Browse By

Yamamoto Faces Operation Vengeance

Taro Park

Taro Yamamoto in July 2011 (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — Taro Yamamoto is a man who must be destroyed, and the Japanese establishment has a very impressive record when it comes to destroying men like this one.

Yamamoto’s fundamental crimes are that he is young, marvelously handsome, superbly charismatic, and utterly hostile to the conservatives who rule this nation. He is one of the very few heroes of the dispirited Japanese political left; and he is untamed and unbowed, and therefore immensely threatening.

For those who haven’t followed his career, it has been a remarkable one, and he still has more than a year to go before his 40th birthday.

Taro Yamamoto was born in Takarazuka City, Hyogo Prefecture, in 1974, and found his calling very early in life. He dropped out of high school to start his acting career on television and in film at age 17.

The highlight of his acting career, and the one that made him known to some international audiences, was his role as the athletic Shogo Kawada in Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film Battle Royale, which has been cited by director Quentin Tarantino as a major influence, and many believe was the basis of the later American work The Hunger Games.

But as Yamamoto explained in an exclusive interview with the Shingetsu News Agency on July 21, 2011, he had a fear of radiation that went back to his childhood when he heard about the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union. Alongside his blossoming acting career he became “a supporter of Greenpeace” somewhere around the year 2003. He also came to believe, at some point along the way, that it is ordinary people who hold true sovereignty in this East Asian nation, but that powerful and corrupt interests are always doing whatever they can to bend the system to their own personal profit.

Taro Yamamoto is both wise and naive at the same time. He lacks formal education and is in a real sense self-educated. He sees himself as the champion of the ordinary citizen, but in his looks and in his communicative talents he is in fact quite extraordinary. He is, at once, a blend of confidence, ignorance, innocence, wile, and charm.

And, quite unusual for a Japanese, he is not afraid to act entirely upon his own judgments and personal beliefs.

Had the Fukushima disaster never occurred, he almost certainly would have continued his career as a Japanese film actor, though one suspects he would have ultimately aimed for roles that showed his social conscience; he may have always strained against the strict political limits that Japan imposes on its entertainers.

But Fukushima did happen, and it changed Yamamoto’s life rapidly and radically. He began to participate in the street protests against nuclear power, and his activities came to international attention on July 11, 2011, the three-month mark after the earthquake and tsunami, when he joined the forceful storming of the Saga prefectural office, one of the most radical moments of the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear movement.

No one was actually injured in the events of that day, but the nation witnessed shocking television footage of activists angrily flooding the halls of a government building, manhandling the aged security guards, and facing a literal barricade of desks and chairs hastily put up by the defending public employees.

For those in Japan at the time, it was a real “wow!” moment, and Taro Yamamoto had suddenly emerged as a charismatic leader of the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement.

Needless to say, the conservative political establishment quickly struck back. The all-powerful talent agencies pressured Yamamoto to give up his anti-nuclear activities. He refused and they parted ways. He later suggested that his once-substantial personal income suddenly dropped by over 90% as he was cut from all opportunities to appear on television or in film. His long career as one of the nation’s leading actors ended abruptly.

Also, there was even a half-hearted attempt to take legal action against him for his role in the storming of the Saga prefectural office, hinting that it was more than just his career that was being put on the line by his anti-nuclear activities, but potentially his very freedom.

One can only imagine that this was a very stressful and difficult period for Yamamoto behind the scenes, as he was abandoned by people he thought were his friends and was suddenly thrust into an economic dead end.

On the other hand, the retaliation against Taro Yamamoto was so public and so obvious that he found himself surrounded by many new friends who viewed him as a martyr and as a hero.

These were roles that the actor knew how to play to perfection, and soon he found himself a celebrity of a different, more substantial kind: He had become one of the most credible spokesmen of the national anti-nuclear movement. Not only did the activists move into his orbit, but even many younger and more liberal politicians.

In a real sense, his remarkable transformation from a privileged pretty boy actor into an authentic grassroots politician was more or less his only viable option at that point. He took the career defeat that the establishment had imposed upon him and used it to launch an entirely new career as an upstart leader of the people.

But was such a transformation really possible in Japan? In the latter part of 2012, he threw his hat into the ring and ran for a seat in the House of Representatives in a Tokyo district. It was now that his talents as a street campaigner began to manifest themselves. Although several small anti-nuclear parties recommended him, he had no practical organizational support except for that which his own anti-nuclear activities had inspired. He lost the election in which the conservative LDP crushed the left across the nation, but the 25% of the vote he received proved to many observers that he had engaged in something more than just a marginal, joke campaign. Was Yamamoto actually a viable politician?

The answer came in glorious fashion this past July. In his second run at national office — this time for a six-year term in the House of Councillors — Yamamoto operated a brilliant and tireless grassroots campaign that ultimately garnered him 666,684 votes, fourth place in a crowded field of twenty candidates. This impressive result was more than enough to gain Yamamoto a seat, and he even outperformed one established LDP politician and an incumbent DPJ officeholder.

Now it was for real: the activist actor had become a legitimate political representative of the people of Tokyo.

So now that Taro Yamamoto had found a new niche that conferred more respect and social status upon him than he had ever had before, how would he behave? Would he set to studying the rules and procedures of the Diet, quietly making alliances with other politicians that shared his anti-nuclear agenda? Would he begin to settle down a bit?

Not at all. Yamamoto had risen to his office as a grassroots candidate and he seemed determined not to play by the conventional rulebook. He continued campaigning and organizing and inciting on the streets of Tokyo and elsewhere.

We ran into him by chance on September 30 when we were filming near Shinjuku Station. Just as if it were still an election period, Yamamoto had a truck and staff ready as he gave a street speech. We learned he was touring all around the nation in what he called the “Freedom Caravan.”

Naturally, his attention to Fukushima remains pronounced, but the main theme on this occasion was his denunciation of the pending government secrets bill, which Yamamoto described in straightforward language as an overt attempt to erode the sovereignty of the people and a step toward the rise of a new Japanese fascism.

He didn’t dress like a House of Councillors member either, but wore a simple red sports shirt. Even the red pin always worn by Japanese lawmakers was nowhere to be seen. If it wasn’t for his personal fame and celebrity, no one would recognize this man from any other.

But far more unusual was his speech itself. He spoke with an intensity and a passion that one usually sees only among the rightwing street speakers in Japan, but rather than denouncing Koreans or labor unions or communists, Taro Yamamoto’s barbs were aimed directly at the government and the political establishment. He was calling for people to wake up and to politicize themselves, or else face the prospect of slipping into modern slavery.

The message is radical, bordering on revolutionary, and it is delivered by an extremely attractive, charismatic, and articulate man. One could see that many ordinary Japanese were responding to him.

The political left has a man of genuine talent on its hands, although it is not clear that anyone on that side knows what to do with him.

Of course, the view on Taro Yamamoto that comes from the political right is of an entirely different nature. For them, he has already become a figure of horror. And when such figures arise from time to time, there’s nothing to it except that he must be destroyed as quickly as possible.

Almost immediately a scandal erupted in the weekly magazine press “which plays an unofficial role of enforcer for the country’s elites” as put recently by analyst Michael Cucek in a felicitous turn of phrase.

The substance of this particular “scandal” was pretty thin, however. Taro Yamamoto met a beautiful 19-year-old pro surfer last year, and after only a month he married her. However, the marriage then fell apart almost as quickly as it had occurred. Three months later they quietly divorced.

It’s difficult to say why this story is anyone’s business, but there did seem to be a short-lived attempt to blow it up into something that would tarnish Yamamoto’s image in one way or another.

But this was the background to the much bigger event that occurred last Thursday.

As most people in Japan have now heard, Taro Yamamoto approached the Emperor Akihito at a garden party and handed him a letter concerning the suffering of the people in Fukushima. The Emperor nodded in appreciation, said nothing, and gave the document to Grand Chamberlain Yutaka Kawashima.

All of this was caught on camera (which may have been Yamamoto’s intention according to some reports) and it caused a nearly-hysterical reaction from the hard right, and more restrained disapproval from many others.

The central charge was that Yamamoto’s action made “political use of the Emperor” in contravention to the long-established tradition that the Emperor should always stand above the political fray.

Taro Yamamoto knows best what he was actually thinking when he decided to carry out this act of handing the letter to the Emperor, but almost all observers acknowledge that his behavior violated common sense protocol and could fairly be judged to have something to do with “political use of the Emperor,” although exactly what is open to interpretation.

The denunciations rained down fast and furious.

The loudest and most extreme condemnations came from hard right politicians of both the ruling and the opposition camps, such as Hakubun Shimomura, Keiji Furuya, Tomomi Inada, Jin Matsubara, and Hiroshi Yamada.

Aide to the prime minister Hiroshige Seko was typical in declaring that Yamamoto had “lost his qualification as a lawmaker.”

More than one observer noted that it was precisely those politicians who clothe themselves as the true servants of the Emperor who were fiercest in their calls for Yamamoto’s head. These were often the very same people who shocked the Imperial couple in April by shouting the prewar slogan Tenno Heika Banzai! (Long Live the Emperor!) at the Return of Sovereignty Ceremony.

In other words, those who denounced Yamamoto most vociferously for making “political use of the Emperor” are precisely the same people who consistently make use of the Emperor themselves (although it’s quite likely that they are ideologically blinded from seeing the issue from that particular point of view).

A cynic might even comment that what annoyed these hard right politicians the most was not so much that Taro Yamamoto had made “political use of the Emperor” but that he threatened to elbow in on their own monopoly in doing so.

At any rate, the LDP-led House of Councillors immediately decided that Yamamoto handing a letter to the Emperor was such an outrage that all other parliamentary business should be dropped immediately and the offender was summoned before a panel of inquiry.

In front of that panel, Yamamoto performed well, neither conceding the central charge nor adopting a defiant pose. He just said matter-of-factly, “I thought that the party was a wonderful opportunity to communicate with the Emperor. I wanted to explain the plight of children exposed to radiation.” He explained that he didn’t really know if his actions constituted “political use of the Emperor” or not, but that he would accept the judgment of the chamber.

Nothing suggested that he intended to resign, as the ruling party was demanding.

Of course, for LDP politicians to call for Taro Yamamoto to resign and for them to declare that he has “no qualification” to be a lawmaker is pretty rich. The voters who put Yamamoto in his current position are precisely those who are most antipathetic to the ruling conservatives. In a democracy, it isn’t the government who decides who is qualified to hold office in the parliament but the people.

And as for the grassroots anti-nuclear movement that has formed Taro Yamamoto’s political base, not only does his action in handing a letter to the Emperor regarding the suffering of Fukushima not shake their faith in him, but for many of them makes him all that much more a hero, and someone who is not being corrupted by the prestige of the new office that he holds.

Modern Japan has had its heroes of the political left before. Most of them come to grief. It’s probably only a matter of time before “Operation Vengeance” succeeds in finding a vulnerability to exploit and therefore deal with the challenge of Taro Yamamoto. At the moment, he’s just too much of a threat to the establishment to be allowed to operate unhindered.

Watch and see how they try to destroy him. Just watch.

For breaking news, follow on Twitter @ShingetsuNews