Koichiro Ichimura ran in the 2021 House of Representatives election from Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and returned to the National Diet for the first time in nine years. After researching NPOs in the United States while enrolled at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, he utilized this knowledge as a politician working to realize his “Min no Oyake” policy. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ichimura about why Ichimura left the Democratic Party of Japan, policies he is attempting to implement in Nippon Ishin, and other topics.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You gave a congratulatory address at the recent party commemorating the winners of the Japan Restoration Grand Prize and “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest. Can you start by telling us about your history?
(I) Thank you for inviting me. I was born and raised mostly in Fukuoka, but I lived in Kochi City on Shikoku between the ages of six and 11 due to my parents’ circumstances. We visited Katsurahama on kindergarten and elementary school field trips.
(M) I’ve been to Katsurahama, too. There is a statue of Sakamoto Ryoma on that beach.
(I) Have you? Gazing up each year at Sakamoto, a local hero, I steadily gained determination to become someone like him – a person who makes Japan a better place.
(M) Was that how you decided to get involved in politics?
(I) I was too young to know anything about politicians’ motives; I just had a vague sense that I wanted to contribute somehow. I turned 10 in 1974, when prices were skyrocketing due to the first oil crisis. The Lockheed scandal was going on in 1976. The people were suffering due to price increases, and the government was dealing with this difficult incident. That’s the first time I realized that politics is the key to resolving these things, which made me want to become a politician. Afterwards I studied Kakuei Tanaka. There may have been some problems with the way he managed political funds, but I understand that the Lockheed issue – which came to light in the United States – was not just a bribery scandal like many people thought.
(M) Some people theorize that the U.S. was infuriated by Tanaka’s efforts to restore diplomatic relations between Japan and China, and that the U.S. used legal means to punish Japan. You thought about becoming a politician at a young age – were any of your family members or relatives involved in politics?
(I) No, many members of my family were in the financial world.
(M) Why did you choose your current party, Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party)?
(I) I ran as a Nippon Ishin candidate in the 2021 House of Representatives election, when I won my fourth term. During my first three terms I was actually part of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). I ran and was elected for the first time in 2003, when the majority of DPJ members had conservative sentiments like myself. I worked with other like-minded members to create a two-party system, and we successfully achieved a change of government in 2009. However, DPJ members increasingly stood in each other’s way after the party came into power, and the more conservative Diet members had to leave the party or ended up losing elections. After the DPJ lost power, it steadily transformed into a place where I could no longer remain. I left the DPJ and spent almost four years without any party affiliation.
(M) Did you run as an independent?
(I) I tried making some arrangements, but I ended up not running. When I was in the DPJ I had connections with Hyogo Prefecture, the electoral district where I ran. Of course that was in Kansai, which is one way I came to strongly identify with Nippon Ishin’s stance of striving for reform. I contacted the party and grew close with its members, then became a candidate the year before last.
(M) I see. What are the main pillars of your policy?
(I) My policies are founded on NPOs. “NPO” stands for “non-profit organization.” At the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management I spent three years researching NPOs in the U.S., and I was involved in the Act on Promotion of Specified Non-profit Activities, a private Diet members’ bill. It was passed in 1998. For the sake of national stability, we must have solid structures in our society. This requires three sectors: the market, government, and what I refer to as “Min no Oyake.” This means “public services provided by the private sector,” which is what NPOs do. Private organizations can offer services leveraging the intelligence, rapid speed, and flexibility of this sector. For the past 30 years, I have spoken about building a balanced society by providing funds and services through these three sectors.
(M) That’s a fascinating idea. I do wonder if it can only be achieved by the ruling party. You were part of the DPJ when it was in power. What were things like at that time?
(I) I wanted to promote political measures of this sort, but few people in the DPJ agreed with me, and my efforts didn’t come to much.
(M) In the world of politics, single individuals or parties shouldn’t have the power of dictators. It’s important for politicians to listen to lots of opinions and refer to them while making occasional compromises and implementing policies to bring happiness to largest possible number of people. It sounds like you didn’t have enough time to build a consensus in the DPJ administration.
(I) I think you’re right. I believe in the importance of spending time to increase understanding of the Min no Oyake sector, which draws on the good features of both the government (which seeks to achieve maximum happiness for the greatest number of people) and private-sector corporations (which work for their own profit). I was part of the last generation who directly learned from Konosuke Matsushita at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management. He was constantly saying that “companies are public institutions of society.” This closely resembles the Min no Oyake concept. I think APA Hotel’s stance during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that we can regard it as a public institution of society.
(M) Of course I concur – we made APA Hotels available as lodging facilities for patients who tested positive. But I also think that creating and sustaining a business is itself a type of social contribution. APA Hotel has never recorded a deficit. We have continually paid taxes and created jobs to meet the demands of society. I think this is an admirable type of social contribution.
(I) Me, too.
(M) When I first began thinking about fulfilling social demands, I considered what people need to enjoy affluent lifestyles, which is the ultimate goal of all. I decided that housing was the answer to this. People study a great deal, get jobs at good companies, work hard, and try to earn high salaries so they can raise their families in nice homes. I started my company and got into the custom-built housing business because I wanted to help them achieve this goal.
(I) I heard you launched your housing business with the slogan, “Build a house with a down payment of 100,000 yen.”
(M) To provide numerous homes, we had to create a structure that would enable many people to purchase them. I was working in corporate loans at a financial institution when I thought up this idea. We didn’t offer loans to individuals, and I was the first to come up with a long-term mortgage scheme. Business loans had to be repaid in a maximum of five years. I thought we should offer housing loans to individuals with a repayment period of 15 years. They would end up paying a bit more interest, but with equal redemption of principal and interest they could pay a fixed amount each month. I was also head of a labor union executive committee at that time. The credit union chairman was a former official from the Ministry of Finance. I used the labor union to pressure him to approve this long-term mortgage scheme. After that, I quit my job and started my own company.
(I) It sounds like you were ahead of your time.
(M) When people talk about striking out on their own, I first tell them, “You must have a weapon before starting a business.” My weapon was the long-term mortgage system. I was able to expand my business based on this thinking, from built-to-order housing to ready-built homes, rental apartments, condominiums, hotels, and urban development.
(I) I think your focus on housing shows keen insight. Politicians must ensure that people have the necessities – in other words, food, clothing, and shelter – so they can enjoy safe, secure lives. In the DPJ I spent about one year as parliamentary secretary for land, infrastructure and transport. My work in housing policy made me strongly realize the importance of this field. I also understand how the desire to own a home has majorly impacted Japan’s economic development. Still, Japan has not grown over the past 30 years, and average wages are lower than they were back then. Japan’s national and economic strength have fallen relatively as well. Now is the time when we must finally do something to fix this. The government should support new ideas and attempts by pioneers. We should relax the overly strict regulations of the past to help people taking on new challenges, from the youth to the elderly. And since some of them will naturally succeed and some will fail, we must also build safety nets so they can try again.
(M) That’s a great idea. We should also raise pay levels so people can enjoy more affluent lifestyles. If citizens had more income, they would invigorate the domestic economy by traveling and buying goods and services. More Japanese people would likely stay at APA Hotels, too. Politicians are tasked with the mission of figuring out how to build an abundant society.
(I) I agree entirely.
(M) Is Nippon Ishin working for this as well?
(I) Yes, that’s why we are considering how to restore the rapid economic growth of the past. For instance, we are exploring businesses in tune with the current IT era of increasingly advanced artificial intelligence technologies. The “Big Four” American tech companies, referred to as “GAFA,” have conquered the global economy. These businesses and ideas originally existed in Japan, but we were not able to make use of them. Although Japan was skilled on a technical level, it lacked the necessary intangible capabilities. We will come up with ideas to cultivate new Japanese IT technologies that are emerging, and to avoid our mistakes of the past.
(M) I also wish that successful people received more praise in Japan. The list of the biggest taxpayers used to make people look up to and admire high earners. That list has been abolished, which I think expresses a strong desire to make everything equal. But if this tendency goes too far, everyone will lose their vitality like in a socialist country. Japan should be a place where hard work is rewarded.
(I) What do you think of the tax system?
(M) As a businessperson, I believe in fulfilling my duty to pay taxes because my business uses roads and other types of social infrastructure. These days I hear entrepreneurs bragging about not paying taxes, which I think is wrong. Taxes are also a way to prevent wealth from being overly concentrated. Tax money should be distributed throughout society for overall growth. This of course provides major benefits to companies as well. That’s why I think the government’s goal should be to distribute tax money in an impartial way.
(I) I absolutely agree. Profit is not the goal in the Min no Oyake sector; organizations use their earnings as funding for social contributions. They can provide public services by circulating funds in a way that does not depend on taxes. You mentioned that society should praise people who have achieved success, which is one thing that American NPOs do. NPO leaders are themselves successful persons who created organizations while investing their own money and bringing in donations to provide funds and services. We worked hard to establish an NPO law in Japan, but now we must build a similar structure for accomplished people to carry out social contribution activities. This Min no Oyake sector should commend those who help society.
(M) People with successful businesses took risks when starting them up. They should be benefit appropriately from this, including positive acclaim. This would serve as a driving force to inspire future entrepreneurs. That’s the kind of society we need. Although survival of the fittest is the dominant rule in capitalist market economies, we must provide aid to vulnerable people. You mentioned safety nets, which are essential. Although not everyone can succeed, people should be willing to try again after failure. I believe we need systems that encourage people to keep trying.
(I) Yes, Japan has somehow lacked energy in the past. I think we can resolve this over the next 10 years, but we must promptly determine a path forward. Politicians should work to invigorate society and ensure that civilian efforts do not come to naught.
(M) Do Nippon Ishin Diet members have varied ways of thinking, on the right and left?
(I) I think the party has relatively cohesive views. Going forward, we may need a broader way of thinking if we are to strive for political power.
(M) In my opinion, better policies can be drafted when party members discuss many different things and share their views with each other.
(I) I think so, too. There aren’t any internal cliques and many individuals are very assertive, so our discussions are quite spirited. We hold study meetings with well-informed people in many fields, which is one way we proposed defense policy before the ruling party. Thanks to Nippon Ishin’s ideas, the government party can now voice things it was too hesitant to express in the past.
(M) On the topic of defense policy, I imagine people can’t even agree on whether we need the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. I believe the treaty is necessary, but my view is that we should basically be willing to defend our own country. We should depend on this alliance only when we lack the ability to protect ourselves. In particular, a major threat is China, our hegemonic neighbor that is putting pressure on the region and transforming its rapidly growing economic strength into military power. How should Japan cope with China, which has a population 10 times larger than ours?
(I) Japan should be an autonomous, independent nation. We must prepare for “unrestricted warfare,” which includes conventional fighting as well as diplomatic, network-centric, media, and various other types of warfare.
(M) Yes, and Japan must also continually cultivate unity and solidarity. Foreign powers will definitely start by scheming up ways to divide us.
(I) That’s right.
(M) Japan has had an educational system since the Edo period, and we were able to achieve economic growth before other Asian countries. It was the leader in the past, but now other nations are trying to overtake us. I think we should reconsider the importance of education at this timing.
(I) Nippon Ishin proposed that we focus on education. Good things do not come to people who expend no efforts. We must implement policy to help hardworking students who might drop out of high school or university due to financial reasons.
(M) Expanding the scholarship system is extremely important. I received assistance to go to high school, then got a job at the credit union after graduation. I also took a correspondence course from Keio University’s Faculty of Economics. I continuously received texts in the mail each month, read them, and submitted my homework. I feel like this still benefits me today. I think we should expand the systems that allow young people experiencing economic difficulties to study while working at the same time.
(I) Yes, I agree.
(M) I’ve found reading the newspaper to be the most educational thing in my experience. I picked up that habit when I was in my fifth year of elementary school. My father subscribed to three newspapers: a national paper, local paper, and economic publication. He taught me how to read between the lines. I perused the papers every day and looked up unfamiliar words in The Year Book of the Contemporary Society. I gained a lot of knowledge, and eventually I had read that book cover to cover. Newspapers are great because they come right to your house and cover a wide variety of topics, from politics to the economy, culture, and society. That knowledge is the foundation of my business today.
(I) The compulsory education curriculum is carefully determined, and teachers are too busy to handle anything else. We must provide further opportunities for children and students who thirst for knowledge. A daily habit of reading the newspaper seems quite simple, but it is actually a profound practice. I feel like your philosophy, founded on that knowledge, has been the consistent backbone of your life so far.
(M) Perhaps that philosophy is the secret to my business success. I started my company with custom-made housing because I had no money, but I wanted to help people enjoy affluent lifestyles. I ended up in the hotel business that is patronized by people who travel, which is something they can enjoy only if they are living abundant lives.
(I) 2023 is the year of the Water Rabbit according to the Chinese zodiac, which is said to be when past efforts will bear fruit. I am sure it will be a wonderful year for you.
(M) Thank you. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a word for the youth.
(I) I hope they will have a spirit of taking on new challenges without fear of making mistakes. But this must be founded on a solid way of thinking. I want young people to have a good philosophy such as yours, and to organize their own thoughts before taking action. I will work hard as a politician to create an environment that facilitates this.
(M) They should have a weapon that enables victory, then go forth and win. Thank you for joining me today.
(I) Thank you.
Born in 1964 in Fukuoka City. After graduating from Hitotsubashi University in 1988, he enrolled in the ninth class of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, then spent three years doing research in the United States before graduating in 1993 and joining the Japan New Party. His past positions include secretary-general of the Policy Research Committee, and he served a central role in submitting an NPO-related bill to the National Diet. Was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2003. Helped establish a general corporation/new public-service corporation (genuine NPO) system in 2008. Was named parliamentary secretary for land, infrastructure and transport in 2010 under the DPJ government. Successfully ran in the 2021 House of Representatives election from Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) in the Hyogo Prefecture 6th District (Itami, Kawanishi, and Takarazuka cities).