Learning About Japanese Culture
Through Japanese Politics

by Jason Prince

From September 2000 to May 2001, I worked as a Legislative Correspondent in the Capitol Hill Office of U.S. Senator Mike Crapo. Upon receiving a scholarship from The Henry Luce Foundation (THLF) - which annually sends eighteen young Americans to Asia for a year of work experience and cultural immersion - I requested to work for a Japanese politician. I hoped such a work placement would facilitate a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the American and Japanese political systems. Thanks to the hospitality and generosity of Minister Nobuteru Ishihara and his staff, however, working in the Japanese Diet not only enhanced my understanding of politics, but also broadened my appreciation for Japanese culture.

Since THLF targets young Americans without any prior employment or study experience in Asia, I had never studied Japanese prior to receiving the scholarship. Although the nine-week intensive Japanese language course I took prior to arriving in Japan enabled me to understand basic instructions and ask simple questions, my level of communication probably equaled that of a five-year-old Japanese child, and my desperate attempts to express myself via hand gestures often left me looking like a poorly trained mime. Fortunately, my co-workers made special efforts to speak slowly, and patiently repeated themselves whenever I inevitably failed to comprehend. Despite my linguistic shortcomings, Minister Ishihara included me in virtually all of the office's activities. While he expected me to contribute as much professional assistance as possible, he recognized my limitations and mainly sought to facilitate educational field trips.

My first taste of Japanese-style constituent relations took place in October. Along with our Chief of Staff, Mr. Jun Iwasaki, and two other co-workers, I attended a Shinto omikoshi festival in Kugayama, a neighborhood in Minister Ishihara's election district of Suginami City. Starting bright and early in the morning, the men and women of Kugayama began eating, drinking, and lugging a "miniature" Shinto shrine, or omikoshi, around the neighborhood on their shoulders. Although the omikoshi constitutes a significantly scaled-down replica of an actual shrine, it still weighs several hundred pounds and requires roughly thirty people to carry. According to Shinto tradition, this replica houses the neighborhood deity. Throughout the day and well into the night, neighbors unite in achieving the mutually painful goal of carrying the omikoshi for hundreds of meters at a time. In order to keep this pain at a minimum, omikoshi carriers must maintain a rhythmic, bobbing technique that distributes the weight equally among all participants.

Unfortunately, I failed to master this skill until after I had spent fifteen excruciating minutes attempting to individually shoulder the entire shrine. At one point, I felt quite certain I was going to lose my footing and either be crushed by the omikoshi or trampled by the revelers. All the while, I had to joyously chant, "wa shoi," ("carry harmony") and keep a beaming smile on my face to convey how grateful I was to participate. The following morning, I awoke with a tennis ball-sized purple bruise on my left shoulder; regardless, I felt privileged to have experienced such a fascinating combination of community revelry and Shinto ritual.

When it comes to direct constituent relations, the New Year's season constitutes the busiest period of a Japanese politician's year. Since over 500,000 people live in Suginami City, and virtually all Japanese social groups host special events to welcome the New Year, our office spent the month of January attending dozens of parties each day. In order to make this monstrous task more manageable, Mr. Iwasaki assigned a team of two to three people to each of three zones within the district; I was placed on a team with two co-workers, Mr. Yuuichiro Suzuki and Mr. Daisuke Sato.

This assignment provided my first taste of the zealous work ethic of Minsiter Ishihara's staff. Over the course of ten hours, Mr. Suzuki, Mr. Sato, and I frantically scurried between roughly fifteen constituent parties. If the Suginami side streets proved too narrow for our car, we would jump out and sprint the remaining distance to our destination. Even when we reached a party ahead of schedule, we would dash through the front door, bow multiple times, and breathlessly apologize for keeping everyone waiting. Occasionally, we would even go so far as to fall on our knees and touch our noses to the floor in gratitude for the opportunity to attend. Once we had greeted the organization's leader, we would distribute newsletters, deliver speeches on Ishihara's behalf, and then apologize profusely before racing to the next event.

Although our event schedule's ferocious pace slowed considerably after January, certain holiday festivals required a resumption of our event hopping. In early February, for example, people throughout Japan celebrate the coming of spring with setsubun festivals. Shinto priests bless roasted beans, or mame, and conduct a ceremony during which people ward off evil spirits and disease by throwing the beans from an elevated platform and onto the crowd below. Known as mame-maki (literally, bean-throwing), this ceremony has evolved to include tossing of candy, coins, and various other crowd-pleasing items. As most of Suginami's numerous neighborhood shrines conduct setstubun festivals and mame-maki ceremonies, we once again had to break into teams and fan out over three zones. After the Shinto priests had blessed the boxes of beans in an elaborate ceremony, we each took a box and proceeded to the platform outside.

Milling about below the platform, a group of roughly one hundred children and their parents eagerly awaited the opportunity to catch our boxes' contents in their plastic grocery bags. With each handful we hurled into the air, my fellow orange-robed participants and I shouted, "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uti!" Translation: "Devils out! Good fortune in!" According to Shinto tradition, these blessed projectiles strike invisible evil spirits on their way into the hands and mouths of the revelers below. As with the omikoshi event, the mame-maki festival provided me insight into not only Japanese politics, but also Japanese religion and family life.

In addition to attending the events of individual organizations, Japanese politicians at the local and national level cultivate their own constituent support groups, or koenkai. As campaign finance laws have gradually limited LDP factions' influence in determining electoral outcomes, koenkai have emerged as the cornerstone of political campaigns. Each politician's koenkai serves as a loyal support base during elections, assisting with the organization of get-out-the-vote efforts and providing crucial financial backing. In return for this support, politicians provide their koenkai members with various services, such as monthly newsletters, photo opportunities, and group social activities.

For example, Mr. Shojiro Kono, one of Suginami's local assembly members, organized a weekend road-trip with one hundred and twenty-five members of his support group, the Ai-Sho-Kai (We Love Shojiro Group). National-level politicians and local assembly members from the same electoral district sometimes jointly coordinate such social events in order to capitalize on the overlap in their koenkai membership. In this particular instance, Mr. Suzuki and I joined the Ai-Sho-Kai delegation as Minister Ishihara's official representatives. Starting at seven o'clock in the morning, the Ai-Sho-Kai piled onto three Greyhound-style buses and began the voyage from Tokyo to Gero Onsen, one of Japan's three most popular hot spring resorts.

Mr. Kono's decision to host his koenkai weekend retreat at a hot spring resort derived partly from popular demand and partly from political savvy. Japanese culture openly embraces the concept of hadaka no tsukiai, or bonding in the nude. Thus, any Japanese politician who bathes with his or her constituents increases the chances of cementing a loyal support base. While most U.S. politicians and voters would never even consider sharing a bath with each other, Japanese politicians and their koenkai travel for many hours - roughly six-hours in the case of our trip to Gero Onsen - just to soak together in thermally heated water. Again, this excursion to Gero Onsen left me unable to discern where my Japanese political education ended and where my Japanese cultural education began.

Despite the multiple political scandals that transpired during my year in Japan, my experience working for Minister Ishihara has given me new confidence in Japan's ability to reform its political system and its economy. Talented young Liberal Democratic Party politicians like Minister Ishihara have the ability and desire to reshape both their party and Japan's place in the global community. Minister Ishihara and his staff truly went out of their way to make my year in Japan a meaningful educational experience; more importantly, they extended me a friendship capable of surmounting sizeable linguistic and cultural barriers. While my year in Japan has ended, I look forward to following Minister Ishihara's political accomplishments - and maintaining this friendship - for many years to come.

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