After entering the world of national politics at a young age, House of Representatives Member Seiji Maehara has served in many important positions including Democratic Party of Japan president and minister for foreign affairs. Today, he advocates for pragmatic diplomacy and security policy as acting president of the Democratic Party For the People. Toshio Motoya spoke with Maehara about how he got involved in politics, formative experiences that inspired his current way of thinking, and other topics.
(Mo) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I’ve wanted to interview you for some time, but it never came together until now. I did see you when I visited Tunisia in 2010.
(Ma) Thank you for having me. I was in Tunisia to attend the Japan-Arab Economic Forum as Japan’s minister for foreign affairs. You were there as well?
(Mo) I was. The Arab Spring broke out soon after, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was deposed, and the situation in Tunisia was chaotic for some time. I’m sure many people know who you are, but could you start by telling us about yourself?
(Ma) Certainly. I was born in Kyoto City’s Sakyo Ward at the foot of Mount Hiei. My parents are both from Tottori Prefecture. My father was born in Sakaiminato City and my mother in Nichinan Town. My father graduated from Ritsumeikan University and worked at a family court in Kyoto. They wed after being introduced by a matchmaker, and I have one older sister. My mother raised us by herself after my father suddenly passed away when I was in my second year of junior high school.
(Mo) That’s the same age I was when I lost my father.
(Ma) Is that so? However, I didn’t struggle at all; I kept going to school and played baseball until my third year of high school. I failed the university entrance examination on my first try and ended up taking a year off after high school. Eventually I received a tuition waver and got a loan to go to college. My mother was the one who paid for me to attend prep school before that, which I am very grateful for.
(Mo) So you got into Kyoto University’s School of Law on your second attempt.
(Ma) Yes, after I flunked my first exam I went to Sundai Preparatory School’s Kyoto Branch. I often stopped by a nearby bookstore as a way to escape from reality. Instead of studying for the test, one day I picked up National Politics: Fear and Hope (Chuko Shinsho) by international political scientist Masataka Kosaka. I’m still impressed by what he wrote about Prime Minister Kiichiro Hiranuma, who was in power for just about eight months in 1939, when Japan and the Soviet Union were involved in military conflict with the Battles of Khalkhin Gol. Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty while Japan and Germany were negotiating an alliance. The Hiranuma Cabinet resigned en masse and released a joint statement saying, “Europe is a complex and mysterious place.” Kosaka writes that they should not have been surprised by these “complex and mysterious” actions, given that individual countries behave according to their own interests in global politics. That left a strong impression on me, and I wanted to study with Kosaka. When I looked him up, I realized he was a professor in the School of Law, where I had failed the previous exam. That inspired me to study hard for my second exam, and I ended up passing. Students in that school start specialized courses in their third year, but I snuck into Kosaka’s classes during my second year and listened to his lectures, although I couldn’t understand them. I stayed after class with a handful of other students to ask questions. He was a very conscientious teacher. Of course, I chose to join his seminar, too. When it came time to make future plans I considered studying under him in grad school, but he told me I wasn’t smart or studious enough. He knew I was interested in being a politician, and told me I would make a good one. Kosaka suggested I apply to the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, where he was a director. He wrote me a letter of recommendation, and I enrolled as a member of the eighth class.
(Mo) Did you learn directly from Konosuke Matsushita?
(Ma) He was still alive when I enrolled, but he couldn’t speak due to a throat issue. He passed away at 94, although he previously declared he would live to the age of 120. I only met him once, when the students visited him one year before he died. He was in a room on the top floor of Matsushita Memorial Hospital in Osaka. Matsushita wanted business sense to be applied in politics – in other words, he hoped politicians would work to administer and manage the nation of Japan and its region. He wanted us to be free, as long as we didn’t turn to communism. Perhaps that’s why politicians’ sons didn’t come to the Matsushita Institute. The students were all people like myself who were passionate about politics but had no previous knowledge. There wasn’t any particular curriculum; we decided what to study and when we wanted to run for office. What the institute provided was a beneficial network, the chance to learn about Matsushita’s intentions, and four years of time.
(Mo) I’ve heard that students are paid to attend.
(Ma) We received 120,000 to 130,000 yen as a monthly research stipend, but it certainly wasn’t enough to live on. My mother gave me about one million yen over those four years. I couldn’t have done it without her.
(Mo) Was there a strong sense of unity among these aspiring politicians?
(Ma) Yes, we felt a great deal of solidarity because we were all starting from zero on our quest to become politicians. Some older students had already succeeded at doing so. Hiroshi Yamada, a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) member of the House of Councillors, was my senior in Kosaka’s seminar and at the Matsushita Institute. When I was in prep school he was a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. I stayed in Suginami City and helped him with his second election in that district. I learned a lot from seeing both the good and bad parts of campaigning.
(Mo) So you ran for the first time after that?
(Ma) Students can spend a maximum of five years at the Matsushita Institute. The nationwide local elections took place after my fourth year, and I ran for the Kyoto Prefectural Assembly from Sakyo Ward when I was 28 years old.
(Mo) It seems like the Communist Party traditionally has a great deal of support in Kyoto City.
(Ma) Yes, it does. The assembly has a fixed number of five members. In the election before mine, the top two winners were from the Communist Party, followed by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Komeito, and Japan Socialist Party. I ran as an independent, conservative candidate. The Communist Party had strong support, and the incumbents included LDP rival candidates. The LDP attacked me as a member of the same conservative faction, but I ended up winning with the third-highest number of votes. LDP candidates were number one and two because they worked very hard out of a sense of fear. The other winners were from the Communist Party and Komeito.
(Mo) As a conservative politician, did you consider joining the LDP?
(Ma) The LDP made thorough efforts to get rid of me in my first election, which is one reason I began exploring conservative politics that could take their place. Morihiro Hosokawa formed his Japan New Party in the midst of my first term in the Kyoto Prefectural Assembly, and he suggested that I try my hand at national politics. I ran for the House of Representatives from the Kyoto 1st district at the age of 31, which was a multiple-seat constituency. I benefited from the popularity of the Japan New Party and was the number-two winner among the five successful candidates. The first was a member of the Communist Party.
(Mo) That’s outstanding. Was that near the end of the multiple-seat constituency system?
(Ma) It was the last of those elections. Naturally, I wanted to enter the world of national politics because I was originally interested in global politics. That opportunity just arrived faster than I expected.
(Mo) How did you raise funds to campaign?
(Ma) People often say you must have three “bans” to run for office: jiban (a support foundation), kanban (promotion), and kaban (a “bag,” which refers to funding). I lacked all of these things. I had just 100,000 yen at hand during the prefectural assembly election. My biggest helper in terms of financial support was Koichi Tsukamoto, the founder of Wacoal and a director at the Matsushita Institute. He was chairman of the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry back then. After graduating from the institute in Tokyo, I went back to Kyoto to pay calls on Tsukamoto, Kyocera’s Kazuo Inamori, and Urasenke Grand Master Genshitsu Sen. Tsukamoto actively worked to help me and reached out to other people on my behalf. He also gave me his pocket money.
(Mo) He must have empathized with your political beliefs and views.
(Ma) No, that wasn’t why he helped me, a youngster of just 28 years. Tsukamoto told me that Matsushita had been very kind to him in the past. Matsushita’s son who passed away was also named Koichi, and Tsukamoto said he felt like he was Matsushita’s son as well. That’s why Tsukamoto said he would look after me, a former Matsushita student who was a complete nobody. He helped me out a lot, but it still wasn’t enough. When I went to ask for more money, he told me to shape up, then stated that he would lend me three million yen. Thanks to him, I was able to keep campaigning and won the election. The day after that, I went to express my gratitude and tell him the good news. He immediately gave me his account number at the Mitsubishi Bank Demachi Branch and said, “Now that you’re earning a salary as a lower house member, you can repay me in 10 monthly installments of 300,000 yen.” I did as he told me, and when I finished paying him back, I brought him a 70,000-yen sweater to say thank you. I had no idea if he would use it, but he was wearing it when I unexpectedly saw him one day. I was happy enough to shed tears.
(Mo) It sounds like you’ve known many good people.
(Ma) Yes, I’ve been very fortunate.
(Mo) I think your talent is part of this. Competency draws luck to you.
(Mo) After you became a member of the National Diet, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) gained control of the government. To make Japan into a better country, now we need an environment that fosters competition among the ruling party and healthy opposition parties. I’m sure you will play a part in this going forward.
(Ma) I agree. The DPJ was formed and managed to grasp political power, but it lacked experience and didn’t do a very good job governing. I’m partly responsible for the way that the opposition parties are so disconnected today. I want to make them strong enough to compete with the LDP.
(Mo) Your specialties are diplomacy and security. I feel like we share the same views on security in particular.
(Ma) I developed my security perspective in 2003, when I visited Washington, D.C. The United States was embarking on its war on terror after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It started the Iraq War in 2003 without any clear proof that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. As minister of defense in the DPJ shadow cabinet, I traveled to Washington and spoke with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who highly values the U.S.-Japan relationship. I told him straight that I was against the U.S. attacking Iraq without any evidence. He asked me what I would do if I was a cabinet minister when North Korea launched a missile attack against Japan. Japan didn’t have a missile defense system back then – it couldn’t shoot down a missile and had no counterstrike capabilities. Its only option would be to ask the U.S. for help. I answered that Japan would do everything it could and then request American assistance according to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Armitage seemed satisfied by my response. He told me not to worry, saying the U.S. would regard it as an attack on its own country and take suitable measures against North Korea. What he was really saying is that, if Japan asks the U.S. for help because it cannot defend itself, then I should cease making uncalled-for comments about Iraq. That experience gave me a strong sense that we must be able to protect our own country.
(Mo) Japan should first display its readiness to fight before asking allies for assistance. We can’t hope for support unless we do battle on our own.
(Ma) I agree entirely. Right before I was named the DPJ government’s minister for foreign affairs in 2010, there was an incident when a Chinese fishing boat rammed into a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship. Japan-China relations grew tenser after the Chinese captain was arrested. Even back when the DPJ was an opposition party, I visited Washington, D.C. several times to build personal connections. I met with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell, an old acquaintance of mine, right after becoming foreign minister. Until that point, cabinet-level officials in the American government hadn’t referred to the U.S. getting involved if the Senkaku Islands were attacked. I asked Campbell if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could mention this issue, which would also be a way to restrain China. As a result, Clinton was the first cabinet-level official to say that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.
(Mo) That was a major accomplishment.
(Ma) Still, I don’t know if the U.S. would actually send in its military if a conflict occurred at the Senkaku Islands. America is a diplomatic nation that acts in entirely different ways depending on what the president believes, whether he or she is popular, and the Congressional power structure. It reminds me of what Kosaka said about other countries seeming “complex and mysterious.” Even if the U.S. didn’t come to our aid, it wouldn’t be enough for us to just say, “Well, that’s mysterious.” We must imagine all sorts of scenarios and make sure that Japan can protect its own territory.
(Mo) Yes, we shouldn’t expect too much, although the U.S. is an important partner.
(Mo) There is a tendency for people to think it would be bad for Japan to possess “war potential.”
(Ma) It’s important to have sufficient combat abilities, based on the fundamental principle of not fighting.
(Mo) Military strength provides deterrence.
(Ma) Yes, military power not only leads to better deterrence, but also is a source of strength in diplomatic negotiations.
(Mo) It seems like many members of the former DPJ believed military strength was a bad thing.
(Ma) DPJ members had diverse views, from the left to the right wing. Today the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Democratic Party For the People have different ways of thinking. The Democratic Party For the People takes a pragmatic line on security and is in favor of the government’s intention to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities. However, it believes we must continue holding to the Three Non-Nuclear Principles and exclusively defense-oriented policy. We must enhance Japan’s ability to protect itself and rely on the Japanese-American alliance for parts that we lack. However, Japan should play the main role and the alliance a supporting one.
(Mo) I see.
(Ma) We also need a change of government, but I believe we must maintain Japan’s fundamental security and diplomacy concepts. The citizens will feel concerned if opposition parties lack these concepts, which will make a regime change even more difficult.
(Mo) That’s what I mean when I refer to a “healthy opposition party.” They should hold to these concepts and view Japan as an independent state. I also believe we must cultivate political parties so they can amass more power and gain control of the government.
(Ma) Of course, parties must win elections to increase their power. I discovered the 9:6:3 concept after several victories. In other words, you need 90% of your party’s supporters and 60% of swing voters. Opposition party candidates can win in single-seat constituencies by gaining 30% of the LDP supporters. To do that, they must have realistic ways of thinking about diplomacy and security policy.
(Mo) I think we would have healthier opposition parties if more of their Diet members worked to win votes from LDP supporters, rather than just opposing whatever the government and ruling party says.
(Ma) Your essay in the June issue of Apple Town mentioned the Basic Act on Ocean Policy. I was one of the Diet members who introduced this legislation, and today I’m a joint chairperson of its follow-up team. In his book The Concept of Japan As a Maritime Nation, Kosaka wrote that Japan should make efforts to survey the ocean resources that will become more important in the future. We created the Basic Act on Ocean Policy to achieve that, and surveys have been conducted in Japan’s seas. They are home to various types of resources, such as methane hydrate, sea-floor hydrothermal deposits, and cobalt.
(Mo) Is the problem that it costs so much to harvest these resources?
(Ma) Yes. The seas adjacent to Japan can supply 100 years of methane hydrate, a sherbet-like natural gas, but today it’s cheaper to import it. Technologies are being developed to mine methane hydrate, however, as a way to prepare for the day when it might be difficult to procure from overseas. It’s important to have a military for national security, but other essential elements include energy and food, which we wrote about in the Basic Act on Ocean Policy. Offshore wind power generation was just a dream back in 2007 when the act was passed, but today we are close to achieving it.
(Mo) Having a structure to source our own energy will be extremely important for Japan’s security. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(Ma) Young people possess endless potential. I hope they will try many new things without being afraid of failing. I went to a math tutoring school from my first year of junior high until my third year of high school. I learned about the true nature of mathematics, which became one of my best subjects. That gave me more confidence when I took entrance exams. I think it’s important for young people to explore what they are good at as a way to build confidence.
(Mo) I was also very good at science and math in high school. That’s why I believe we should consider the probability of everything that happens in the world. If we don’t, our society will be very inefficient. I hope the Democratic Party For the People will propose policies that are founded on probability. Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.
(Ma) What you say has a lot of weight because you are a successful businessperson. Thank you for having me.
Born in 1962 in Kyoto City. Graduated from Kyoto University’s School of Law and enrolled at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management in 1987 as a member of the eighth class. Was elected for the first time to the Kyoto Prefectural Assembly in 1991. Won his first House of Representatives general election in 1993, and is currently in his 10th term. His positions in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) included acting secretary-general and president. In the DPJ government he served as minister of land, infrastructure and transport; minister for foreign affairs; and other roles from 2009. After the DPJ became an opposition party, he was appointed president of the Democratic Party in 2017. He is currently acting president of the Democratic Party For the People.