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.
They had all that your self respecting teen-idol group should have: They had their strange, fan-boy dancer out front; they had school uniforms on and they had their smiley but very protective management. What was different however is that their songs also had a message, a massage about the the folly of nuclear energy which apparently got them banned from Fuji Rock festival in 2011.
Stronger messages in popular music or the “talento” media mass-production machine are not something that is common in Japan. To attack the companies or products that advertise on the TV or in the magazines; or to go “off-message” at in anyway can find you lost in the celebrity wilderness. Ask the actor, Taro Yamamoto, who angrily tweeted his feelings against nuclear energy after the problems at Fukushima Daichi and has since found it difficult to find work. It was perhaps a growing experience for him though that allowed his interests to broaden into politics and activism. He even stood for the governor of Tokyo.
How much the teenage girls that sing in this group know or believe in the message they speak is debatable. It could be a cynical attempt to exploit a very particular niche. Yet if it is it seems curiously short-sighted and they cannot get reported on in the usual media. They do have a bit of a history with their pop song containing a message also.
Of course no-one in the media in the west knows or even really cares who they are so these images are not exactly profitable. Still it was interesting meeting and learning a bit about them on the day.
Later. got to rush off now to another job
The crowds forming last night outside Ogikubo Station in Tokyo were much bigger than those that gathered for Prime Minister Noda or Shintaro Ishihara a week before. Maybe it was the celebrity factor that interrupted people’s commute home and pulled them off the pavement into a small alcove alongside the train tracks where actor, Taro Yamamoto (first image above) was giving a speech. Perhaps though it was the words he spoke that resonated more. Because here was a man talking very passionately about a nuclear free Japan. Passion is rare in politics here and many people seemed attracted to a man, famous or not, that really believes in what he is saying.
Taro Yamamoto is a famous actor in Japan and one of the first “talentos” in the country’s usually apolitical entertainment industry to publicly state his opposition to nuclear-power. It is an opinion that has, for all intents and purposes, cost him his career. Television, cinema and other media rely on sponsorship and advertising revenues to make programmes and films of course. The problem in Japan is that only a couple of agencies control most of the advertising market in the country and as their clients include big spending utility companies, such as TEPCO, they are more or less able to control what is said about their clients in the media by threatening the withdrawal of advertising. Shortly after Yamamoto San voiced his dislike of the nuclear industry, on April 9th 2011, offers for work dried up and he found himself shunned in the business.
So he has started on a new career in politics. He is running for office, in the elections this Sunday, as the hopeful representative of Tokyo’s Suginami Ward. Unaffiliated to any existing party, he is standing as an independent with a broadly left-wing and anti-nuclear power policy agenda. His pink-jacketed, support volunteers (bottom pic above), many of whom I recognised as stalwarts of the anti-nuclear protests outside the Japanese Diet building or from the left-wing protests in Tokyo I regularly cover, collected signatures and donations and kept the crowds moving smoothly. Their busiest time came when ageing idol, Kenji Sawada, (third images above) turned up to lend some considerable star power to the event. He was only there a short while but the crowd swelled massively with older women, all elbows and determination, at that time and it was difficult to move.
Though the older people who came to see Sawada San may have been there for the wrong reasons the youth of Taro Yamamoto (he is 38 years old) and his bravery in standing up for what he feels strongly about seemed to attract many of the younger people in the crowd. Doubtless some were star struck, and Yamamoto San has received criticism that his anti-nuclear stance is a ruse to create publicity and further his career. This is disingenuous at best because his beliefs have pointedly had the opposite effect on his acting career. Whether he now can use some of that residual star power to further his reach in the political theatre (some might argue that in Japan, farce is a better word) is only to be hoped for.
I was certainly impressed, he seemed genuine and energetic on the subject. He seemed to actually enjoy meeting the people on his walkabout the crowd (second image above). Though the cynics in me says all politicians want to be liked at election time and will mingle with the masses when it suits their purpose, here was a man that could have stayed in his celebrity isolation if he had wanted to, but didn’t. The world of fame is cosseted and comfortable; it is also, especially in Japan where talents are often no more than the indentikit products of fame factories often without any discernible talent, a life without will, choice, passion and intellect. These are not something Yamamoto San seemed to lack outside Ogikubo station last night and I wish him luck on Sunday.
More images of Taro Yamamoto campaigning for election in Tokyo at my archive here: