Yasushi Furukawa gained 20 years of bureaucratic experience before serving as the governor of Saga Prefecture for 11 years. He took advantage of good timing and was elected to the House of Representatives in 2014. Today he is active in the National Diet on the theme of invigorating rural regions. Toshio Motoya spoke with Furukawa about the adverse effects of the Japanese media as seen by someone who has experience as a bureaucrat and prefectural governor, as well as the path Japan should take in the future.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. Before we actually met, I heard a lot about you from Seiichiro Nakao, president of The Saga Shimbun.
(F) Thank you for having me. I learned of you from Nakao. I know that you’ve been building one hotel after another – will this trend continue?
(M) Yes, it will. APA Hotel Hiroshima-Ekimae Ohashi was opened on October 6. It has 727 guest rooms and is of the largest scale in Chugoku and Shikoku. This hotel is near the train station so it’s convenient for both business and sightseeing, and it has been mostly at full occupancy since the opening.
(F) I heard this hotel has done a fair amount to boost the number of guest rooms at lodging facilities in Hiroshima City. Why did you build such a large hotel in this location?
(M) President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for calling for a “world without nuclear weapons,” and I figured he would definitely visit Hiroshima while he was in office to create a legacy. Hiroshima is unique because it has many tourists both from Asian and Western countries. I thought Obama’s visit would burst open a dam, and a flood of overseas tourists would follow. Obama did visit Hiroshima as I predicted and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp won the championship, so Hiroshima is thriving right now. People are paying a lot of attention to Hiroshima-Ekimae Ohashi for the timing of its opening, and it has been covered in all of the newspapers.
(F) The opening of an APA Hotel is big news.
(M) I believe that more customers will come if people are talking about our hotels. We started the Summit 5 project on April 1, 2010. In this five-year plan focused on Tokyo, we aimed to become the top hotel chain in three wards: Chuo, Minato, and Chiyoda. However, we were able to acquire the top position not only in Tokyo, but in Japan as a whole. We are now fully implementing our second-five year plan started in 2015, in which we are carrying out business of several hundred billion yen designing and building 27 hotels mainly in central Tokyo but also Osaka, Nagoya, and other locations. We opened APA Hotel Woodbridge, a franchised hotel that is our first overseas hotel, in New Jersey, the United States. We also acquired a corporation that operates a hotel chain of 39 hotels in North America. Interest rates are low today, so as a businessperson it is an obvious choice for me to be working to expand my business.
(F) I think the Japanese economy would improve if all entrepreneurs conducted business like you.
(M) There are many “salaried employee” presidents who only work to increase internal reserves without investing to take advantage of opportunities like this. This does not only apply to the private sector; local governments should also push forward with business even if they have to take on debt.
(F) At one point, APA Hotel was a symbol of how difficult it was for people to get hotel reservations in Tokyo due to the increased number of foreign travelers. A one-night stay in Akasaka was over 30,000 yen…
(M) Yes, that happened last year. A rush of tourists came to Tokyo and Osaka and prices did rise, but things have calmed down this year. Overseas travelers first visit Tokyo and Osaka, but on their second or third trip to Japan they go farther into rural areas. Accordingly, this year there are more customers staying at APA Hotels in Hokkaido, Chugoku, and Shikoku. I think this trend is behind the great start at Hiroshima-Ekimae Ohashi.
(F) Tourists are becoming decentralized.
(M) Still, our Tokyo hotels have long had monthly occupancy rates of 100%. The APA Hotel business model is to constantly draw customers. Business travelers come on the weekdays and tourists on the weekends, while foreign tourists also stay on any day of the week. That is why we have a high profit ratio with profit that is 30% of our sales. The profit ratio at regular hotels is 5 to 6%. APA’s profit ratio is indisputably number one in Japan and also of the top class in the global hotel industry.
(F) When I was the governor of Saga Prefecture, we struggled with the problem of how to attract European and American tourists to Saga. When we calmly analyzed our campaigns, we saw that people responded to connections between Saga and Hiroshima. Rather than encouraging travelers in Tokyo to come to Saga, it is much more realistic to target tourists who are visiting Hiroshima. For that reason, we made efforts such as proactively including information about Saga in mediums related to Hiroshima.
(M) I think that is a correct method. Until recently the hub airport concept was the mainstream. But now that there are more low-cost carriers (LCC), the main trend is “local to local.” Rather than entering Japan through Narita or Haneda, more tourists are flying directly to rural airports.
(F) It’s certainly true that some airfares are extremely low right now. There are amazing price differences even for the same routes.
(M) That has long been the case in the U.S. Even now, Japan tends to emulate overseas countries at a delayed speed. I have visited 81 nations across the world and learned various things that I leverage in my current business. I recently went to the Rio 2016 Olympics Closing Ceremony. My companions were worried about public order in Rio de Janeiro, so we stayed there just one night. It was a whirlwind trip of six days and two nights with one overnight stay in Dubai.
(F) The Tokyo Olympics presentation at the Closing Ceremony was fantastic. I thought Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s appearance as Super Mario was really striking, and the arrangement of “Kimigayo” with a Bulgarian choir was extremely stylish. I was really impressed to see the Japanese power of expression reach this level.
(M) Japan has so many things to be proud of, yet there is a pervasive attitude of masochistic denial in which the media plays a central role.
(F) Your mention of pride reminds me of something. Japan first dispatched personnel for peacekeeping operations (PKO) to monitor the election in Angola. Right after that, it started PKO in Cambodia. The governments of Angola and Cambodia requested that Japan help them build their countries from scratch, so the Japanese government sent over civilians and members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). I was still a government official and I went to Angola and Cambodia as part of the election monitoring team. There were various difficulties to overcome. For instance, many people couldn’t read or write, so the ballots used the political parties’ logos and the voters first had to be taught how to hold pencils. When we showed them a sample of how to circle the chosen logo, some people thought they had to copy the sample ballot. Armed forces had been sent to Cambodia from other countries. The Japanese JSDF was exceedingly orderly compared to these foreign militaries, for which it was highly appraised by the locals. When it was withdrawn, many people entreated it to stay.
Here is another example. A female Cambodian soldier was sent to South Sudan, where the JSDF is currently stationed. She came to greet the JSDF, saying, “When I was a child, the JSDF came to Cambodia for PKO and to assist in the country’s development. I wanted to someday become a soldier in the Cambodian army and help build other countries. Today, the Cambodian army is able to participate in PKO in South Sudan, so my dream has come true. I want to say thank you to the JSDF who created this opportunity for me.” I think this shows that the seeds of peace planted by Japan are sprouting.
(M) That’s a wonderful story. This Japanese spirit is worthy of pride on the global stage.
(F) We must share more of these appealing qualities with other countries.
(M) As shown by your participation in PKO, you were originally in the Ministry of Home Affairs. How many years did you work there?
(F) Twenty years. Afterwards, I became the governor of Saga Prefecture at the age of 44. I served in that position for just over 11 years before becoming involved in national politics by successfully running for the House of Representatives. I originally joined the Ministry of Home Affairs because I wanted to make invigorating rural areas my life’s work. I still feel that way today.
(M) When I think of your term as governor, I remember that you promoted the deployment of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s Osprey at Saga Airport.
(F) I think the national government must be responsible for national defense. Therefore, rural areas are obligated to provide fundamental cooperation, but it can’t be unconditional. When I thought about the different matters, I decided I would approve if the conditions were met.
(M) Many people were opposed. Did the rural media play a large part in your ability to make this decision?
(F) No, in fact it bashed me a great deal.
(M) There are many rural newspapers that have large shares and significant power in their areas. There are also many cases in which politicians overly flatter these newspapers, leading to strange circumstances.
(F) I used self-control to avoid that. However, it is true that I am bothered by the tone of newspaper articles. The governor’s job is to make decisions, and there are downsides when deciding on matters that people have very different views on. I believed the governor’s job was to make judgments even on these matters, do work that everyone will appreciate in the region, and win elections.
(M) That’s why you won the gubernatorial election three times.
(F) That may be true.
(M) I have long believed, and still think, that mistaken guidance by the media can lead to tragedy. The Hibiya Incendiary Incident occurred because newspapers at that time stirred people up about the small amounts of indemnities and territories won through the Russo-Japanese War. Minister of Foreign Affairs Jutaro Komura was scared for this reason, so he overturned an agreement between Prime Minister Taro Katsura and railroad executive E. H. Harriman. This ended up making Japan an enemy of the Jewish people, and Japan was dragged into World War II.
(F) That’s certainly true.
(M) Today many people are talking about the relocation of the Tsukiji fish market to Toyosu in Tokyo, and the media is frequently reporting on the fact that the underground water exceeds the standard. Yet the standard is for potable water and the underground water will not be used for drinking or cleaning at the new Toyosu market, so there will be no health effects or other impacts. In contrast, there are major problems with cleanliness at the deteriorated Tsukiji market, including vermin. We must consider this issue calmly and think about what is safest for the citizens. The obvious conclusion is that the new market is safer…
(F) I agree entirely. Because I have been a top figure in a local government, I keenly feel that such people want to set their own standards that are even stricter than the national one to show they are prioritizing safety. Yet this leads to the misunderstanding that any numbers over this standard will have disastrous effects on health. Regarding the Toyosu issue, I am confused by how the process for postponing the relocation is totally opaque even though Governor Yuriko Koike advocates for transparency. Various figures are being quoted, but we must clarify whether there are actually any health concerns.
(M) People say it was wrong to build underground monitoring spaces, but that is a better safety management measure than ground raising. I think the government officials simply came up with a better method than the expert committee’s proposals and then carried it out.
(F) I was a government official, so I can tell you that officials absolutely would not do something that would obviously harm health.
(M) Even if they believed their method was better, the officials probably felt it would be very bad if their divergence from the expert committee became public. That is why they didn’t announce what they had done. The problem now is where the fist will land. Koike won’t be reelected if she doesn’t deal with this skillfully such as punishing those she decides to punish, quickly announcing that the new market is safe, and pushing the relocation forward.
(F) Koike drew a flood of criticism for deciding to put off the relocation. This also incurred costs. Right now she is taking prominent actions like a plaintiff, but the governor’s true role is to make decisions and I think she must decide what to do.
(M) In addition to Koike, Abe made a spectacular move by appointing as secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai, who has ties with the pro-Chinese faction and Komeito alike. During his first stint as prime minister, Abe was made fun of for hiring his friends as members of his Cabinet. The opposite is true in his second term; he has produced results by actively hiring people he didn’t originally get along with like Nikai and Yoshihide Suga, whom he appointed as chief cabinet secretary. The party president’s term of office has been extended to three terms (nine years), which I think makes perfect sense. Up until now there have been too many Japanese prime ministers over a short period.
(F) I also think it’s odd that the prime minister’s term is according to the party regulations. It should be determined by law.
(M) Yes, that’s true. If he is in power for three terms (nine years), I bet Abe will try to reform the constitution. I think it should be done in two stages. The first amendments should be to portions that are clearly problematic, like the preamble, and for which consensus can easily be gained from all powers in favor of constitutional change. The constitution could then be revised after a national referendum. Based on this, I think the next amendments should be towards enacting a fundamentally independent constitution.
(F) That sounds realistic.
(M) The media has led people in mistaken directions by fanning fear about radioactivity after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident. This led to the decontamination standard of one millisievert of radiation per year, which is lower than the background radiation dose, and produced massive decontamination expenses. More nuclear power plants were also shut down, so national wealth totaling four trillion yen a year is being spent to import crude oil.
(F) I was the governor of Saga Prefecture at the time of the accident. It was said that Saga’s Genkai Nuclear Power Unit would be the first to be re-started after the accident. There was vehement opposition, but we moved forward with the cooperation of then-Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda because the plant simply had to be re-started. That is when Prime Minister Naoto Kan stated that no nuclear plants would be re-started during his administration. If the Genkai Nuclear Power Unit was being operated today, I think we could have prevented some of this national wealth from being lost.
(M) Kan pretended that he was well versed in nuclear power, but he knew nothing about it and just made people more anxious. He visited the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station directly after the accident, perhaps as a way to boost his popularity. This resulted in delayed venting and led to the hydrogen explosions afterwards.
(F) Manpower has to be re-directed to deal with such visits, so it is an inviolable rule that top government figures must wait until the situation has calmed down before personally going to the site of a disaster.
(M) Even when the media incites people in mistaken ways, it is convinced of its own infallibility and doesn’t attempt to make any corrections. Even if it did, they would not be sufficient. The Asahi Shimbun apologized and admitted that it had printed misinformation about the comfort women issue in 2014, but that apology couldn’t make up for the trillions of yen of national wealth lost in the past and future because of this mistaken reporting spanning over 20 years. The newspaper should have made reparations to the nation and its people, even if the company were dissolved.
(F) I agree entirely.
(M) The media’s role as the “Fourth Estate” is to check the power of the state, but there is no third-party institution to check the strangeness of this media. The Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization (BPO) is not a third-party institution.
(F) Many news reports are critical of the government and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). However, thankfully the LDP has continually won national elections. Perhaps the people don’t trust the media.
(M) Now is the era of the online public opinion in which more trustworthy information is shared online. However, these Internet users do not vote very often. People who support the traditional media tend to vote more frequently…
(F) Yet the LDP is still popular.
(M) I think this is greatly affected by the lack of another party to support. There are no healthy opposition parties. The Democratic Party chose as its representative someone who repeatedly backtracks on the issue of dual nationality and left the matter vague in the end. This is no way to recover political power.
(F) I think she might not have been chosen as a candidate if this issue had become clear at an earlier stage.
(M) I have worked in opposition to the mistaken media based on my belief that people who learn the truth will become conservative. This month marks 310th issue of Apple Town. We have held more than 150 meetings of the Shoheijuku school for over 10,000 participants. People who attend frequently learn what is true and say the scales have fallen from their eyes. We may have less influence than a newspaper with a circulation of millions, but the truth is reliably spreading throughout society.
(F) I think these are fantastic activities.
(M) I always say that Japanese people must regain their pride. Japanese have won Nobel Prizes for three consecutive years, which is clear evidence that we are an exemplary ethnic group.
(F) I think this is particularly significant because the prizes are in the field of basic science.
(M) The Nobel Peace Prize is extremely political. It has even been given to Kim Dae-jung of South Korea.
(F) Japanese athletes put on great performances at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics. I was so proud of them.
(M) Yes. I was very moved to see the flag raised and anthem sung at the award ceremonies. The Japanese flag and national anthem are frequently seen as problems in educational settings. What is the status of these issues in Saga Prefecture?
(F) We haven’t experienced this issue in Saga Prefecture. However, the Japanese flag is not hung at some prefectural offices.
(M) The media encourages this attitude, so it will not disappear. If the media censured these offices they would make immediate changes. Abe must stand up to this media and govern according to the positive trends of today. I hope you will support him.
(F) Yes, I will do my best.
(M) At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(F) Young people have more potential than ever before because they are not required to do or be anything in particular. I think they can even succeed in business using their unique creativity. The doors to society are more open than people fear, so I hope they will proactively take on many new challenges. Japan’s population is falling, but there will be greater potential for development if they look to the broader international stage.
(M) I hope young people will go overseas and broaden their perspectives. Thank you for talking with me today.
Born in 1958 in Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture. After graduating from the Politics Course in the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law in 1982, he entered the Ministry of Home Affairs (currently the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications). He was sent to rural local governments including Okinawa, Nagano, Okayama, and Nagasaki Prefectures and served in positions including section manager and section head. In 2003 he was elected for the first time as the governor of Saga Prefecture and served three terms. In 2014 he stepped down as governor and successfully ran for the House of Representatives.