Member of the House of Councillors Mitsuko Ishii has had a diverse career as a simultaneous interpreter, newscaster, and actress. After earning her Doctor of Health Science degree from the University of Tokyo, she became involved in the healthcare field. Today, Ishii believes that National Diet members should be better informed about emergencies and military affairs. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ishii about the COVID-19 pandemic, Liberal Democratic Party election, energy policy, measures to cope with global warming, and other topics.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today, and thank you as well for giving a talk at the Shoheijuku academy the other day.
(I) Thank you for having me. I was very surprised to see two foreign ambassadors at the Shoheijuku meeting.
(M) There are many National Diet members in the Shoheijuku, and ambassadors to Japan frequently attend as well. I am an internationally minded person myself. I’ve traveled to 82 countries so far, and I often interview ambassadors on Big Talk so they can inform the readers of Apple Town about their country, including recommended sightseeing spots and other information.
(I) Is that so? I look forward to attending the monthly meetings.
(M) This year marks the Shoheijuku’s 10th anniversary. Most of the Shoheijuku-recommended candidates who ran in national elections have been successful. I am always saying that a future prime minister will come from the Shoheijuku. Sanae Takaichi, a Shoheijuku member and lecturer, is a candidate in the upcoming Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election. Of course I support Takaichi, and I feel like we are coming closer to our goal.
(I) In 1990, I was a newscaster on an informational morning program on Fuji TV with Takaichi, who had just returned from the United States. Since that time, she has been saying that she will someday become prime minister. I was surprised, but she is making steady progress.
(M) So she’s had that goal for a long time.
(I) The next prime minister will be Japan’s 100th, counting back to Hirobumi Ito. In the National Diet Building’s central hall there are bronze statues of three men: Taisuke Itagaki, Shigenobu Okuma, and Ito. The fourth pedestal is empty. There are various theories about this. Some think no decision has been made about who will occupy the fourth pedestal, and some believe it signifies that politics are always unfinished. Myself and others like to imagine that a statue of the 100th prime minister – Japan’s first female prime minister – will someday fill that spot.
(M) That’s certainly possible.
(I) I think that would be wonderful. I believe in the concept of “positions,” which says that women can work with a sense of responsibility when they are assigned higher positions. They must be given sufficient authority. It’s not right for women to always assume that a man will protect them, no matter what happens.
(M) Do you think of becoming prime minister someday?
(I) I’m still a newcomer to the world of politics, which I became involved in just five years ago. I feel like I won’t live long enough to become prime minister. Takaichi just turned 60, so she’s still quite young.
(M) I thought you were about the same age…
(I) Unfortunately, I just happen to look younger than I am. I never thought I’d become a politician, so I’m a bit surprised to find myself in this world. I worked as a simultaneous interpreter in my youth, as I mentioned at the Shoheijuku the other day. I was trained in listening to what others say and immediately translating their words. After that, from 1988 I spent about six years as a newscaster on CBS Document, a late-night TV program started on TBS. CBS is one of the three top American networks. It was a Japanese version of 60 Minutes, a documentary program.
(M) You must have learned a great deal.
(I) I did. CBS is a major American media outlet, but it had never broadcasted documentaries in Japan. The show had high ratings even though it ran late at night.
(M) You’ve done many different things in the past.
(I) I became a member of the House of Councillors in 2016, when the Moritomo Academy/Kakei Educational Institution scandal was the only topic being discussed in the National Diet. The so-called “cherry blossom” scandal became an issue in 2019, and was talked about until around February 2020.
(M) I’ve been invited to several cherry blossom viewing parties, which I have attended. That issue was rehashed in the Diet until the beginning of 2020.
(I) That’s when the novel coronavirus became an issue. At first it was referred to as the “Wuhan fever,” but before we knew it, the disease was named “COVID-19.”
(M) I think China insisted that it didn’t want the disease named after that geographical location.
(I) Yes. The World Health Organization (WHO) only declared COVID-19 a pandemic in early March. Until that point, members of the National Diet seemed to regard it as something that was limited to China, and thought that we didn’t have to do anything about it. That changed significantly in March, when Japan had to urgently cope with the pandemic, including border enforcement measures.
(M) Although the virus definitely originated in China, the bigger issue is how it spread to people. Some say it came from a bat or other animal sold at a market, while others theorize that it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). I think the latter is more likely.
(I) Some say that a virus was mistakenly released from the research institute.
(M) I believe the WIV was developing biological weapons, and that this outbreak started when a mistakenly infected person took it outside of the lab. Biological weapons are the most frightening weapon of mass destruction. Nuclear and chemical weapons cause limited damage, but viruses and other biological weapons can spread across the globe in the blink of an eye, just like COVID-19.
(I) Some people think this pandemic was caused by an incomplete virus that was leaked in the process of developing a virus with even more power to kill and wound people. In any case, as of yet we have no proof about these theories.
(M) China is covering all of this up. The WHO’s joint survey with China, conducted from January to February 2021, was insufficient. It mostly ignored the most important things. In May, American President Joe Biden asked intelligence officials to further investigate the source of the virus. The results were released on August 27, but they give no clear conclusion due to lack of evidence.
(I) Some people also say that Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, favors China, and that might be why the WHO waited so long to declare a pandemic…
(M) There is a reason why I believe this virus was manmade: the different infection and death rates among white and Asian people. Comparing deaths by population, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries are much lower than the U.S. and Europe. The number of American deaths will soon reach 700,000 people. The bloodiest American war in history was the Civil War, when 600,000 to 850,000 people were killed. COVID-19 is on the same level as that conflict.
(I) It’s true that we can’t disregard these different numbers in the West and Asia. I earned my Doctor of Health Science degree at the University of Tokyo. This is referred to as “public health” in English. One thing I learned is that terrorists can harm huge numbers of people by targeting communications networks, water, and air.
(M) That’s why viruses are so harmful. Considering these racial differences, I feel like we have to assume it was a manmade virus. I think this pandemic would be an even bigger tragedy if the fatality rates were even higher.
(I) I think we will need to conduct investigations on various things. It is the job of public health to figure out how to cope with diseases, whether they are caused by a naturally occurring virus or a manmade one that leaked from a facility. Viruses spread rapidly, just like the ripples when you throw a rock into a pond. The question is, how do we stop this? I don’t think Japan has been very skilled in this field. Before COVID-19 there were many science fiction movies about pandemics, such as Contagion, but we never imagined something like this would actually happen.
(M) Roughly 4.7 million people have died around the globe. Of course this is much smaller than the 50 to 80 million soldiers and citizens who died in World War II, and the 37 million people who died in World War I, but it’s still an astounding number. I think we need some sort of global plan to ensure this never happens again.
(I) Yes, but first Japan needs to figure out how to handle its own circumstances. No discussions have been held on crisis management systems during normal times. As a member of the Diet, which is in charge of national politics, I cannot but feel that this duty was taken much too lightly. We need to begin discussing this for the sake of the future.
(M) I agree. Although Japan has fewer deaths than other countries, we have still lost 170,000 people. It seems like Japan lacks a sufficient sense of danger and is merely waiting for the pandemic to come to a natural end. What would have happened if this virus was a weapon of mass destruction with a higher fatality rate? We must discuss crisis management, including constitutional revision, going forward.
(I) We are so fortunate to have the COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer and Moderna did not newly develop mRNA vaccine technology for COVID-19; they fortuitously discovered that a previous technology was effective on this virus. That’s why they were able to bring these vaccines into use so quickly. I feel like God was on our side.
(M) If the virus is a weapon, it would make sense to develop a vaccine at the same time. That’s why China was the first country to release its own vaccine and begin inoculating its citizens. Only 4,600 Chinese people have died. China is also negotiating to sell its vaccine across the world.
(I) I doubt Pfizer and Moderna are involved in developing viruses… One thing that raises suspicion is the fact that the first doctor in Wuhan who sounded the alarm about COVID-19 ended up dying from the disease.
(M) Because he was aware of the dangers, I am sure he was being careful. It seems unlikely that he actually got the disease and died. His death was highly unnatural.
(I) Some people theorize that he was killed. If COVID-19 is a biological weapon like you say, then we are in the midst of a war. In the future wars may occur in which we can’t identify the wrongdoers, which is something that has never happened in the past. When a bacterial or viral pandemic breaks out, the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gathers many public health doctors to sit at a long table and discuss what to do along with military officials. They are willing to fight to save the lives of their countrymen. Japan has no system of that type. I think we need national defense policy of that sort, beyond just aircraft and tanks.
(M) That’s true.
(I) A crisis management system is needed, as well as a state of emergency clause to that end. Japan has many medical doctors, but few people with PhDs in health science. People used to discount the importance of public health, but I think this has changed due to COVID-19. This pandemic has also made people think differently about public health centers, and today it seems like people understand that these organizations are deeply rooted in daily life. In any case, I believe politicians – who are responsible for our territory, assets, human lives, and national government – must be aware that viruses can be dangerous weapons.
(M) I’m glad that COVID-19 has had such a low fatality rate in Japan, but I think a panic might have broken out if the rate was 10 or 100 times higher. It does seem like diseases don’t spread very far if many people die and are unable to move about.
(I) You are correct that diseases do not spread as easily if they immediately cause serious illness and death. It would be possible to develop weapons using these unique characteristics to target large numbers of people. I think we need more politicians who are well versed in viruses and military affairs to discuss these topics.
(M) It’s important for Diet members with this awareness to speak at a level that citizens understand. Perhaps we should use education to make citizens more knowledgeable about military affairs.
(I) People who studied difficult topics at university are used to challenging discussions. I think politicians should be capable of talking about these things in an easy-to-comprehend fashion.
(M) Sometimes being well versed in a topic makes one able to talk about it more simply.
(I) It’s not enough for them to just flaunt their knowledge. They shouldn’t just stir up fear. Rather than making people feel anxious, politicians must also inspire hope.
(M) The same people on TV keep saying the same things, which inspires fear. I guess the Internet is the only place for people who want to find different views on things.
(I) I hope that TV will change. In Japan we have so-called “wide show” programs. “Wide” means “broad,” yet the same people always appear, and the other stars simply agree with them. TV programs would be more interesting if they had a wider variety of opinions.
(M) I agree entirely.
(I) As science advances, maybe we will see “weather weapons” like typhoons in addition to viruses and other biological weapons.
(M) There are already examples of people controlling the weather. Some say that chemical spraying and missiles were used to prevent rain at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China is apparently doing research on artificial rain by using silver iodide to seed clouds and produce rain.
(I) Is that so? Global warming is changing the climate today, so it would be nice if we could control the weather as a way of coping with this.
(M) Yes. I previously visited a glacier in Canada, and then traveled there again 13 years later. There was dirt all over, where there had previously been ice.
(I) Is that a natural phenomenon?
(M) They say it is due to the impacts of global warming, but it seems difficult to fully conclude that it is caused by humans.
(I) The logic is that humans are concentrated in cities, producing more CO2 and other greenhouse gases that are raising temperatures across the globe.
(M) The earth does go through repeated periods of warm and cold weather. I don’t think it’s totally clear yet if we are in a warming period, or if this is caused by greenhouse gases. It used to snow every year in Kanazawa, where APA Group was founded, but lately there is no snowfall at all. Still, dead trees and animals from the past were transformed into coal and petroleum over many long years. Humans are using this all up in just a few hundred years, which is a problem.
(I) It seems accurate to say that humans are demolishing the earth’s resources for the sake of more convenient lifestyles. We need to talk about how we are going to produce energy for the future, including renewable energy.
(M) I believe we should build many small-sized nuclear fusion reactors as a way to achieve local energy production for local consumption.
(I) I’ve spent the last 10 years taking part in a project to offer health-related support to people affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Many people say that we shouldn’t have built nuclear power stations, but how much time and money should we devote to switching to renewable energy? One nuclear power plant can produce the equivalent of 50 geothermal power plants. Would it be possible to build so many? There are lots of things to consider.
(M) Japanese people are bad at debating because our education focuses on rote memorization. Even if they cultivate imagination to think about things they haven’t experienced, they won’t get good grades in school. I don’t think we have done enough research on how to measure human abilities.
(I) I totally agree. The human brain is the most unknown space of all. I think there are many measurement methods that could be developed, and that we can still hope for and expect great things of humankind.
(M) The problem is that education only supposes one correct answer. There are questions out there for which there are multiple answers, or no solutions at all. I’m sure people would object if those were included on entrance examinations.
(I) In general, the focus is on passing tests, rather than on evaluating the way someone thinks about solving problems. Humans might be capable of living for 200 years, yet this potential apparently declines as we age. It’s wrong to think that growing old is bad – people can be reborn at any time, no matter how old they are. Japan should become a society where we encourage and inspire people to do this. From that standpoint, APA Hotel has grown while constantly incorporating new things. That’s because you have an eternally youthful way of thinking.
(M) Thank you very much, and I have enjoyed our discussion. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(I) I am always saying that the people who are capable of doing something should do what they can, when they can. Young people should search for what they can achieve right now and accomplish things that they could only do today. I hope they are constantly aware of exploring what they are capable of. I think that’s what life is all about.
(M) That’s wonderful. Thank you for joining me today.
(I) Thank you.
Born in Tokyo in 1954. After graduating from high school, she studied abroad at Washington State University in the United States, then enrolled in Sophia University after returning to Japan. She has been a simultaneous interpreter for the Japan-U.S. Fishing Industry Negotiation Group, TV newscaster, and actress. At the age of 43 she enrolled in St. Luke’s College of Nursing. After graduating, she earned a Doctor of Health Science degree from the University of Tokyo in 2008. She takes part in Kibo to Kizuna, a project to support citizens affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake that was started in 2011. She successfully ran for the first time in the 2016 House of Councillors election from Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party; proportional representation). She is director of the Nippon Ishin Women’s Bureau and acting representative of the Tokyo Ishin no Kai.