Member of the House of Representatives Hajime Sasaki worked in the business world while also being active in Junior Chamber International. He won his first election in 2012, when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) regained power, and inherited Yoshiro Mori’s constituency. Today he is drawing attention as a promising young politician, including serving as director of the LDP’s Youth Division. Toshio Motoya spoke with Sasaki about topics including the future of the Hokuriku Shinkansen and aspirations for constitutional change.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. As a member of the House of Representatives, you are based in my hometown of Komatsu City. You also graduated from Komatsu High School, my alma mater, so I definitely wanted to talk with you.
(S) Thank you for inviting me.
(M) What is your current position?
(S) I am chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) Youth Division, a team of young people including National Diet members and nationwide local assembly members who are 45 or younger. I am the 49th chairman, a post previously held by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso.
(M) Is it the gateway to becoming prime minister?
(S) I’m not sure, but this position must be filled by a young person, so I am dedicated to doing my best.
(M) How many terms have you served in the Diet?
(S) This is my third term. I was elected for the first time in 2012, the election in which the LDP regained control of the government, as a candidate to take over Yoshiro Mori’s constituency. Seven years have passed since then.
(M) Starting as chairman of the Youth Division, I hope you will serve in many official positions and become prime minister like Mori! I would be thrilled to see another prime minister from Komatsu City. You are originally from Neagari Town (currently Nomi City), and were a classmate of Hideki Matsui at Neagari Junior High School.
(S) Yes, we were both in Class 1 in Year 2. Matsui treats his friends very well, and he always replies when I text him.
(M) I am close to Masao Matsui, Hideki’s father. He has spoken at the Shoheijuku school. Wonderful human resources are being produced in Ishikawa Prefecture. Among them, I expect the greatest things of you in the political world. The hottest topic in Ishikawa today is the future of the Hokuriku Shinkansen, which will be opened from Kanazawa to Tsuruga in spring 2023. What will happen after that?
(S) After Tsuruga, it will pass through Obama in Fukui Prefecture to connect to Kyoto and Shin-Osaka. A new shinkansen station will be built near Matsuiyamate Station on the JR Gakkentoshi Line between Kyoto and Shin-Osaka.
(M) When will the shinkansen be opened to Shin-Osaka?
(S) The schedule will be discussed going forward, since funding will need to be secured. The Hokkaido Shinkansen will be extended to Sapporo by 2030, and the shinkansen construction budget is used up until then. The Ministry of Finance says the construction will be started in or after 2030, but today we are striving to immediately begin construction from Tsuruga to Shin-Osaka after opening the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Kanazawa to Tsuruga in March 2023. The current plan is to connect to Shin-Osaka by about 15 years after that.
(M) I feel like that’s too late. The earthquake risk is rising across Japan, and it is extremely dangerous that the Tokaido Shinkansen is the only main line linking Tokyo and Osaka. I think the Hokuriku Shinkansen will be an extremely valuable bypass. By connecting regions, railways can also provide much bigger investment returns in the future. The best option would be to connect to Shin-Osaka in the next several years.
(S) I agree, but the shinkansen is being built in an area with many homes, and some historical ruins will certainly be discovered when digging near Kyoto. We also have to perform environmental assessment procedures, which are said to take four years. We have to do this with sufficient consideration.
(M) Will the lines in Kyoto and Osaka be mostly underground?
(S) Yes, I think the construction will be based on the Act on Special Measures concerning Public Use of Deep Underground. It states that the “deep underground” (40 meters and deeper) in metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka can be publicly utilized with no compensation to landowners.
(M) That act was passed when Mori was prime minister. It is fine to use laws to allow public-works projects in urban areas that could not be completed in the past because people could not leave their homes, or because too much compensation had to be paid. However, this still takes too much time. Ishikawa has traditionally had strong ties to the Kansai and Chukyo regions. The shinkansen will provide quicker access to the Tokyo metropolitan area and rapidly strengthen connections with Tokyo. I think Ishikawa may become too close to Tokyo, resulting in a worsening balance, unless the Hokuriku Shinkansen is quickly extended to Shin-Osaka.
(S) I agree. If we come up with enough funding at an early stage and start constructing westward right after Tsuruga is opened, I think things will go quickly after that point.
(M) I hope so. But what about Komatsu? I feel like it is declining.
(S) In April 2018, a community college and nursing school were integrated to create the four-year, public Komatsu University, and now there are many young people near JR Komatsu Station. Komatsu, a global corporation, also moved part of its head office functions to the area east of the station and built a training center there. This has drawn more people.
(M) Young people bring a greater sense of liveliness.
(S) There were fewer people at shopping districts that thrived in the past, but recently I often see young people and office workers walking beneath shopping arcades.
(M) Komatsu is home to Komatsu Airport, the entryway in the sky to Hokuriku. I think a larger secondary transport network, such as buses to Kanazawa and Fukui, would offer better convenience to tourists. The airport itself should probably be expanded and the number of flights increased.
(S) Yes. I think self-driving buses could be introduced, because bus manufacturer J-BUS Ltd. has a factory in Komatsu. It is difficult to start more regularly scheduled and charter flights at the airport, even though inbound tourism needs are growing. The Ministry of Defense manages Komatsu Airport, and it is in charge of adding more flights and other expansions.
(M) It should have built more runways from the start…
(S) Unlike today, I think there weren’t great needs for rural airports back then. Komatsu Airport has offered flights to Seoul, Shanghai, and Taipei, as well as to Hong Kong from this spring. It seems very possible that flights will also be started to Thailand and Singapore. Besides runways, the terminal building is from 50 years ago, so they need to start thinking about rebuilding it. I think it will be necessary to re-open discussions on various elements of airport expansion, like constructing an express airport interchange and inviting commercial facilities.
(M) The aviation industry is changing its way of thinking from concentrating flights in hub airports to using small planes for linking local airports. The issue is the number of flights. There are many planes departing to all locations from Tokyo, which makes travel from there convenient.
(S) When I return home, I fly 90% of the time. My main focus in choosing transportation is always speed. When the Hokuriku Shinkansen is first opened to Tsuruga, it will take less time to get to the Kansai and Chukyo regions by transferring to limited express trains.
(M) Yes. I also think the new Matsuiyamate Station will bring great benefits along the Gakkentoshi Line, but it offers nothing to Nara Prefecture to the south. Nara isn’t growing, perhaps because it is difficult to get there. That’s why we have APA Hotels in Osaka and Kyoto, but none in Nara.
(S) It’s true there are few hotels in Nara.
(M) There is hope for them, but demand is low.
(S) Perhaps many people end up staying in nearby Kyoto or Osaka.
(M) Yet Nara has many wonderful sightseeing attractions, starting with Todaiji. I hope new means of transportation will bring more people to Nara.
(S) Local governments, mainly the City of Nara, have long been asking for a Linear Chuo Shinkansen station in Nara. This shinkansen will be opened from Shinagawa to Nagoya in 2027, with the full opening from Shinagawa to Shin-Osaka in 2037 at the earliest. If construction continues without stopping after the Hokuriku Shinkansen is opened to Tsuruga, then I think it will link to Shin-Osaka around 2038. The two new shinkansen lines will come to Shin-Osaka at roughly the same time, which will likely turn Shin-Osaka into a major hub terminal.
(M) At any rate, I hope the Hokuriku Shinkansen is fully opened as soon as possible.
(S) The people of Ishikawa are proud to see you steadily growing your business. I recently took clients from Ishikawa to the Diet members’ cafeteria at the National Diet Building, which has good views of APA Hotel Pride National Diet Building. They said they stay at the Zenkoku Chosonkaikan, since there are few hotels near the Diet Building. I told them that someone from Ishikawa built the hotel we could see from the cafeteria.
(M) The hotel’s location was originally the site of the TBR Building, home to offices including that of former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. APA Group’s Head Office is in Akasaka. We boldly purchased this site for a high price at auction, because I didn’t want anyone else to get this fantastic location in front of the National Diet Building. The APA Hotel Pride National Diet Building opening party on March 19 was attended by 70 Diet members.
(S) Does it have meeting and banquet spaces?
(M) No, but the restaurant can be used for some events. Instead, we built more guest rooms, which total 500. The Capitol Hotel Tokyu next door is a wonderful facility, but it has just 250 rooms. The hotel business is centered on accommodation profit, and profitability falls when you install banquet rooms and restaurants. In general, top-grade hotels have a profit ratio of 5% to 6%, but APA Hotel’s is several times larger – something we achieved by coming up with the “New Urban Style Hotel” category in which we sell satisfaction, not just space. The switches are all located near the bed so you can operate them while lying down. Below the bed is a space for storing large luggage. There are two hooks on the wall that can hold up to 20 kilograms and are convenient for hanging backpacks. The rooms are compact and environmentally friendly, with CO2 emissions that are one third those of regular city hotels. This also helps keep utility costs low. We prioritize location, and only build hotels that are three minutes or less by foot from a train station. All of these factors bring high profitability and occupancy rates. Right now we have 72 hotels in Tokyo, including those under construction and design.
(S) That’s amazing.
(M) Japan is transforming into a major tourism destination. Many people ask what will happen to these hotels after Tokyo 2020, but I am not considering the Olympics in my calculations. One cannot invest in operating and maintaining hotels for dozens of years while focusing on an event that lasts just several months. The Japanese government has set a target of 40 million foreign tourists in 2020 and 60 million in 2030, and many more people are coming to visit. I think hotel demand will keep increasing, regardless of the Olympics.
(S) The world is watching Japan, the host of the next Olympics. In addition to sports, I feel these games will widely promote our culture and other offerings across the world. I think people around the world are highly interested in Japan to begin with.
(M) The House of Councillors election is approaching. The recent nationwide local elections make me extremely concerned about the LDP. I am unsure if Diet members in favor of constitutional change will still hold more than two thirds of the seats after the upper house election, and I believe a constitutional revision motion should be submitted before then. I feel great doubt about the recent actions towards constitutional amendment, a topic Abe was so passionate about.
(S) These actions are definitely still underway.
(M) I’ve heard that various efforts are being made, but actual actions for change are quite sluggish. We won’t be able to even submit a proposal if we don’t take this opportunity with two thirds of the upper house seats. After a motion, a national referendum must be held within six months. We should submit a proposal now and carry out a national movement to pass constitutional reform in the referendum.
(S) It’s true that Abe spoke a great deal about constitutional revision during last year’s LDP presidential election, which definitely boosted the momentum for change. However, the opposition parties vehemently objected at the autumn National Diet session, which halted the trend towards revision. I thought things would be different in 2019, but nothing has changed.
(M) I think constitutional reform will be difficult if we are waiting for consent from opposition parties. A reform motion cannot be submitted without two thirds of the members in the House of Councillors, so who knows when it could be accomplished in the future. Some people say we should invalidate the current constitution instead of amending it, but I don’t think we could gain the support of the people for quite some time, even though 70 years have passed since the constitution was enacted. I believe we must somehow submit a motion at this timing.
(S) The LDP is discussing constitutional change nearly every week. Some have said we should start with topics that are easy for all political parties and citizens to understand and approve, such as enhancing the educational system.
(M) Abe declared two years ago that we should add a clear stipulation about the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to the constitution. The LDP’s draft also includes a state of emergency clause and enhancing education. All of these changes should be easy for citizens to support. However, this would not make the JSDF into an army. I think the first revision should follow along with the LDP’s vision, but that a second amendment will be needed. However, Abe’s term only lasts until 2021, two years from now. There’s no way two amendments could be completed by that time. There are certainly high barriers to constitutional change, but does that mean we should give up? Our neighbor China is rapidly enhancing its military power and augmenting its naval force to gain control of the Pacific Ocean. North Korea seems likely to integrate South Korea and create a “Korean Federation.” If that happens, China might use the Korean Peninsula to threaten Japan from the side. Despite the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, I doubt the American people would approve of protecting Japan in the event of an emergency if it meant putting young American soldiers at risk. This treaty, in which the U.S. Armed Forces are a spear and the JSDF is a shield, is no longer functional. The JSDF should be allowed to act as a military, and we should obtain nuclear weapons for offense as well as defensive weapons. Only then will the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty provide protection. Also, I think the Japanese-American relationship should be strengthened by turning it into a bilateral arrangement like the past Anglo-Japanese Alliance.
(S) I understand your view.
(M) The media reports nothing about constitutional change and is using a tactic of ignoring this topic, which is why most citizens feel no sense of crisis. As the chairman of the Youth Division, I hope you will encourage greater awareness inside the LDP. If not, Japan will end up as a Chinese autonomous region like Tibet and Inner Mongolia. The Taiwanese presidential election will take place next year, and Terry Gou of Foxconn has announced he will seek the Chinese Nationalist Party nomination. Foxconn has close ties with China in the iPhone manufacturing field, so Taiwan and China will grow closer if Gou becomes president. China might even integrate Taiwan like it did Hong Kong according to the “One country, two systems” principle. If so, the Taiwan Strait would become a Chinese inland sea, casting dark shadows on Japan’s future. I imagine it will be hard to share this sense of crisis with opposition parties, so constitutional revision must take place despite their objections. We must also change Article 96 so it requires a majority, rather than two thirds, to make further amendments simpler.
(S) People have discussed Article 96 in the past, but nothing is being done about it today.
(M) I think awareness has faded because the idea was criticized by the opposition parties and media. If nothing else, we must clearly specify the JSDF and revise Article 96. This proposal should be made before the upper house election. If the situation does not change, I can imagine Japan’s decline all too clearly. I hope you will do all you can for the young people and future of Japan.
(S) Your words give me courage. The Youth Division has encouraged the party’s executive department to discuss constitutional change, and has promoted this topic through nationwide, simultaneous street demonstrations. I hope to encourage other parties’ youth divisions to discuss this topic as well.
(M) I hope you will, and I hope you will also make a greater name for yourself as a Diet member. What else are you thinking about right now?
(S) Actually, Diet members from other parties are increasingly joining the LDP today, but they have a poor reputation in the Diet and among other LDP members as well.
(M) That makes sense, since these people previously censured the LDP.
(S) Yes. If we don’t do something before the House of Councillors election, our past supporters will wonder what is going on. Efforts are being made in the party to establish rules, although Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai is keeping a close eye on these actions (laughs).
(M) Nikai is a bit quirky, but I think he’s doing a good job of managing the party.
(S) He is a wonderful man and highly skilled politician. He also made great contributions to Abe’s third victory.
(M) He quickly started talking about Abe serving four terms.
(S) I do think that was a bit premature (laughs).
(M) I definitely expect great things of you. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(S) I hope they will be more interested in politics, the foundation of the nation. I am a young politician and I look forward to building our country with other young people.
(M) I think education is behind this lack of interest. We are told Japan is a bad country that is not worthy of pride, so they likely feel less desire to be involved in creating the future of the nation. As you say, young people must be involved in politics. Thank you for joining me today.
(S) Thank you.
Date of dialogue: April 24, 2019
Born in Nomi City, Ishikawa Prefecture in 1974. After graduating from Tohoku University’s School of Law, he worked at corporations while serving in positions including chairman of Junior Chamber International KOMATSU and chairman of Junior Chamber International Japan’s Ishikawa Block. He was elected to the House of Representatives for the first time in 2012, and is currently in his third term.