Member of the House of Representatives Masahiro Imamura devoted himself despite personal risk to the privatization of Japan National Railways and has continually maintained his convictions after becoming a member of the National Diet. Imamura is also working for reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake and became a member of the Cabinet for the first time in the reshuffle this August, when he was named minister for reconstruction. Toshio Motoya spoke with Imamura about topics including the future path for reconstruction and his feelings on the revival of Japan.
Motoya Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You have attended the Shoheijuku school and my wine event, but your appearance on Big Talk was somewhat delayed.
Imamura Thank you for having me.
Motoya I have heard you originally worked for Japan National Railways (JNR) and experienced much difficulty when the company was privatized.
Imamura I worked in personnel affairs and labor, and I was involved in extensive confrontation with left-wing radicals on the front lines of JNR. My home was even burned down with a timed incendiary device, but I thought it was better that I – chief of the General Affairs Department – was a target instead of the onsite leaders.
Motoya Your opponents were quite radical.
Imamura We somehow weathered that storm and JNR was privatized in 1987, when Yasuhiro Nakasone was prime minister.
Motoya Is that what inspired you to become a National Diet member?
Imamura Yes, in addition to the local political situation, people who saw how I helped with privatization wanted me to get involved.
Motoya You are chairman of the House of Representatives Special Committee on Reconstruction After the Great East Japan Earthquake. Five years have already passed since that disaster.
Imamura Ten years is seen as the demarcation for disasters, so right now we are at a turning point.
Motoya I think the biggest issue from that disaster is the handling of the nuclear accident in Fukushima. News reports on the impacts of radiation are much too extreme, and the decontamination standard was also overly strict. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government at the time of the disaster set stricter standards, including for evacuation, which is the reason for the many disaster-related deaths caused by forced evacuations.
Imamura I am the committee chairman, so I cannot state an extreme opinion. However, as a committee member I have considered various things. This reconstruction has been a fight to recover from the natural disaster and nuclear accident. I believe the national government should take the lead and strive to accomplish reconstruction as soon as possible, promptly responding to this fight with measures that could be described as “wartime legislation.”
Motoya Jun Takada, a professor at Sapporo Medical University, won the Grand Prize in the 4th Annual “True Interpretations of Modern History” essay contest. He is a radiation specialist but is not allowed into the no-go zone near the Fukushima nuclear plant even for research. Yet the media – which continually stirs up fear about the dangers of radiation – is frequently given permission to enter that area. Academic surveys and research on radiation should be conducted, but the issue is being handled in a one-sided way. This excess fear of radiation is impeding reconstruction. The biggest cause of death in the disaster was the tsunami, and we should prioritize measures to that end. Construction work is underway to build gigantic embankments, but since directly after the earthquake I have insisted that we should instead construct condominiums that can serve as “disaster-prevention towers.” These condominiums should have six floors. The first and second floors should be parking areas, while the third and higher floors should be residences. If we built these at 200-meter intervals, all the people nearby could run to the roof and be safe in the event of a tsunami.
Imamura Regarding the Great East Japan Earthquake, I believe we should think of the nuclear accident and natural disaster separately. Moreover, the Sanriku area has been hit by devastating tsunamis many times in the past. The most important issue is evacuation speed. Measures are underway so that people can work on the seashore while living on higher ground, and we must also build roads for evacuating to higher ground. I welcome many different ideas, and I think your proposed condominiums are a great solution.
Motoya After an earthquake or other disaster, the waves of self-discipline cause secondary damage in various industries. We planned to hold an event to choose a Sincere Smile Goodwill Ambassador several days after the earthquake. I faced down opposition from my employees, who wanted to cancel the event out of a spirit of self-restraint, and held it anyway. We must carry out what we have decided and bring stability to society as soon as possible.
Imamura I agree.
Motoya All nuclear plants were shut down because of the earthquake. This has resulted in increased crude oil imports due to greater dependence on thermal power generation, as well as large profits for the major oil companies. I think Japan was taken in by an international stratagem. The United States Armed Forces carried out “Operation Tomodachi.” Videos were repeatedly shown of helicopters being decontaminated after returning from disaster-struck areas, without stating how much radiation they had been exposed to, which fomented fear. At that time shale oil appeared on the American market and the major oil companies had too much oil from Saudi Arabia. That’s why I think this was a scheme to make Japan purchase that oil. We will be manipulated by various powers if we listen only to the news without reading what is behind the stories and taking countermeasures based on that.
Imamura Yes. I think the Japanese economy is being maintained today because crude oil is cheap. We need to have a calm view of just how fragile Japan’s energy structure is before thinking about the future of nuclear power.
Motoya Nuclear power previously accounted for roughly 30% of Japan’s domestic power, but since the earthquake all of these plants are shut down. Only two nuclear reactors are being operated as of August 2016. Massive amounts of national wealth are being wasted for purposes such as buying crude oil and maintaining these non-operated nuclear plants. We must do something about this.
Imamura The unstable international circumstances are another important factor in considering energy policy. A second global oil crisis could be set off by incidents in the Near and Middle East.
Motoya Sea-lanes are another important issue. China is steadily building military bases in the South China Sea and ignoring the decision by The Hague’s arbitral tribunal. Besides China, all other countries are starting to have a doctrine of putting themselves first – Donald Trump is popular in the U.S., and the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union. At the very least, Japan must protect itself. I know we agree on this point.
Motoya Trump has referred to the possibility of Japan and South Korea gaining nuclear arms, but I do not think the U.S. would ever allow Japan to have nuclear arms. The only way would be for Japan to join the nuclear sharing arrangement that allows the four NATO countries to rent nuclear arms. That should provide a certain level of deterrence. Japan, home of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is the only country that has been the victim of an atomic bombing. People are overly traumatized by this past and have an excessive fear not only of nuclear weapons but also nuclear power and radiation. I hope the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and yourself will think of ways to fix this trend.
Imamura Yes. Today it is difficult to predict how world affairs will shake out in the near future, so Japan cannot be complacent about peace and assume the U.S will always protect us. In that way, maybe Trump’s appearance is a good type of shock therapy for Japan.
Motoya The Trump phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. but is also occurring in Europe and other places across the world. I think this is because attempts are being made to construct new frameworks after the end of the Cold War.
Imamura That also applies to the anti-EU faction in Europe.
Motoya The EU was created to impede singular rule by the U.S. after the Cold War. France’s nuclear weapons provided power to that end. But considering this in an economic way, only Germany has benefitted by switching from its strong mark to the weak euro, increasing exports, and bringing in many immigrants for labor.
Imamura Greece and other countries probably think the euro has depreciated and Germany has prospered thanks to faulty nations like themselves. It makes sense that they want their fair share. The biggest issue with the euro is that each country has its own fiscal policies despite the common currency.
Motoya Another problem is the EU’s excessively huge bureaucracy. Large amounts of money from the contributions made by each country are used as operating costs for the organization, so it may be inevitable that some countries want to leave the EU, stop making contributions, and use this money for their own good. The Brexit faction in the UK, based on this assertion, won in the national referendum. Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who was a central figure in this faction, deserted under enemy fire and did not run in the Conservative Party leadership election, yet he ended up as secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs. It’s hard to make heads or tails of this situation.
Imamura As you say, no one knows how the world will be in the future. That’s why Japan must have a full-fledged Cabinet that continually governs and makes bold policies from a long-term point of view. The ruling party won the recent House of Councillors election and the LDP now has a working majority in the National Diet. We cannot fail to take advantage of having a stable majority in both houses.
Motoya Also, powers in favor of constitutional change occupy two thirds of the seats in both houses. If we do not amend the constitution now, I think it won’t be possible for dozens of years in the future. We should enliven the public opinion starting from the preamble, which is strange Japanese no matter how you read it. Then constitutional change proposals should be submitted in the National Diet to show that the constitution can in fact be amended. Suddenly creating an ideal constitution would not be possible. It is currently not clear whether the New Komeito Party will approve, and there are no common items for revision among the pro-amendment faction. Having gained two thirds of the seats, some people are talking about revising the constitution immediately, which is impossible – I am sure the Article 9 Association will try to block this in a national referendum. The Japan Conference and Society for Creating a Beautiful Japanese Constitution should work to collect more than 10 million signatures. Things are moving in a good direction, but it also seems that the international situation will change at a faster pace. I hope the Diet members will do their best to that end.
Imamura Yes, we will take this to heart.
Motoya Society becomes disordered without correct standards. In Japan, the standard is the strange constitution, which is why the citizens are strange as well. The U.S. bound Japan with the constitution because Japan had great strength during World War II. This strength was rooted in the Emperor, so the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (GHQ) abolished 11 Imperial houses in the hopes that the Imperial Household would come to a natural end. Today there are only four such families: Akishinomiya, Hitachinomiya, Mikasanomiya, and Takamadonomiya. The GHQ’s ulterior motive was fulfilled and the issue of Imperial succession arose. People thought about having a matrilineal or female emperor, and today there is talk of the Emperor abdicating within his lifetime. These are all drawn-out plans by the GHQ for the natural extinction of the Imperial Household.
Imamura Ancient Japanese wisdom divided authority and power. Power has changed, including the Shogunate, but the Emperor’s continual authority has remained.
Motoya This influence is why the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which was not turned into a fortress, has stood for hundreds of years. We have to pass these traditions down, so we must firmly shut down the discussion of abdication out of concern that the Emperor is elderly or has difficulties completing official duties. There is a regency system for such times. I feel like there must be some movement underway to get rid of the Imperial Household altogether.
Imamura We must somehow protect the Imperial Household.
Motoya The continuation of the male Imperial lineage is the wisdom of the Japanese people. We must think seriously about how to pass this tradition to the next generation with a sense of pride. If not, Japan may become an autonomous region of China at some point.
Imamura At the July ASEAN-Japan Ministerial Meeting, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi put his own neck on the line in the discussions and the meeting ended with a joint statement that made no mention of the arbitral tribunal’s decision on the South China Sea.
Motoya I think China has won over countries with no direct connection to the South China Sea, like Laos and Cambodia, by providing assistance.
Imamura I am the secretary-general of the Japan Cambodian Friendship Goodwill Association. I am mystified and dissatisfied to see Cambodia get so close to China – Cambodia should remember the turmoil caused by Pol Pot, who was backed by China.
Motoya China is working over the long term based on its 100-year plan. Aid is not just money, but also a way to build relationships. People and technologies are brought back to China after these projects are done, so they end up not benefiting the country receiving the aid.
Imamura People in Africa know this, which is why they do not want aid from China. We don’t need to engage in especial quarrels with China, but I think we should require that they obey standards such as international law.
Motoya China founded the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to fill the holes after the bubble bursts by using money from across the world to dispatch technologies and people to developing countries. Europe quickly announced that it would participate and gave the AIIB its authorization. However, I think the international public opinion will take a harder look at China after this arbitral tribunal issue.
Imamura China is a multiracial country, which means it is hard to govern. I think nations such as the UK understand this. Historically, problems did not occur as long as the general public had decent lives. We should be frightened of what happens when that is no longer possible. Food is the first essential thing, but human desire knows no limits.
Motoya China is conducting an experiment in its multiracial country of 1.3 billion people, but it will someday break apart like the Soviet Union. People can join together and work hard during times of scarcity, but sharing becomes more difficult in times of plenty. I am scared just to imagine what will happen if this nuclear power becomes divided and a civil war breaks out.
Imamura We also need to think of turning negatives into positives. The South China Sea issue seems to be a good opportunity to show the U.S. the significance of its partnership with Japan. Strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance will certainly be an important point in East Asia, where China, North Korea, Russia, and others are jostling for power.
Motoya This is somewhat paradoxical, but sometimes I wonder if China wants Japan to grow stronger. If Japan is weak, the People’s Liberation Army and public opinion could be needlessly tempted. Even if Japan enhanced its military strength, the current political system would not allow it to become a major military power or attack other countries. A balance of power between nations prevents war, which is why Japan must boost its armed might.
Imamura I agree. Today, even conventional weapons have amazing destructive power and the ability to slaughter many people. No one wins if war breaks out, so we must do everything we can to prevent it. Japan must enhance its economic and diplomatic strength based on a foundation of reliable defensive capabilities.
Motoya For Japan to become stronger, its people must have a stronger will. It is standard for a country to protect itself, yet the citizens have a warped way of thinking due to the media and educational system.
Imamura We must transform the media and education. Japan is facing the issue of a declining population, so we must have superiority even with small numbers. I think we need an educational system that enhances each individual’s mental and physical abilities.
Motoya Some people say that immigration is the answer to the declining birthrate, but I think we should be cautious. European countries are experiencing various problems due to immigration. Domestic demand is falling with the declining population, but couldn’t we make up for this with increased foreign tourists? That’s another reason I think Japan must work to become a tourism-focused nation.
Imamura In the past Mt. Fuji and other well-known sites were popular among foreign tourists, but today more people are interested in “soft power” and profound attractions such as culture and history.
Motoya Foreign tourists used to only travel between Tokyo and Osaka, but today more are visiting rural areas as well. They use social media and other methods to share the great features of Japan. I think that becoming a tourism-focused nation would also improve Japan’s international standing.
Imamura Yes, it would.
Motoya Incidentally, you are also the head of the secretariat for the Linear Chuo Express Construction and Promotion National Diet Alliance. The linear Chuo Shinkansen between Shinagawa and Nagoya will be opened in 2027, but why can’t the route all the way to Osaka be opened at the same time? Just like the Hokuriku Shinkansen, unless it goes all the way to Osaka, the Shinkansen can’t function as an alternative if the Tokaido transportation network was cut off due to a major earthquake or other disaster.
Imamura We will open the linear Chuo Shinkansen between Nagoya and Osaka, which was originally scheduled for 2045, up to eight years early thanks to the Fiscal Investment and Loan Program. You are right, and we are working as fast as we can.
Motoya I think we should take advantage of today’s ultra-low interest rates to issue long-term national bonds and build infrastructure. If the bonds had the long repayment period of 100 years, the interest would be quite small and they could be repaid with usage fees such as passenger fares. I think this would also be an economic measure. After the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, China used government funds and gathered materials from multiple countries for infrastructure building, becoming a leader in the world economy. After the Chinese bubble bursts from this heavy weight, Japan will finally have its chance to shine. I feel the government should make a decisive judgment for proactive infrastructure investment.
Imamura Yes. We are globally exporting infrastructure and investing in both the hard and soft realms. Moreover, local government leaders tend to depend on tax allocations. Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications officials use these to maintain their political power. We need a strong spirit of independence and autonomy that says we will support ourselves, looking to the daimyo of the Edo Period as models.
Motoya Yes, that’s true. At the end of the interview I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Imamura Right now I am living in Tokyo at the home of my grandchildren. Sometimes I feel great stress due to my job in politics, but when I see these children I want to work harder and do a good job for their sakes. I hope that young people will feel pride and confidence in the fact that they are the descendants of Japanese people who accomplished many miracles, and move towards the future with a sense of hope. The declining birthrate means there are many opportunities for them to be active in Japan and across the world.
Motoya In particular, it is said that young people are no longer going overseas. It is important for them to visit other countries to re-confirm just how wonderful Japan is. Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.
Born in Kashima City, Saga Prefecture in 1947. He entered Japanese National Railways after graduating from The University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law in 1970. He was elected to the House of Representatives for the first time in October 1996 and has since been re-elected for a total of seven continuous terms. He has served in positions including senior vice-minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries; Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) policy research vice president; deputy secretary-general; deputy chairman of the LDP General Council; and chairman of the House of Representatives Special Committee on Reconstruction After the Great East Japan Earthquake. He became a member of the Cabinet for the first time in the August reshuffle as minister for reconstruction.