Shunsuke Mutai accomplished many things during his 29 years as a bureaucrat, including the local consumption tax and civil protection act. He then moved into national politics and became a member of the House of Representatives, where he continually makes use of his abilities in the realm of legislation introduced by Diet members. Mutai says the driving force behind his work is his childhood at the foot of the Japanese Alps. Toshio Motoya spoke with Mutai about topics including Shinzo Abe, who was shot by an assassin before he could achieve all his goals, and what Japan should learn from the Russia-Ukraine war.
(Mo) Thank you for joining me today. You have previously spoken at the Shoheijuku academy and attended my Wine Tasting and Discussion about Japan. Now it’s your turn to be interviewed on Big Talk.
(Mu) Thank you for inviting me. I look forward to talking with you.
(Mo) You are a former bureaucrat, is that correct?
(Mu) Yes, I worked in the old Ministry of Home Affairs, currently the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC).
(Mo) Elite bureaucrats were in the Ministry of Finance or Ministry of Home Affairs, which hired only the most talented people.
(Mu) I’m not sure if that’s true in my case, but I chose the Ministry of Home Affairs because of my passion for working in local government.
(Mo) Where are you from?
(Mu) Azumino in Nagano Prefecture. Five municipalities in the old Minamiazumi-gun were integrated to form Azumino City with a population of about 100,000 people. I grew up in the former Misato Village and Toyoshi Town. The Mutai family has a long history in that area stretching back multiple generations. My father was also born and raised there, but he attended the Port Arthur Normal School in Manchuria. He was called for military service in the Kwantung Army right before the war ended, so he never made it to the front lines.
(Mo) That was fortunate.
(Mu) However, he was interned in Siberia by the Soviet Union for one year and 11 months. According to one theory, 600,000 Japanese people were detained in Siberia, of whom 60,000 died. My father longed to return to Azumino, and he somehow survived and was able to come home. He became a teacher, then a junior high school principal and director of the Azumino Municipal Museum Of Modern Art, TOYOSHINA. He was extremely dedicated to his home region, and I think I inherited that from him. From a young age I wanted to find a job that would let me contribute to the place I was born and raised in Nagano. I went to the University of Tokyo and got a job in the Ministry of Home Affairs. And since none of my relatives were bureaucrats, I thought it was time for one of us to enter that field.
(Mo) Still, that’s not an easy goal to achieve.
(Mu) I studied like crazy (laughs). I worked in public offices for 29 years. My initial transfer was to a local government in Hiroshima Prefecture. I was able to choose my first assignment, and I wanted to live in Hiroshima to get a firsthand understanding of how people were affected by the atomic bomb. At first they didn’t want to talk about this tragedy. But after seeing them a few times and becoming friendly enough to share a drink, they began telling me about their keloids and other serious topics. You get a lot more information when you live in a place, rather than just visiting there.
(Mo) I agree entirely.
(Mu) After that I traveled between local governments and the head office in Tokyo. I was head of Ibaraki Prefecture’s Department of Administrative Affairs in 1999, and I was involved in handling the nuclear accident at the Japan Nuclear Fuel Conversion Co. (JCO) plant in Tokai Village.
(Mo) In that accident, a uranium solution reached criticality in a nuclear fuel processing facility. A fission chain reaction occurred, and two workers died after being exposed to huge amounts of radiation.
(Mu) That wouldn’t have happened if the workers had correctly followed the manual. Improper work had become the norm at that plant, and I think the resulting accident destroyed trust in the safety of nuclear power. Afterwards I became head of the Disaster Management Division in the MIC’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA). Shinzo Abe, who was deputy chief cabinet secretary back then, spoke about the need for emergency legislation. The Japan Self-Defense Forces can retaliate if Japan is the victim of an armed attack, but the FDMA and local governments are in charge of evacuating citizens. The Act concerning the Measures for Protection of the People in Armed Attack Situations, etc (civil protection act), which stipulates how to accomplish this, was passed in the National Diet in 2004. That was the start of my association with Abe. I was also involved in reforming three administrative and financial systems to review the relationship between national and local taxation, and we successfully transferred three billion yen from national to local tax.
(Mo) You’ve done a number of rewarding jobs.
(Mu) Of course I was just one of the many bureaucrats who were involved. But I feel pride in those efforts, which seem to mark the end of an era.
(Mo) How did you end up in national politics?
(Mu) I was invited to run in the House of Representatives election after I entered my 50s. There were no Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) National Diet members in my electoral district at that time. I was marked as a potential candidate because of my dedication to my home region, my knowledge of local government, and my track record for new legislation in the central government. Although I was extremely conflicted, I ended up running despite severe opposition from my family. I lost that election in 2009, when a change of government took place. I received 80,000 votes while the victor earned double that at 160,000.
(Mo) That must have been a difficult first election.
(Mu) Yes, my wife told me to stop and said it wasn’t worth sacrificing my life for. But there were things I wanted to do, and my support group said they wouldn’t have backed me if I intended to quit after just one attempt. I was successful for the first time in 2012, when I beat my rival from the previous election.
(Mo) That’s the lower house election when Abe became president of the LDP for a second time.
(Mu) Yes, I’m one of the so-called “Abe Children.” He visited my district the year of the 2012 election, before he regained his position of prime minister or LDP president, and talked for one hour. He knew a great deal about me and praised my accomplishments as a bureaucrat – including the civil protection act and reforms – without having to refer to any notes. He also spoke about topics that became the core policies executed during his administration, for instance Abenomics, the North Korean abductee issue, and the right to collective defense. Thinking back, Abe was a politician who truly did achieve his intentions as prime minister. It was so awful to receive the news of his death. Because he dedicated his life to politics, today I want to take up his aspirations and bring even more energy to Japan.
(Mo) Abe was an uncommon politician. He had proper views of history, the world, and our nation, and was also extremely determined and talented. I’ve supported him for a long time. Before his first term as prime minister, I founded an association to help him gain that office and served as its vice president. I had opportunities to meet with him after that. He phoned me after the COVID-19 pandemic began, which led to our hotels being rented out as facilities for people who tested positive. His death was truly unfortunate – I thought he would accomplish even more in the future.
(Mu) Absolutely. Considering how chaotic the world is right now, I’m sure some people wanted him to serve as prime minister once again. I am one of numerous politicians who intend to achieve his objectives, even if it takes many years.
(Mo) I definitely hope so. What has been your most rewarding project so far?
(Mu) Establishing the local consumption tax in the 1990s, when I was a government official. I was an assistant director in charge of local tax. When the consumption tax was raised from 3% to 5%, there was a discussion about abolishing all indirect taxes – such as the special local consumption tax, which came from local tax on dining and other activities – and switching wholly to national tax. This would mean everything went to the national government, and local governments would lose the revenue needed to maintain their distinctive qualities. Assistant directors in the Ministry of Home Affairs, who were all in their late 30s, joined together to negotiate with top management about having part of the consumption tax be a local one. The Ministry of Finance was already dealing with the difficult matter of the tax increase, and it was absolutely opposed to complex procedures for dividing national and local taxes. There were many different opinions. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama was in power with a coalition government consisting of the LDP, Japan Sociality Party, and New Party Sakigake, and Hiromu Nonaka was minister of home affairs, so we successfully established the local consumption tax. We were told not to assume we could keep our jobs after making an enemy of the Ministry of Finance, but I’m glad we continued without being daunted by that threat.
(Mo) You did a great thing.
(Mu) I think the first time I felt that being a politician was worthwhile was during my first term, with the start of the new Mountain Day public holiday. I grew up at the foot of the Japanese Alps and often heard locals comment that they felt sad there was only Ocean Day, without a day to celebrate Japan’s mountains. I consulted with Sadakazu Tanigaki, assuming he wouldn’t be interested, but he liked the idea. As a student at the University of Tokyo, Tanigaki fell in love with the mountains when he joined the skiing club. He was there for eight years (laughs). He suggested that I found a Diet members’ caucus to take on this task. Seishiro Eto readily consented to become its chairman, and we talked with many people including opposition party members. We submitted a private member’s bill a little more than one year after we started discussing the topic. The bill was passed, and August 11 became Mountain Day for a total of 16 public holidays, which is a large number compared to other countries. Many Japanese people do not take the paid time off they are entitled to, and I think these holidays are significant because they force people to rest. Some even use their paid time off together with holidays and weekends to take longer vacations. NHK broadcasts special programs about the Japanese Alps on Mountain Day, which is a great way to promote the region. I’ve also been involved in legislation introduced by Diet members in other fields, such as volunteer fire departments, bicycle promotion, and depopulation measures. The first step to all of these was Mountain Day.
(Mo) Mountain Day is a perfect holiday for someone from Nagano. I think you’re doing a great job to fulfill your true duty as a legislator.
(Mu) Thank you. I agree that Mountain Day probably wouldn’t have occurred to the Diet members from Tokyo.
(Mo) As of this year, you have spent 10 years in the House of Representatives. How many terms have you served?
(Mu) This is my fourth term.
(Mo) House of Councillors members are guaranteed terms of six years, but terms in the lower house can be quite short if the House of Representatives is dissolved. Why did you choose to run for the lower house?
(Mu) It’s true there’s a greater sense of tension in the House of Representatives. The house can be dissolved, and it’s all over if you give even a slightly bad impression to voters. You have to always be on guard. I’ve made several mistakes, too…
(Mo) Still, you’re working hard.
(Mu) I think I’d lose heart if I was doing this solely for my own sake. Instead, I consider what would happen to my district if I left the Diet. I’m encouraged by my belief that this beautiful, wonderful area shouldn’t be entrusted to just anyone.
(Mo) You mentioned submitting a bill about firefighting. What kind of law is it?
(Mu) It’s for “shobodan,” volunteer fire departments. I learned about their keen wishes during my time at the FDMA. There are roughly 800,000 shobodan members in Japan. Because it is volunteer based, there has been a sharp decrease in the number of people who take part. We drafted this law to create an environment that encourages more people to join shobodan, and it has received high praise.
(Mo) I’m familiar with regular fire departments, but what exactly is a shobodan?
(Mu) There are two types of firefighting organizations in Japan. Shobosho, occupied fire stations, are staffed by career firefighters who receive salaries. Shobodan firefighters are volunteers who are summoned when emergencies occur. Some countries only have the first type, but in Japan both cover the same area. This is unusual; people say this format has only existed in Japan and the former East Germany.
(Mo) Why does Japan have such a unique system?
(Mu) Japan has a tradition of autonomous disaster planning, in which people work together to protect their own regions. Along with the Imperial Household, I think this consciousness is a big part of the Japanese spirit. I’m sure you’ve seen Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa. In this film, a village forms an organization and hires a masterless samurai for protection from bandits. Each village had an organization of that type. Local fire brigades existed during the Edo Period, and they were brought into a national organization of shobodan during the Meiji Period. Various changes took place after World War II, and today we have full-time fire stations in local governments along with volunteer shobodan.
(Mo) So the shobodan members receive no compensation at all?
(Mu) No, they are paid, but they don’t earn a monthly salary. For instance, some are paid for each job they go on. However, fewer people are doing this job today because of time-consuming tasks like equipment inspection and training. The goal of the basic shobodan law is to provide better treatment to increase the number of volunteer firefighters. We are debating whether this should be entirely voluntary or if we could introduce a system that encourages people to join, for instance spending one or two years as a volunteer firefighter from the age of 18 to 35. I hope to make people think about the significance of personally working to protect their regions.
(Mo) Would that resemble military conscription?
(Mu) No, it wouldn’t be compulsory. It could be a system to provide benefits in social life afterwards.
(Mo) APA would be happy to hire people who are motivated enough to join a shobodan.
(Mu) That’s exactly what I’m talking about! It would be great if former shobodan members could gain advantages in finding employment and job promotions. They can also develop emergency skills that are helpful in any organization, such as the use of automated external defibrillators, CPR, bandages, and ropes. Speaking with you, I get the sense that we haven’t sufficiently promoted the concept of shobodan. We need to do more to share information with people in the business world.
(Mo) That’s a great idea.
(Mu) We collected donations for Ukraine on 12 occasions in front of Matsumoto Station and sent a notice to the Embassy of Ukraine in Japan about our results. Inspired by these efforts, Sergiy Korsunsky, the Ukrainian ambassador to Japan, visited Matsumoto City on July 16 and gave a speech at Shinshu University. When I asked him why Ukrainian people so fiercely continue opposing the Russian invasion, he explained that Ukraine was oppressed by Russia for 400 years from the time of the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union. During that period the people were subjected to ethnic cleansing and forbidden from using their native language. More than anything, all Ukrainians remember that seven million people died in the Holodomor, Joseph Stalin’s manmade famine from 1933 to 1934. Due to their deeply rooted sense of what it means to be controlled by a dictatorship, all Ukrainian people have a powerful determination to do whatever is necessary to maintain independence. He said this is not solely the belief of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy; it is the collective will of the people. That’s why Ukrainians refuse to listen to Japanese and other people who suggest they should surrender to protect their citizens, and they find this extremely rude.
(Mo) I think this is because Japan has never experienced long-term rule by another ethnic group. We have no historic memory of that type of struggle.
(Mu) I agree. The ambassador also said Japan can learn from Ukraine’s experience. Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The three countries agreed to assure Ukraine’s safety in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. Russia has easily broken this and suffered no penalties for doing so. The ambassador emphasized that one must not think about security while trusting in the good sense of other countries. Moreover, Ukraine has only one enemy, which is Russia. Japan is located by Russia, China, and North Korea. Ukraine is near the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance of 30 countries, but Japan only has the Japanese-U.S. alliance. Japan is in a more difficult security environment than Ukraine, and it makes no sense that we are not increasing our defense capabilities and forming more alliances. It’s odd that Japanese people believe there’s nothing to worry about thanks to our pacifist constitution. The ambassador stated that Japan should be watching the circumstances in Europe. When a high school student said they wanted to work at the United Nations in the future, the ambassador responded sternly. He said, “As it exists today, the UN is a meaningless place to work. Before getting a job there, you should closely watch to see if it reforms into an organization that can contribute to the security of the global community.”
(Mo) It sounds like Ukraine is very disappointed in the UN.
(Mu) We focus daily efforts on things like regional vitalization and welfare, but all of this is pointless without independence. I agree with your frequent statements that security is the foundation of the nation. Regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, Diet members must talk about security. The premise to this should be allowing earnest discussions about constitutional issues.
(Mo) I think so, too. At the end of the interview I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(Mu) The youth of today are said to lack vitality, but it seems to me that more young people want to be useful in society, rather than just working to make money. I hope they will cherish this feeling and live their lives while taking specific actions to benefit others.
(Mo) I expect a great deal from the youth of today. Thank you for talking with me.
(Mu) Thank you.
Born in Azumino City, Nagano Prefecture in 1956. After graduating from the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law in 1980, he entered the Ministry of Home Affairs (currently the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications [MIC]). His past positions include head of the Department of Administrative Affairs, Ibaraki Prefecture; head of the Disaster Management Division, Fire and Disaster Management Agency; and counsellor, Minister’s Secretariat. In 2008 he left the MIC to make an unsuccessful run in the 2009 House of Representatives election. He was elected for the first time in the 2012 lower house election and is currently in his fourth term. He serves as state minister of the environment and senior vice-minister in the Fumio Kishida Cabinet.