Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) Leader Nobuyuki Baba successfully ran in the 2022 House of Councillors election and the 2023 nationwide local elections. He is now aiming to make Nippon Ishin the leading opposition party in the next House of Representatives election. Baba originally had entrepreneurial aspirations, but he unexpectedly ended up in the world of politics. Toshio Motoya spoke with Baba about his political roots, Nippon Ishin’s goals, his thoughts on constitutional revision, and other topics.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk. You have spoken frequently at the Shoheijuku academy. Would you start by telling us about yourself?
(B) Thank you for inviting me. I was born in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture in 1965. I have an older sister and older brother. As the youngest member of my family, I was a self-centered, mischievous kid who didn’t listen to my parents. I attended a local elementary, junior high, and high school. In high school I became obsessed with rugby and neglected my studies. Still, because my high school was focused on sending students to university, I took entrance exams for 12 undergraduate departments. I thought I had to get in somewhere with enough attempts. My parents were concerned about paying so many exam fees, and they were furious when I failed every single test. They told me to take a year off and try again. I took an exam to enter a preparatory school with a sporty friend of mine, but I failed again, even though he passed.
(M) So you were unsuccessful at all these attempts.
(B) Yes. If I took a year off to study, I thought it would be hard to catch up with the people I graduated with, even if I got into a good school. Looking back, I was young and impetuous. I decided to get a job instead of going to university. Because my family owned a restaurant and many of my relatives worked in the food service industry, I thought about starting a business in that field. I wanted to find a job where I could master those skills. I was reading a job-hunting magazine when I saw the headline, “A workplace where you can use your true abilities.” It was an ad for a Fukuoka-based company that operated family restaurants. It also had local companies and joint ventures across the country, and it worked with Osaka Gas in Osaka. I was interested, so I applied and was hired. I worked there three years and obtained my chef license. It was a great company.
(M) Why did you quit at such a young age?
(B) I felt that I needed to learn more about society before starting my own business. When I asked my parents for advice, they told me that Taro Nakayama – a National Diet member elected from my home region – was looking for a secretary. I boldly took on the job because I thought it would teach me about the real world.
(M) I am friendly with Yasuhide Nakayama, his nephew.
(B) I don’t think Yasuhide was a Diet member secretary at that point. I was 21 when I became Taro Nakayama’s secretary, and I spent four years in his Osaka office. At first my duties included keeping the office clean, driving his wife around, and attending funerals on his behalf. I steadily learned the common knowledge of society from the adults around me. When Toshiki Kaifu became prime minister in August 1989, Nakayama was appointed minister of foreign affairs. Nakayama called me up two or three days before that, saying, “Baba, it looks like we’re going to be busy. I want you to come to Tokyo to help out.” When I asked when, he said, “Tomorrow!” I headed to Tokyo the next day, with nothing but the clothes on my back.
(M) That was sudden!
(B) It was. Many things happened right after that. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and waves of change rapidly spread across the Eastern Bloc countries. In 1990, East and West Germany were reunified, and the Gulf War broke out. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. At that time, Nakayama was traveling around the world in his role as minister of foreign affairs. I accompanied him only rarely; I was a staff member in charge of government affairs in the Tokyo Office. I learned a great deal about actual politics during that time. When I turned 28, I had spent half of my eight years in my home region and half in Tokyo. I wasn’t interested in becoming a politician myself. Watching from Nakayama’s side during that era of intense change, I did think that politics was interesting. Sometimes Nakayama would ask me why I became a secretary, but I always replied that I would quit when I turned 30 to launch my own business.
(M) How did you end up in the political world?
(B) When I was 28, Nakayama recommended that I run in the Sakai City Council special election. I pushed back, saying, “I’ve told you again and again that I’m going to be an entrepreneur.” But he persistently said I was the only one who could do it. My parents suggested that I talk to my relatives. They were all strongly opposed because they didn’t want to ask others for help on my behalf. My mom finally came around, saying, “If your employer feels so strongly that you should do it, give it a try.” That’s why I ran in the 1993 special election. My slogan was, “A man of 28: young power.” I was still thinking about entrepreneurship until I won the election. When my supporters gathered for the ritual cheer, I suddenly forgot about my disinterest in becoming a politician, like a switch had been turned on. I thanked them by saying, “Since you’ve helped me achieve this, I’ll work hard in the aim of leading Japan as prime minister someday.” That didn’t pass unremarked – they all said I had no chance of becoming prime minister (laughs).
(M) When I was an elementary student, I wrote that my future goal was to become “president of the world federation.” It’s important to have big aspirations. Today you’re the leader of Nippon Ishin, and are working to make it the number-one opposition party. You’ve become quite influential in the Japanese political world.
(B) I still have a long way to go.
(M) You were a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) when you won your first city council election.
(B) That’s right. I was part of the LDP during most of my six terms as a city council member. I left the LDP in 2010 to help found Osaka Ishin. I quit the city council in 2012, then ran successfully for the House of Representatives from Ishin no Kai. Including that one, I’ve won four consecutive lower house elections.
(M) You’ve been victorious in 10 elections, including the city council and lower house. That’s amazing. What is the secret to your success?
(B) When I was young, I tried to talk with as many members of my local community as I could, together with the people who were helping me out. I believe that my fate is to be supported by others. Thinking back, I was just a child when I was elected at the age of 28. I got my start thanks to the enthusiasm of the community that helped me make it to the National Diet when I was still in the process of growing up. I believe their passion is what has brought me this far.
(M) You must have some quality that draws supporters to you. This is essential in our democratic country where politicians are chosen by majority vote.
(B) There’s another way that my political roots go back to when I was on the city council. JR Otori Station is in Otori, a part of Sakai City. Although it’s one of the main stations on the Hanwa Line, it was a small station with no vehicle parking, and the nearby area hadn’t been redeveloped at all. At the time of my first city council election, I declared that I would transform the Otori Station area to make it easier to use. None of my supporters believed me. They commented, “If you were capable of this, it would already be done!” I couldn’t abide that, so I started talking with people who had tried to do it in the past. It took about 15 years to complete the redevelopment project, and now there’s even transit bus service at Otori Station. The local community and city office employees all got on board. I personally experienced the way that politicians have to draw together all of these people to successfully carry out projects.
(M) One year ago, you became the leader of Nippon Ishin, a party that is rapidly increasing its influence. To build a better society, I believe the two largest parties should compete against each other, each gaining control of the government at times. I think that would be the healthiest system for Japan, but it’s difficult to accomplish. Companies set forth mid-to-long-term plans and other goals for their businesses. What are your objectives for Nippon Ishin as it strives to become the ruling party?
(B) Nippon Ishin released our Medium-term Management Plan in March 2022. I think it was the first time a political party has drafted a plan with “management” in the title. Our ultimate goal is to become the ruling party and carry out significant reforms in Japan. We came up with three steps to achieve that. In the short term, the first step was to double our Diet seats in the July 2022 House of Councillors election. We accomplished this, increasing our number from six to 12. We’ve also met our goal of being the top opposition party for proportional representation votes. Step two was increasing our number of local assembly members from 400 to at least 600 in this spring’s nationwide local elections. We drastically exceeded this target when 774 of our candidates won. In the medium term, the third step is becoming the leading opposition party in the next House of Representatives election.
(M) It sounds like you’re reliably meeting the targets in your medium-term plan. In other words, does that mean your medium-to-long-term objective is becoming the top opposition party?
(B) Yes. It is customary for the main opposition party and LDP to discuss and make schedules, rules, and other decisions about operating the Diet. As the top opposition party, I would want Nippon Ishin to turn the Diet into a place where we hold discussions for the people, where the people can see. This would mean that Diet members don’t try to get in each other’s way, obstruct discussions, or force bills through. For example, bringing up scandals in the Budget Committee. By repeatedly carrying out easy-to-understand discussions, we could create an opportunity for citizens to feel comfortable entrusting the national government to Nippon Ishin. That is our strategy for making Japan into a two-party system.
(M) You have set clear objectives and steps for achieving them. I admire your stance of taking on new challenges and producing results. I do think it’s good for political parties to express themselves freely, but you can’t gain control and make policy if they all have different ways of thinking. I hope Nippon Ishin will work for party solidary as well.
(B) Yes, we will strive for that.
(M) The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) gained control in 2009, when the last change of government took place. Its short regime lasted just three years. What do you think about that period?
(B) Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008 based on his slogan of “Change.” I think this was influential across the world, creating a strong momentum for change that resulted in the DPJ gaining power in Japan. There were many talented DPJ Diet members, but intelligence and knowledge aren’t enough to maintain an administration. The most important thing is unity. As you mentioned, Japan is a democratic nation. Stable party governance requires that members go along with its democratic decisions. I think that’s the main reason why the DPJ couldn’t maintain power. Nippon Ishin’s rule as an opposition party is to thoroughly discuss all issues that arise. Based on the majority decision, all members follow what has been determined.
(M) The DPJ was unified in its goal of gaining power, but afterwards individual members were more concerned with being praised, and the party struggled to maintain solidarity. In my organizations as well, I’ve made great efforts to maintain them.
(B) Another political issue was that the DPJ didn’t carry out its policy promises, and instead did things it hadn’t pledged to do. It said for a long time that it would abolish expressway tolls. Instead, it increased the consumption tax, which it promised not to do. As the ruling party, it should have been able to make expressway travel free, so why didn’t it follow through? I think citizens gave up on the DPJ because of that insincerity.
(M) I agree. Even if people give you a chance, the ruling party must accomplish what it promised or it has no future.
(B) Nippon Ishin is also focusing efforts on diplomacy as we strive to become the ruling party. I went to Washington and New York in July, as well as Taiwan in early August. While speaking with government officials and politicians, I’ve gotten the impression that Japan isn’t yet an independent country, that it hasn’t fully grown up yet. We cannot fully protect ourselves in the security field, and in the economic field we are manipulated by the U.S. and China, so we cannot be self-reliant. I think Shinzo Abe had a firm awareness of this, and I am newly impressed by the great efforts he made to transform Japan into an independent, mature nation.
(M) Many current and former prime ministers were assassinated in the prewar era, including Hirobumi Ito, but Abe was the first in the postwar period. It is so unfortunate that he had to die that way. I think Japan might be in a better situation if Abe had been prime minister for a longer time. As you mentioned, we cannot say that Japan is capable of independent self-defense. Despite the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, the question is what would happen if the U.S. withdrew. It’s essential that Japan protect itself before asking allies to help with what is lacking. No one would assist a nation that doesn’t fight. Japan in particular exists in the increasingly tense security environment of East Asia. We must strengthen our military force to deter war and prevent our neighbors from acting heedlessly. No country would take military actions if they seemed likely to bring about a great deal of damage. The best method of deterrence is having strong military power that can harm enemies.
(B) Exactly. Seventy-eight years after the Great East Asian War ended, Japan’s postwar constitution and security are premised on the idea that Japan will not start or become involved in another war. But our situation is entirely different from 78 years ago. We must pivot to a security structure in tune with the current era, with a fundamental stance that Japan will defend itself while the U.S. cheers us on. In particular, Article 9 of the Japanese constitution must be reformed along with these times. It’s ironic that our constitution extols democracy, but it has never been voted on by the people. I believe we must take up the political theme of constitutional reform as soon as possible.
(M) Yes, constitutional change is essential. I also think we should abolish the Three Non-Nuclear Principles. Better deterrence would be provided through a strategy of making it unclear whether or not we have nuclear weapons.
(B) The Three Non-Nuclear Principles are not a law or agreement. They were originally a prime minister’s response in the Diet, then they were voted on as a Diet resolution. We should not take them as a golden rule. The more important thing to focus on is how Japan should protect itself.
(M) Japan has been able to maintain its independence based on its economic strength, but today China exceeds us in that field and it’s humiliating that an independent nation has to depend on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. War has been unceasing throughout human history. We must never allow Japan to be defeated again, or to be plundered and occupied.
(B) Yes, and things are still unbalanced between the victors and losers of World War II.
(M) We can’t just extol the idea of peace. Countries that proclaim they won’t fight are the most appealing targets. To prevent war, we need military strength as an independent nation, which provides clear deterrence.
(B) Nippon Ishin mostly agrees with the LDP about national security, and we support increasing defense spending and augmenting our military force. However, there are some differences of opinion. The LDP chooses the easy path of asking citizens to bear the cost of new public services and the like by raising taxes or increasing social insurance fees. I stated to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that I am certainly in favor of Japan’s defense buildup and increased defense budget, but I believe raising taxes should be the last resort.
(M) I agree entirely. I hope the LDP will turn out a politician who can exceed Abe, but there seem to be none with that level of talent. I want the LDP and opposition parties to govern in a way that matches Japan’s national interests while boosting our economic and miliary capabilities. Japan’s economic power used to be several times larger than China’s, but the opposite is true today.
(B) We must make efforts in the economic and defense fields. Nippon Ishin is attempting to work on both of these. I also think we must prioritize having a closer relationship with India, which is hosting this year’s G20 summit and is a member of BRICS. With the largest number of people in the world, India has an extremely young population with an average age of about 28. I think it will distinguish itself going forward. India is also close to China and Russia, which are in confrontation with the Western nations. I think that Japan should display a stance of valuing India.
(M) Yes, Japan should overcome the East Asian security crisis by building a structure of international cooperation with many countries in addition to the U.S.
(B) Right. The U.S. seems to be in conflict with China, but the two countries have exceedingly close economic ties.
(M) I look forward to seeing what you do in the future. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(B) During the period of rapid economic growth, people felt fulfilled in their material desires to obtain the newest products, as well as emotional desires that allowed them to feel hope about tomorrow. Today their material desires are met but they are unable to dream about the future. I believe that politicians should serve a leading role in transforming society so people can feel more excitement and hope in their daily lives.
(M) I hope you will implement those policies. Thank you for joining me today.
(B) Thank you.
Born in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture in 1965. Graduated from Otori High School in 1983 and began working at OG Royal Co., Ltd. Spent approximately eight years as secretary to then-House of Councillors Member Taro Nakayama from 1986. Was elected for the first time in the Sakai City Council special election of 1993. Has won six successive city council elections and four successive House of Representatives elections. After helping establish Osaka Ishin in 2010, his roles have included vice president (2011) and chief secretary (2015). He was appointed Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) leader in 2022.