Hiromi Mitsubayashi was born into a political family; his grandfather was a town mayor and his father and older brother were members of the House of Representatives. He became a physician and even worked as a university professor before entering the world of politics as a House of Representatives member. Drawing on his expertise as a physician, Mitsubayashi was parliamentary secretary for health, labour and welfare until August 2016. Toshio Motoya spoke with Mitsubayashi about the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s efforts to implement a smoking ban and policy for cutting social welfare spending.
(Mo) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I recently had the opportunity to dine with Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare Yasuhisa Shiozaki. It was my first chance to really speak with him, and I found him to be a great man with a good character. Shiozaki is a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and served as chief cabinet secretary in the first Abe Cabinet. You are also a physician, and you were parliamentary secretary for health, labour and welfare under Shiozaki.
(Mi) Yes, I served as parliamentary secretary for health, labour and welfare until August 2016, and am currently chairman of the Committee on Health, Labour and Welfare. The committee worked on a bill to reform the Long-Term Care Insurance Act that recently passed the House of Representatives, and we expect it will be enacted in the current National Diet session. Deliberations in the House of Representatives are also coming to a head on the crime of making preparations to commit terrorist acts, etc.
(Mo) Shiozaki and I talked about his active efforts regarding the smoking ban to prevent exposure to second-hand smoke. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s (MHLW) basic plan is to prohibit indoor smoking in principle, except for some restaurants. If the ban is enacted, I think it might confuse the heavy smokers.
(Mi) This way of thinking is essential to bring Japan up to the international standard. Outdoor smoking has been banned in Japan to beautify the environment and prevent collision accidents, but the global trend is to prohibit indoor smoking from the viewpoint of avoiding second-hand smoke. Surveys show that 60% to 70% of dining establishments are in favor of this ban, but if we tried to make the entire country smoke-free at once, there are varied circumstances in different regions and I think some people would object. I believe this must be done gradually to obtain agreement from the people. To start, I think we must fully understand the present situation while looking to the MHLW’s plan as a target.
(Mo) I agree. You are a physician who is currently active in politics, and I’ve heard that you come from a political family.
(Mi) I do. My grandfather was a member of the House of Representatives as well as a prefectural assembly member and town mayor. My father was a prefectural assembly member before entering national politics, where he served 10 terms in the House of Representatives. He was director of the Science and Technology Agency in the Yasuhiro Nakasone Cabinet. He worked until he was 76. After retiring from the House of Representatives, he passed away 13 years ago. My older brother served three terms in the House of Representatives and died suddenly seven years ago. This home environment inspired my interest in politics, so I successfully ran in the 2012 House of Representatives election from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). I am currently in my second term.
(Mo) I am acquainted with your way of thinking and am also a fellow conservative. I have great expectations of conservative politicians, but I also hope for them to be a bit more steadfast in some ways. APA Hotel came under fire in January 2017 when an online video was posted about the content of my book that is placed in the guest rooms. The Chinese government singled out APA Hotel and recommended that regular Chinese tourists boycott our hotels. On top of that, it even ordered Chinese travel agencies and other companies to stop booking our rooms. Several politicians telephoned me and spoke encouraging words, but not a single one openly declared his or her support for APA Hotel. In response to this pressure from the Chinese government, I said we would not remove the books from the rooms since freedom of speech is guaranteed in Japan. I also stated that China should share its criticisms regarding any problematic content. We received more than 20,000 e-mails lauding our actions and many people stayed at APA Hotels in support. Thanks to them, we had record-setting sales and occupancy rates in January and February, even without any Chinese tourists.
(Mi) That’s wonderful. The Tokyo Olympics will be held in three years and Japan must have good facilities to welcome overseas tourists. I am exceedingly thankful for your management policy of not yielding to any specific countries.
(Mo) I have visited 81 countries across the world, and based on what I have seen I believe Japan is the best of them all. Firstly, it is safe. Our public transportation is always on time and there are many delicious things to eat. There is a wide variety of foods and nature to enjoy in all four seasons. Our architecture and culture stem from our long history. Despite these things, until several years ago the annual number of foreign tourists numbered just six to eight million people. I have long stated that this is bizarre and believed Japan would someday leverage its tourist attractions to become a world-renowned tourist destination visited by 40 to 50 million overseas visitors every year. Today, my predictions are coming true.
(Mi) The national target for foreign tourists is 40 million per year by 2020, when the Olympics will be held. Your predictions were definitely spot-on.
(Mo) The Abe administration’s successful Olympic bid is its greatest achievement. Some people regard this event negatively because they believe it will be too expensive or for other reasons, but we can expect future economic benefits totaling tens of trillions of yen. Considering that, whether hundreds of billions of yen is a large amount or not shouldn’t be an issue. Anticipating that Japan will become a worldwide tourist destination, APA Hotel set forth and started its five-year, medium-term plan in 2010, and we have been building many hotels mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area. As a result, we boast the absolute highest number of guest rooms at our hotels in Tokyo, which maintain monthly occupancy rates of nearly 100%. Location is everything in the hotel industry, and well-situated hotels always attract guests.
(Mi) I think that’s proof of your great foresight.
(Mo) However, I think a hotel surplus will occur before the Tokyo Olympics. There is a shortage of rooms in hotels that are open for business today, so a fairly large number are being designed or built as we speak. When these are all opened, there will certainly be a temporary drop in occupancy rates and sales per customer at existing hotels. However, I think the occupancy rates and sales per customer will once again rise before the Olympics and then fall afterwards. There are other matters of concern in the hotel industry, too. One is the explosive growth of vacation rentals. Another is the fact that the number of foreign tourists includes cruise ship visitors – who stay on their ships rather than in Japanese hotels – which totaled roughly two million people in 2016. We must be aware that, even if the number of foreign tourists rises due to these factors, the need for hotel accommodation may not be in direct proportion.
(Mi) The national government wants to increase the number of cruises to Japan as well, so you raise an important point.
(Mo) Still, the hotel surplus may be an opportunity for APA Hotels. Due to the overall harsh climate, some hotels may be put on sale, which APA Hotel can likely take advantage of thanks to its strong earning power. Hotel profit ratios of 10% are generally seen as great, but APA’s ratio is three times larger. Last year our profit totaled 33.8 billion yen, some of which was from condominiums. We are focusing our building efforts in major metropolitan areas like Tokyo and Osaka. We have 11 tower hotels including open hotels and those under design and construction. APA is the largest Japanese hotel group, but there are some across the world that are much more extensive. We must keep working hard so we can be ranked among them.
(Mi) That’s an amazing profit ratio. What is your secret?
(Mo) APA Hotel’s business involves the selling of satisfaction rather than space. It’s true that our rooms are small but they are equipped with large beds for comfort. The rooms have bright lights so guests can use the beds for multiple purposes like reading documents or maps, organizing their bags, etc. Because of our dedication to environmental friendliness, APA Hotels produce just one-third the CO2 emissions of regular urban hotels. We put in oval-shaped bathtubs that can be filled with 80% the water volume of traditional tubs, and air is mixed into the shower flow to reduce water usage while preserving water pressure. We also have volume-regulating faucets that automatically shut off when the bathtub is full. These measures stem from our focus on customer satisfaction and the environment, but they also help cut running costs and boost our profit ratio. I developed this concept of high quality, high functionality, and environmental friendliness based on my love of international travel and experience visiting 81 different countries.
(Mi) You’ve traveled to so many countries!
(Mo) When I go abroad, I always ask the Japanese ambassador to that country to make arrangements for me to meet and debate with politicians, businesspeople, and other important figures. I met with Fidel Castro in Cuba and also dined multiple times with former South Korean President Kim Young-sam and former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. I even had an appointment to meet with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, but it didn’t work out.
(Mi) Lee Teng-hui is a fantastic politician.
(Mo) Absolutely. He’s still energetic and visited Japan last year. He received an old-fashioned Japanese education and seems more Japanese than any Japanese person. I was hoping for a Japanese leader of his caliber when Abe took the reins for a second time and brought stability to the Japanese government, in contrast to the series of prime ministers that previously changed every year. I think Abe is working extremely hard at governing, so I give him my full support.
(Mi) Thank you very much.
(Mo) If Abe governs for three terms (nine years) and Donald J. Trump is re-elected for a total of eight years, I think we must somehow revise the constitution and make Japan into a country capable of independent self-defense during these two men’s terms of office. Trump is now thinking of his re-election. He won by making reckless statements that were picked up by the media and gained him renown. To ensure a second victory, he needed to show his supporters that he was making great efforts to fulfill his rash campaign pledges during his first 100 days. But he has passed that mark and is finally switching to a more pragmatic policy line, of which I think the Syria strike was one example. Furthermore, he gave the go-ahead right before his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and then told Xi Jinping about the strike during their dinner when he couldn’t say anything against it. Russian President Vladimir Putin was asleep at that time. I think this strike was conducted at the perfect timing. Like killing four birds with one stone, it served to restrain North Korea and also quiet rumors of Trump’s collusion with Russia. If he governs in this way, I think he will certainly be president for eight years.
(Mi) I commend his decision to strike Syria.
(Mo) President Barack Obama wasn’t capable of that. Republican presidents are more favorable to Japan than Democratic ones. Republican President George W. Bush suggested visiting Yasukuni Shrine with then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during his visit to Japan, but the weak-kneed Koizumi declined in consideration of China. Koizumi has also started a relief fund for American vets suffering from the effects of radiation exposure after Operation Tomodachi. But not one Japanese person near the nuclear power station has been damaged by radiation, so I question how much radiation the American soldiers stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan were exposed to during dozens of days on the nearby ocean or several hours approaching the plant by helicopter.
(Mi) I have heard that view, and I don’t think it is scientific.
(Mo) Exactly. In any case, the key point of the Japanese-American relationship is how Abe and Trump will transform this alliance. Trump referred to the possibility of Japan possessing nuclear arms and making the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty into a bilateral agreement during his campaign. He is the only American president who has mentioned these things. He has also asserted that allies should have more military responsibility. I am in favor of Japan upping its defense spending to 2% of the GPD – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) standard – and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces having offensive weapons that can attack enemy territory. Abe and Trump are even closer than the so-called “Ron-Yasu friendship” between Nakasone and President Ronald Reagan. I hope Trump will put external pressure on Japan to its benefit.
(Mi) Me too.
(Mo) The U.S. is ready to independently use military force against North Korea with the tacit consent of China. Kim Jong-un seems quite flustered to me.
(Mi) Chinese actions would probably be necessary for a resolution without military force.
(Mo) Yes, I think China would need to put pressure on North Korea, such as halving its supply of oil. North Korea is a buffer zone for China, the U.S., and Russia, so these countries want it to exist. The U.S. wouldn’t mind leaving the North Korean government in place, but it would be a problem if North Korea successfully developed intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S., as well as the small nuclear warheads that can be carried on them. Even if Trump conducted a military strike on North Korea, I think it would be a limited one on locations like missile launch sites and nuclear development facilities. North Korea launched a missile that exploded several seconds later on April 16, one day after the Day of the Sun celebrating the birth of Chairman Kim Il-sung. All missiles have self-destruction codes, so some have speculated that the U.S. obtained this code and blew up the missile. But even if that were true, North Korea would take immediate steps to protect itself. The U.S. has various attack options, including cruise missiles linked to spy satellites, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) it used in Afghanistan in April, and bunker-busting bombs that can destroy underground fortifications like those made by the Viet Cong. Many different things could happen in the future.
(Mi) That’s true.
(Mo) What do you think is the most important issue we are facing today?
(Mi) The issue of how to check Japan’s growing social welfare spending. In the FY2017 budget, the general account budget totaled roughly 97.5 trillion yen, of which 32 trillion yen (more than 30%) was for social welfare. Even though this is the result of Japan’s progressively ageing population, we must rethink our social welfare policy. The question is what revisions to make. In addition to initiatives for creating a society with dynamic engagement, we must focus our reform efforts on the medical and caregiving fields – such as high-priced medicines and alterations to the medical and care insurance system – from viewpoints like fair burden according to ability to pay and social welfare system sustainability.
(Mo) I constantly advocate for the revival of the extended family. Japan used to be organized around the extended family, but the U.S. destroyed this system after World War II. We should use tax benefits to restore it, for instance reducing the real estate tax to one third for people who build large homes in which three generations will reside. The members of large families can assist each other and share wisdom across multiple generations, which would likely help cut social welfare spending. The basic concept is to rigorously categorize the care that should be given by the national government and the family. If not, the nation will be destroyed.
(Mi) Instead of the extended family, the national government is proposing the construction of a regional comprehensive care system. It is trying to build a structure in which elderly persons are supported by their families and society.
(Mo) That sounds like it would involve high social costs. I think we should encourage families to provide fundamental care through the tax system.
(Mi) The extended family still existed when people of our generation were young. I do think reviving that system would be a good method. Perhaps we should take steps before it is forgotten.
(Mo) One roadblock is the excess individualism in Japan today, which prizes equality in all things, implanted by the American occupation army after World War II. This way of thinking views parents and children as equal, with no sense of filial piety, as well as students and teachers.
(Mi) That is ridiculous.
(Mo) The family system was also broken down by education based on university rankings. Young people leave their homes and migrate to Tokyo to enter universities with slightly higher ranks than their local ones. In extreme cases, the father is transferred to a new post without his family and the two children are enrolled in schools in different locations, leaving the mother home alone. No matter how much money that family earns, the four can’t enjoy an affluent lifestyle if they live separately. I think we should establish unique universities outside of big cities that are fundamentally attended by children of that region. Families must live together if at all possible to stop this social division. I believe we should educate people to change our society of misguided equality and have more esteem for those systems with venerable traditions.
(Mi) I agree entirely.
(Mo) In addition to education, we must also change the media. Many customers voiced support for APA Hotel after the book scandal, but the anti-Japanese media in Japan persistently questioned if we would apologize or remove the books. I can understand why China criticized APA Hotel in light of its own interests, but I cannot comprehend the actions of the anti-Japanese media. Led by The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the media still abides by the Press Code formulated during the American occupation. The Press Code is a taboo subject in the media, but APA Group had it printed for the first time in a major newspaper as an ad in the Sankei Shimbun. The media still follows the regulations that prevented criticisms of Koreans, Chinese, the occupying forces, and the new constitution. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was negatively regarded for describing Japan as the “nation of the gods” because of this code that prevents such references to Japan. This is ridiculous and must be stopped as soon as possible. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(Mi) Young people will be responsible for Japan’s future, and I hope they will be adventurous. They should continue taking on challenges without fear of failure along the path to meeting their personal goals. If there were many young people like this, I think Japan could continue growing even with a declining birth rate and ageing population. That is why I believe in the necessity of education that teaches Japanese people to love their country.
(Mo) I wish schools would sufficiently teach Japan’s glorious history.
(Mi) If extended families were still the norm as you describe, I think this history would be handed down.
(Mo) I hope you will keep working hard to bring conservative views into politics. Thank you for speaking with me today.
Born in Satte City, Saitama Prefecture in 1955. After graduating from the Nihon University School of Medicine in 1982, he served in positions including Nippon Dental University Hospital vice-president before working as a professor in the Nihon University School of Medicine and Nippon Dental University School of Life Dentistry in 2011. He was elected to the House of Representatives for the first time in 2012 and was appointed parliamentary secretary for health, labour and welfare in 2015.