Asia in 2019 - Shin Takahashi: A new political party emerges in Japan

In an Asia Media Centre series, we asked Shin Takahashi to reflect on developments in 2019 and look ahead to 2020.

What developments, events or trends in Asia have interested you the most in 2019? And why?

As someone studying Japanese social movements, a key event that interested me this year was the upper house election in July, especially the election of members of the newly founded political party called Reiwa Shinsengumi. The party is led by actor and political activist, Taro Yamamoto. The party was started as Yamamoto’s one-person party, just three months before the election.

Yamamoto’s empathetic approach to socially marginalised people and his powerful public speeches attracted nationwide support at the grassroots level, including millions of dollars in personal donations both from the rich and the poor. Consequently, this unconventional party managed to have social activists Yasuhiko Funakosi, who has ALS [motor neurone disease], and Eiko Kimura, who is quadriplegic, elected to the Diet, which is unprecedented in the history of Japanese politics.

It will be interesting to see how Reiwa will grow next year.

How does this impact New Zealand – if in fact it does?

In the immediate sense, Yamamoto’s political campaign will have little impact on New Zealand society. But given New Zealand’s relatively progressive political culture, the ‘Reiwa phenomenon’ might give a different impression about Japanese politics to New Zealand observers.

Yamamoto started his career as an anti-nuke activist and the party itself raises some progressive agenda, which could resonate with the progressive politics in New Zealand. So, if the movement could reach a critical mass to be able to hold a casting vote in the Diet, actual changes might occur.

But observers of Japanese politics cannot guarantee what is going to happen to his party and perhaps Yamamoto himself is not sure either. So, my tentative comment is: let’s see what happens.

What will you be watching out for in 2020?

The Tokyo Olympics. The media coverage tends to focus on the positive aspects of the Olympics. What also needs to be watched vigilantly is the negative consequences that these Olympics have created in Japan.

In the recently released Global Climate Risk Index, Japan is one of the countries most affected by climate change, along with the Philippines and Germany. The extreme summer heat is a major concern for the athletes, given the events will be held in the middle of summer.

Also, the contamination of the Tokyo Bay area where some events such as triathlon take place has not been solved. Furthermore, immense increases in the budget, top-down re-gentrification of urban areas, and other major and minor issues relating to the Olympics have not been squarely addressed by law-makers.

Any books/movies/podcasts/etc on Asia that you would recommend to others?

Midnight Diner”, which is available on Netflix. This quirky drama is set in a diner open from midnight to 7am and run by a middle-aged man in the middle of downtown Tokyo. Each episode features a story about a different character dealing with personal challenges. It includes stories about the daily lives of socially marginalised people in Japan, such as yakuza, gamblers, strippers, performers, and members of the LGBTQ community. 

- Asia Media Centre 

 Read the rest of the expert commentary in this series here