Shigeharu Aoyama has been a Kyodo News reporter and think tank researcher, and he also founded his own think tank. An active author and media commentator, he initially refused requests to run for office before taking the life-changing step of becoming a candidate in the 2016 House of Councillors election. His campaign was successful, and he won a huge number of votes. Toshio Motoya spoke with Aoyama – a specialist in foreign relations, national security, risk management, resources, and energy who draws on his own experiences – about topics including Aoyama’s past career and what Japan should do right now.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You also appeared in the May 2018 issue of Apple Town in the Wine Tasting and Discussion About Japan section. I invited you here today so we could talk in more detail.
(A) Thank you for having me.
(M) What did you do before you became a member of the House of Councillors?
(A) I got a reporting job at Kyodo News after graduating from university when I was 26, and I worked there for 18 years and nine months until the age of 45. I initially planned to quit after 10 years, but I was having too much fun and I loved being a reporter. What inspired me to quit was the Japanese embassy hostage crisis that took place in Peru in 1996. We weren’t allowed to report on what happened during the special forces raid. My father was president of a textile company, and he originally told me, “You’re the type of person who takes action, rather than criticizing others. I don’t think you’re meant to be a reporter.” I remembered those words. After I watched the unfolding of the crisis – in which all of the terrorists were killed – I decided it was time to do something to prevent terrorism, rather than just criticizing the government and politicians.
(M) That sounds like an intense experience.
(A) It was. When I resigned from Kyodo News I had various offers, such as becoming a university teacher, but I thought that was no different from being a reporter. My fields of expertise as a reporter were foreign relations and national security, and I wanted to make policy proposals from the private sector, not as part of the government. That’s how I became a researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute (MRI), a think tank. After some time I realized that think tanks serve different roles in the United States and Japan. American think tanks sometimes collude with vested interests, but basically they are non-governmental organizations that give suggestions to the government. However – although I’m not saying MRI is like this – in general Japanese think tanks substantiate the government’s policies. For instance, if the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism wanted to reclaim land in Tokyo Bay, it would hire a think tank to investigate. There are many cases in which parameters are modified to obtain the results desired by the government. This is how the authorities pretend to listen to the private sector.
(M) Think tanks do official business for the government.
(A) Exactly. Citizens, who are sovereigns, do not know their tax money is being used in this way. I was at MRI for about four and a half years, and at the end I declared to the president that I was going to strike out on my own and start a think tank that makes proposals in the foreign relations, national security, risk management, resource, and energy fields, rather than accepting jobs from the government. The president at that time was an accomplished man who previously worked at Mitsubishi Bank, and he replied, “You’re going to fail right away.” I took this as a type of “parental” affection and encouragement. I founded Japan’s Independent Institute Inc. in 2002 and became its president and head researcher. I drafted proposals and took them to bureaucrats through the connections I formed as a reporter, but most of them were shot down. However, a few bureaucrats accepted my proposals. We carried out several research plans and eventually got the company on track.
(M) After working in policy proposal, how did you end up in the House of Councillors?
(A) People often suggested that I run for office when I was a reporter, but I refused every time. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko called me on January 4, 2016 about the upcoming upper house election on behalf of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He requested that I run as a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate with the goal of achieving constitutional reform. I declined, although it wasn’t because I hated National Diet members. My family put more emphasis on learning at home than on school education, and my mother was from a samurai family. She was always saying, “Draw your sword at any time to help others, never for your own sake.” When you campaign for political office, you have to wear a sash with your name on it and try to sell yourself. That’s why I wasn’t interested. Seko called me every month until June, and I said no every single time. Abe called me himself in June, a few days before the official announcement.
(M) Before Abe’s first stint as prime minister, I was the vice chairman of an association in favor of him gaining that office. So you have connections with him, as well.
(A) I’ve known Abe since I was a reporter. I spoke to him on the telephone frequently, although there weren’t any conflicts of interest. Basically, I called him to share my objections about his plans or suggest new ones. It was rare for him to call me. Anti-terrorism policy is one of my specialties, so when my phone rang I thought there had been a terrorist attack. As nonchalantly as ever, he said, “Mr. Aoyama, you need to run in the election.” Abe is known for skillfully influencing people. He told me, “If you make it to the Diet, you can change the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA); Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI); and LDP Diet members.” The MOFA issue is the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. I’ve said the abductees will never be returned because the MOFA is in charge of the negotiations. It’s not because the MOFA is bad, but rather due to the lack of knowledge among their counterparts in the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I wanted to change the METI on the topic of methane hydrate. My wife Chiharu has a doctorate in fisheries science, and she studies Japanese resources such as the methane hydrate (a type of natural gas) frozen at the bottom of the sea just beyond the Port of Niigata. We would have less need to import expensive natural gas from Qatar in the Middle East if we developed technologies to extract and utilize the gas in Japan. So why don’t we use methane hydrate, a marine resource that exists in Japan? This is because some industries make huge amounts of profit by importing high-priced foreign gas, and these industries collude with the METI. I’ve been subjected to severe pressure about this topic since my time at MRI, which is why I believe we simply must change the METI. Abe said I could influence the Diet members if I took part in the LDP morning meeting. Hearing these things, I thought seriously about running for the first time, but I ended up declining. At that time my wife was about to board the research vessel KAIMEI at Harumi Wharf. When I called her to tell her about my decision, she said, “You’re going to regret it.” I made up my mind and declared my candidacy only a few days before the official announcement.
(M) That was an excellent decision. How was the campaign, which you were so ambivalent about at first?
(A) Lots of big-wigs showed up, and they said two support organizations would be reassigned to me from other Diet members. I was also supposed to obey the election planner they brought. I turned down all of these. Diet members who have to listen to support groups are not working for the sake of the people. I also didn’t think it was right to have to put on an image to influence voters like the election planner instructed. But I do respect other people’s jobs, so I paid them even though I didn’t listen. The only thing I did was conduct a tour and make some long speeches, but I won many votes in the National Proportional Representation Block, and was successfully elected.
(M) I imagine many people valued you highly for your stance of continually sharing sound arguments as a media commentator on television, radio, and other mediums.
(A) I planned to quit after one term of six years, and I announced that I would do so. I decided to step down as president of Japan’s Independent Institute Inc. during my campaign, but I intended to return in six years to further grow this proposal-based think tank that had finally gained a position in society. Two years after becoming a Diet member, I asked about how the company was doing. I learned that no one was using the president’s office, even though I had appointed a successor. That seemed like poor corporate governance to me, so I decided not to return. To transform the LDP from the inside out, I formed a new Diet member group called “The Conference to Japan’s Dignity and National Interest” (JDI) in 2019 and became its president. There are 72 members today. I meant to pass the baton to someone else after my first term, but the members said the JDI would fall apart if I quit, so once again I ended up running in this year’s upper house election.
(M) So you’re going to try for re-election to keep working to innovate the LDP.
(A) Yes, if I win. Without any support organizations, I can’t count on any guaranteed votes. I don’t accept any political donations or hold any parties, and I have no funds or supporters’ groups, either.
(M) More than anything, I’d like to hear about your vision for Japan going forward.
(A) From your statements and writings in Apple Town, I feel that your views are founded on the concept of genuine independence for Japan. This aligns with my fundamental way of thinking. Many people have a mistaken understanding of Japan’s defeat in World War II. There’s no need to distort how things should be in our country, just because we lost a war. This isn’t just our opinion; it’s also written in international law. The Convention with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land, adopted at the 1899 Hague Conference, clearly states that the occupant will respect “unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.” Japan and the U.S. both ratified this convention before World War II.
(M) Yes. In other words, there was no basis for changing the Japanese constitution.
(A) Right. I think this was accepted because it was Japan’s first war defeat in more than 2,000 years, and Japan didn’t know how to act in those circumstances. Germany was continually defeated in wars. It established the Nazi Party to prevent further losses, and there wasn’t even a government at the time of its defeat. However, Germany knew how to behave afterwards. Today it has the Federal Defense Forces, and the Basic Law that is the equivalent of a constitution contains no bizarre provisions like Japan’s Article 9. The U.S. took advantage of the fact that Japan didn’t know how to utilize the convention on land war.
(M) I think that’s true.
(A) Japan accepted the military occupation, but the biggest problem was that the constitution was completely changed when Japan had no national sovereignty during the occupation. What’s strange is that the only part of this long, 103-article document that mentions protecting the citizens is Article 9. The name of Chapter II, which contains Article 9, is not “Defending the People.” Instead, it is titled “Renunciation of War.” They should have written about how to safeguard the people while renouncing war, but it doesn’t spell this out. Instead, it says the Japanese people forever renounce “the threat or use of force,” and that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” When I lecture on this text to students at the University of Tokyo and other schools, I refer to an actual experience I once had. I met my wife when we were students. She happens to be quite well endowed. We both like to drink, and I often saw her home on the last Yamanote Line train on Friday nights. One day, a group of drunk “salary men” in suits approached her and demanded to touch her chest. I was somewhat strong, so I showed off my shoulder muscles while saying in a threatening manner, “Why don’t you give it a try and see what happens?” They lost their will to fight and fled. That’s what “security” actually means.
(M) I see.
(A) Since I was a student, I thought it wouldn’t be such a big deal if I got into a fight and was arrested by the police. But those guys were probably department or section heads at their company, and their lives could be ruined if their attempted molestation turned into a conflict. That’s why I threatened them. In other words, I deterred a “war” and the harm it could cause. But Article 9 says Japan renounces the threat of force. By that thinking, I would have had no recourse beyond saying I was going to call the police. If Chiharu had been sexually assaulted, I doubt she would have set foot on a research ship that didn’t have a restroom or bath for women. Article 9 concludes with the phrase, “The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” It stipulates that Japan will absolutely not fight or threaten another country. This means we cannot do anything to bring back Megumi Yokota and the other people abducted to North Korea, nor can we act to protect the Northern Territories, Takeshima, or Senkaku Islands. The students understand me well when I say in my lectures that we must start by amending Article 9.
(M) I agree entirely. Military strength is necessary for threatening others and deterring war to maintain peace, and we must constantly enhance this power. The Japanese school system does not teach this, nor does the media report on it. They just vaguely say that war is “bad” and that we must not start any wars. But beyond this, we should be thinking about what to do to avoid wars. The world is full of many different countries, not all of which are good.
(A) Yes, Japan is close to three dictatorships: Russia, North Korea, and China.
(M) China is a particular threat. Like it has done before, it is increasing its military strength along with its expanding economic power. It is attempting to achieve its own desires by using its military force to make threats, rather than by waging war. When China and Russia conducted a joint military exercise in October 2021, I think their passage through the Tsugaru Strait was a clear act of intimidation. If we allow this, things may heat up and China and Russia may try to divide and rule Japan. Japan must make sufficient military preparations to dissuade them.
(A) The Chinese military is weak because the navy and air force have no actual combat experience. Instead, China is prioritizing the three fields of public sentiment strategies, psychological warfare, and legal warfare. It is trying to use the Internet and Diet members to make the Japanese public think it wouldn’t be such a big deal to give China the uninhabited Senkaku Islands.
(M) Today and in the past, the best way to win a war is by using methods that involve no fighting. I think we should first consider ways to make the other party surrender, such as intimidation and maneuvers to influence the public opinion.
(A) That’s particularly true today.
(M) We must do something about these operations to influence the public, but first Japan should strengthen its military force so we are sufficiently able to deter war in response to these threats.
(A) We learned about the concept of deterrence from World War II when many people lost their lives. The U.S. set numerous traps, starting with Article 9, to prevent Japan from once again becoming a major power. Now people in Japan equate military force with something bad.
(M) I think we should look at Vietnam. It was a French colony that gained independence, expelled the U.S., and forced out the invading Chinese military. I think this was due to a powerful will for self-defense and a strong sense of citizen unity.
(A) I agree. I think Japan should collaborate with Vietnam. We could carry out a pincer maneuver against China in that way. Geopolitics is based on this theory; Turkey is friendly with China because it can do the same thing against Russia.
(M) Today APA Hotel is Japan’s biggest hotel chain, and I’m planning on starting a global strategy once we achieve an overwhelmingly top position here. This includes Vietnam. Our profit rate is over 30%, which is actually too high. I’d like to lower that a bit while increasing our sales by having many guests stay at APA Hotels.
(A) You are from Komatsu City in Ishikawa Prefecture, right?
(M) Yes, that’s where I started APA Group. I’m also chairman of the Friends of the Komatsu Air Base Association.
(A) That was so unfortunate when the F-15 fighter that departed from the Komatsu Air Base went missing on January 31.
(M) Traditionally the U.S. Armed Forces have always worked to rescue people or to bring their bodies home. I think the Japan Self-Defense Forces do the same thing today. That seems to be the source of their morale.
(A) Yes, but warfare itself has changed as well. I’ve gone unarmed to battle fronts on three occasions. I’ve actually seen careful efforts to put together the scattered pieces of dead marines, dress them, and send them home accompanied by officers. But since the Iraq War, there are more cases of soldiers being blown to pieces by suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IED), meaning the bodies cannot be reassembled. They are classified as “missing” rather than as dead, and their caskets are hidden. Americans were shocked by a TV program about this, leading to a growing sense of war weariness. The Barack Obama administration did not fight and Joe Biden has the same stance, making the U.S. into a country that cannot fight wars. China and Russia are well aware of this, leading to their repeated acts of provocation regarding Taiwan and Ukraine.
(M) That the background to these issues. I hope you will win in the National Proportional Representation Block of this July’s upper house election, and I expect that you will work hard to transform the LDP and Japan in positive ways. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(A) “Live for the sake of other people.” Hagakure, a guide for samurai during the Edo period, says that Bushido is actually a “way of dying.” I think they purposefully left out the phrase “for your lord.” In other words, this suggests a type of thinking in which you are willing to die for other people, not just for your master. What this really means is that you should live for other people so your own life is not an empty, futile one. No matter how skillful you are, if you live only for your own sake, at the moment of your death you will not feel your life has been worthwhile. You can make your life fruitful by living for others and realizing that your life is connected to others, even after you die.
(M) I learned a lot from talking with you today. Thank you!
(A) Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Born in 1952 in the City of Kobe. Withdrew from the Keio University Faculty of Letters in 1974. Graduated from the Waseda University School of Political Science and Economics in 1979, then got a job at Kyodo News. He began as a police reporter and also wrote for the economics and political sections. After being sent as a special correspondent to Peru in 1997, he resigned from Kyodo News and started working at the Mitsubishi Research Institute in 1998. He founded Japan’s Independent Institute Inc. in 2002 as its president and head researcher. He has worked as a public official (receiving no salary), as a part-time lecturer at the University of Tokyo, and as a visiting professor at Kindai University. He won his first House of Councillors election in 2016. His many published works include I Am a Gray Cat (FUSOSHA Publishing) and Our Native Country (FUSOSHA Publishing).