many of them saw nothing wrong in using other members of the Japanese Royal Family to help Tokyo secure the 2020 Olympic bid. A fact, he argues, that was much more overtly political and thus unconstitutional.
The letter apparently remains unread as it was passed quickly onto to Grand Chamberlain, who was accompanying the Emperor and Empress as they met some of the 2,140 guests in attendance at the biannual event. If it was a pointless act that crossed boundaries of taste and legality and could effectively end his political career, why, you have to ask, did he do it?
Taro Yamamoto moved into politics when his acting career ended after he made his support for the anti-nuclear movement that grew in Japan after the March 11th nuclear accident in Fukushima public. It was not your usual celebrity band-wagon jumping: in fact, in a industry where famous people do not usually have opinions and certainly not ones that might be considered damaging to companies, like TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company – the operators of the Fukushima plant) that fund the media with their huge advertising budgets, it was a spectacularly reckless move.
Though the first opinions he expressed on Twitter, were perhaps understandable in the aftermath of the events that shocked the whole country; his subsequent treatment by the media seems to have galvanised a more determined and combative approach to the unique issues of nuclear energy and safety faced by an earthquake-prone Japan.
Taro Yamamoto seems always to have followed his own, sometimes reckless, sense of personal morality and appropriateness. An article in the Japan Times earlier this year, profiling his burgeoning political ambitions, showed how his belief in social responsibly was instilled in him at a young age by a strong mother who would force him to donate a percentage of his New Year Money (Otoshidama) to good causes and regularly take him and his sisters away to The Philippines or elsewhere to work with the poor. In the same article he is aware that his celebrity also gives incredible weight to the message and is something he can use to embolden the anti-nuclear agenda, saying: “I really need to do acting work as well, so I can stay in the public eye and continue drawing attention to nuclear issues.”
After failing to win a seat in the Lower House election in late 2012 Yamamoto and an army of 1,200, mostly young volunteers, steeled themselves for a run at a seat in the Upper House elections this summer. The hard work of campaigning in the summer heat and on the internet finally paid off however and he was elected as a Tokyo Councillor on July 21st. Running as an independent he succeeded in securing a seat without having to make any deals or compromises with larger or more established parties and politicians; putting him in a position to take his anti-nuclear message to the heart of government and hopefully have it listened to.
Obviously the realities of politics have proved more exacerbating for Yamamoto than he imagined. The ruling LDP are determined to control the debate on the nuclear energy. The idea is being propagated that the nuclear crisis is under control; the areas affected by contamination are being cleaned and thus Fukushima is ready for re-population and the people to get on with their lives. With a compliant media parroting the party line and the diversions of a successful Olympic bid, where the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe promised a global audience the crisis was “under control”, the stories of the the 150,000 people that had to evacuate the countryside around the the Daichi plant and the corruption and ineptitude of the operators before the accident and, now, in the clean-up process is slowly disappearing from people’s consciousness.
Taro Yamamoto did not enter politics to get rich or carve out a career in industries that lobby the power people like him gain after election. He would have been more admired and richer if he had remained an actor. He seems to care passionately and genuinely about the situation in Fukushima and appears determined to keep the debate current. But though he declared that he was “no longer alone” when he won the election it is possible that he found his voice much smaller than he had predicted.
There was a moment after the tragedy in March 2011 when the anti-nuclear message resonated widely. But the voices have grown weaker now, the touristing rebellion of many of the older protesters has moved to a grudging acceptance of the inevitable return to routine or even a full embrace of the new, comforting propaganda. Those that still passionately hold the hope they can make a difference can be found outside the diet building almost every Friday; but their numbers are shrinking and their motives and characters are being mercilessly othered in the press.
Questioning the official line is going to become more difficult as the voices against it grow weaker. Soon, new laws, being rushed through by the LDP will limit an already anaemic journalism’s legality in uncovering political secrets and this will further remove the options of arguing against the government’s agenda: that Fukushima will lose its notoriety nationally and ultimately internationally also.
Yet many know the Fukushima clean-up is cosmetic at best and a down-right lie at worst. Many know that the money and motivations to find alternative energies and rebuild the Tohoku coast is instead being diverted to building more nuclear power-stations or into nationalist projects such as Antarctic whaling.
Taro Yamamoto recklessness in breaking a taboo and trying to inform the Emperor of the plight of his people could be judged ill thought-out and punishably impolite; yet it is more likely a brave, calculated risk designed to change the narrative. He has worked too hard to throw away the advantage he has by actually being in power. Of course the demands on his resignation may grow too vociferous to ignore. The notoriety he now has may yet backfire and put an end to a new and promising political movement. But he has at least kept the subject of the problems in Fukushima in the public’s mind a little longer and though the path to this kind of influence over the electorate has been an unconventional one we may be seeing a new kind of politics emerging here, one that needs to challenge and change the normal, acceptable, appropriate and traditional ways of wielding and deferring to power. One can only hope that Emperor Akahito might rattle his own bars a little too someday.