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Sunday, Dec. 10, 2006

Politics at the grass roots

'Restrictive democracy' adds to the challenges faced by a Japanese politician's American wife


Staff writer

Judging by the society pages of certain publications in Japan, politicians at both the local and national levels seem to spend a lot of their time being photographed with ambassadors, captains of industry, assorted aristocrats, passing film stars and all manner of other folk.

News photo
News photo
Local housewiveswho are supporters of Kyoto Prefectural Assemblyman Hiroshi Mizuguchi gather at his office (top) for one of the twice-monthly English lessons given by his wife, Jane Singer Mizuguchi (second from right). Part of Singer's constituency work involves visiting supporters to ask permission to put up posters on their property (above), and then putting up the posters, which must conform to strict laws governing their size and style (below). ERIC JOHNSTON PHOTOS
News photo

So, you might be forgiven for thinking that the life of a politician's wife in Japan would be a never-ending round of swank parties, gourmet meals, five-star hotels and trips hither and thither.

That is an image that provokes laughter from Jane Singer Mizuguchi, the American wife of independent Kyoto Prefectural Assembly Member Hiroshi Mizuguchi.

"There's not a whole lot that's glamorous about it," she says with a look of bemusement. "It's about taking care of the details, focusing on local concerns, and doing whatever I can, quietly, to help my husband. And since he's an independent with no party backing, it all has to be done on a shoestring budget."

Singer who originally hails from Minnesota, up against the Canadian border, met her husband at Columbia University in New York while she was there studying for a master's degree in international affairs. Although her specialty was Southeast Asian economic development, she had previously studied in Kyoto during her junior year in college, so she was already familiar with Japan. By coincidence, her husband -- who had also been studying at Columbia for a master's degree in international relations, specializing in Japanese politics -- was originally from a small town in Kyoto Prefecture named Oe, where his father had been a town assemblyman.

After graduation in the mid-1980s, the couple married and moved to Tokyo. Mizuguchi got a job with the Canadian embassy as a political analyst, while Singer worked as a copywriter and editor.

Back then it was Japan's "bubble economy" period, and as they lived in Tokyo and had two children, there was plenty of paid employment to sustain them.

"But Hiroshi had always had an urge to go into politics," Singer explained. "I, on the other hand, had no idea of what it meant to be a political wife, either here in Japan or anywhere else."

In 1994, the now-defunct Shinshinto (New Frontier Party) announced that it was looking for a candidate to stand in a by-election for the Kyoto Prefectural Assembly, and Mizuguchi decided to run.

Although he was not elected that time, he was encouraged by the experience, and decided to stay in Kyoto and run again in the following year's regular election.

"Hiroshi spent the next year working hard, meeting people, learning the ropes and preparing to run for election again. That was a really tough time because he was in Kyoto campaigning while I was in Tokyo trying to raise two kids. We were living on our savings," Singer said.

The hard work paid off when Mizuguchi managed to win one of the district's three seats. At that point, Singer and their two children joined him in Kyoto, and she began the transformation from anonymous Tokyo expat to local politician's wife.

The barriers were many. The most basic of course being the language. Like most people who study it, Singer had learned standard Japanese, the kind mostly heard on national broadcaster NHK. But Kyoto has its own dialect, and it's very different in both tone and vocabulary from standard Japanese.

Then there was Kyoto itself. Mizuguchi's district is in the heart of the city's downtown, an area that runs from Nijo Castle in the west to the Kamo River in the east, and from Shijo Street in the south to Marutamachi Street in the north. It's traditionally been a constituency of merchants, silk weavers, and kimono makers, although lots of different kinds of people have moved in over the past two decades. Across this whole tapestry of Kyoto life, Singer had to learn who was who, and who was related to whom.

"Hiroshi's district is a city within Kyoto. Neighbors tend to be quite close and look out for each other, so a lot of the social problems that exist in places where everybody is a stranger aren't as big a problem here," Singer said.

After moving to Kyoto, though, Singer very soon discovered she had traded her anonymous existence in Tokyo for a certain amount of local celebrity -- and distinctly less privacy.

"People recognize me in streets and shops and come up and say 'Hello.' But they also make personal inquiries. If I'm stopped in a front of a bank machine, for example, somebody might say, 'Oh, Ms. Mizuguchi, you're withdrawing a lot of cash today,' " she explained.

Along with her new, relatively high profile, Singer also faced the responsibility of essentially running her husband's office. This was made all the more difficult when, in 1999, he ran for a second term as an independent with no money or manpower from an established party to help out with the thousand and one details involved in running a campaign.

Singer's list of tasks related to campaign office management that she and her husband have compiled runs to nearly seven pages. She is quick to point out that her husband's official support group and volunteers do a lot of the work. But ultimately, she still has to oversee a highly intricate effort that includes mundane tasks such as ensuring the office kitchen has small oshibori towels for visitors, supplying them with regular green or black tea -- while also keeping a stock of fine tea for VIPs -- and keeping track of all the gifts coming into the office.

However, perhaps the most difficult part of the campaign -- not only for Singer but for Mizuguchi, too -- was designing a campaign strategy that conformed to Japan's Byzantine local-election laws, which place severe restrictions on how a candidate may campaign.

Not many people, especially foreigners, have ever defended the ubiquitous sound-trucks that deliver candidates' messages before elections at ear-splitting volume. But Singer says they are necessary because political campaigning of the kind taken for granted in almost all developed countries is simply not allowed in Japan.

News photo You might be forgiven for thinking that the life of a politician's wife in Japan is a never-ending round of swank parties, gourmet meals, five-star hotels and trips hither and thither. That is an image that provokes laughter from Jane Singer Mizuguchi, the American wife of independent Kyoto Prefectural Assembly Member Hiroshi Mizuguchi (with whom she is pictured, left). `There's not a whole lot that's glamorous about it,' she says with a look of bemusement. `It's about taking care of the details, focusing on local concerns, and doing whatever I can, quietly, to help my husband. And since he's an independent with no party backing, it all has to be done on a shoestring budget'

"Although party-political commercials are allowed," Singer explained, "individual candidates are forbidden by law from taking out paid advertising in the media. But then, once the campaign starts, it becomes illegal to even alter a candidate's Web page -- making it impossible to post last-minute speeches or appearances on the site. Consequently, the sound-trucks provide much-needed publicity."

The trucks are also necessary because candidates are barred by law as well from initiating door-to-door campaigning or soliciting votes via the telephone or e-mail.

"What this means on a practical level is that the candidate cannot simply drop into neighborhood shops or enter people's homes to seek support. Prior to a candidate's visit to a neighborhood, volunteers go around and tell everyone to stand outside their homes or establishments so the candidate can come by and shake their hands," Singer said.

And, of course, things like T-shirts, jackets or campaign buttons bearing a candidate's name or picture -- which are a staple of campaigns in other advanced democracies -- are not allowed in Japan. Instead, a candidate may have his or her own official color -- and jackets, headbands and armbands in that color may be distributed to volunteers or supporters.

"The system is clearly designed to prevent independent candidates from getting their message out. At the same time, I've discovered that those who will actually go to the polls expect the candidate to have a sound-truck. If he or she doesn't, voters will think they're not serious," said Mizuguchi.

Ofer Feldman, a professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto and the author of two books on Japanese politicians and their relationship with the mass media, says that legal barriers and the culture of the Japanese media makes being a politician in this country extremely difficult -- regardless of their views or party affiliation.

"Japan's campaign laws are among the most restrictive in the world for a parliamentary democracy, while its news media supports the idea of a campaign being political party versus political party -- not individual candidate versus individual candidate. Thus newspaper advertising by the individual or their support group are not allowed," Feldman observed.

"However, a smart, well-organized and well-financed support group can get around the various laws and restrictions by advertising not in the candidate's name but in their support group's name. Thus, a candidate is only as good as his or support group," he explained.

Mizuguchi does have a small but dedicated support group that helps out at campaign times, which are also exceptionally busy for Singer. Her normal tasks include manning the phones at the office, greeting visitors and acting as an information clearing house for constituents. On a typical day, she might take a phone call from somebody seeking information on how their daughter can become a policewoman, or listen to a woman who was moved by a neighborhood tragedy and simply wanted to share her feelings.

Meanwhile, visitors to the office may range from constituents seeking a favor to the mailmen and delivery boys, to local police, who drop by to get Singer's hanko (personal seal) on some document or other. For instance, she said, the police turned up one recent morning because "somebody in the neighborhood didn't like Hiroshi and had been slashing his campaign posters. Every time it happened, we had to fill out a police report and I have to put my hanko on the final report."

Her job also calls for coordinating volunteers, who do things such as mail out Hiroshi's newsletter and seal envelopes, as well as helping to plan meetings and attending local events like volleyball tournaments on behalf of her husband. She also participates in periodical neighborhood cleanup drives, when she and Hiroshi, along with their supporters, get up early on a Sunday morning and pick up garbage from the roads, sidewalks and parks.

As well as all this, twice a month Singer teaches English to a group of about a dozen local housewives who are Hiroshi's supporters. The lessons serve as both a friendly get-together and an opportunity for Singer to learn about what is happening in the neighborhood. For their part, her students provide Singer with advice and tips on living in Kyoto. All of them praise her work ethic.

"She's more Japanese than a Japanese political wife. I don't know of any Japanese woman who could do what she does, which is not only attend to her husband's political career but also her own as a writer and editor. She's extremely hard working, serious, and sincere," said Kazuko Yoshida, one of her students.

After more than a decade in Kyoto, though, Singer says she still doesn't feel she's reached the same level of intimacy and understanding of the place as with Tokyo. As a political wife in what most agree is one of Japan's most closed and conservative cities, Singer is constantly finding out, after the fact, about mistakes she made.

"For example, I was once criticized because I was talking to Hiroshi and his guest while standing up, when they were sitting down. I was told I should have be at the same level as he was when holding the conversation, which meant I should have spoken while kneeling. There are also certain tea cups that we always use for visitors, and others that we use for ourselves, and I had to learn which was which," she said.

Another thing she had to learn was the proper way to see off visitors. "You have to stay with them as they get into the taxi cab, and then continue waving to them until the cab is out of sight," she said.

Along the way, though, Singer has learned valuable lessons about what it takes to succeed in Japan -- not only as a political wife, but also as a foreigner. "My advice to any foreign wife of a politician is do not speak negatively of anyone. If you do, it will come back to haunt you. You can never say thank you enough, especially for small things. And you should, indeed, sweat the small things," she said.

"It is extremely important for a political wife, especially in Kyoto, to be the naijo no ko, or 'the invisible hand of assistance to her husband.' A good wife creates the same feeling among guests and supporters that a proper tea ceremony expresses, which is one of seriousness, passion and sincerity. If you just go through the motions, people will notice and it won't work," she said.

"On a more specific level, it's extra important to think locally, especially about your personal choices. Don't go shopping in the huge chain supermarket whose headquarters is in Tokyo. Buy your food at local grocers and shop at local merchants," she said.

Long-term Kyoto residents and native Kyotoites themselves say that the best way for outsiders to succeed in their famously finicky and rather closed city is to offer something rare and trendy. For example, the entrepreneur who opens a French restaurant will surely fail, as Kyoto already has "French" restaurants. But the one who opens a restaurant specializing only in the regional cuisine of the Brittany coast of northern France, for example, with dishes made using gourmet sea salt harvested by hand, will likely succeed.

Knowing that full well, Singer readily admits that, as a foreigner, she's sometimes the "dancing bear" at election time -- and then, particularly, her uniqueness is played up. Her husband, who labels himself an "independent populist," is also unique in the prefectural assembly for his stance on issues ranging from the environment, where he is promoting rooftop gardens to combat global warming, to education, where he is a strong supporter of Kyoto's international school and international education in Japan.

Still, a unique politician is also a lonely politician, and both Singer and Mizuguchi know they will always remain outsiders to a certain extent, supported by their loyal local constituents but never part of the majority ruling party machine that ultimately decides policy. Yet that has not dampened either's hopes for the future.

"It's possible that Hiroshi will someday decide that he wants to run for a seat in the Diet. That may sound like a more glamorous life for me. But in Japan, a Diet member's wife usually runs the local office, so I would remain here in Kyoto. Right now, though, we are just thinking about the upcoming election on April 8 next year. So for now, it's one thing at a time," Singer says.



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