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Sunday, May 2, 2010

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Focused: Renho during her recent interview with The Japan Times. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

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Japan's fiscal firebrand

Upper House Diet member Renho has made her name with her abrasive budget interrogations of bureaucrats. However, her ideas for change throughout the nation go far beyond mere balance sheets


Staff writer

Renho, a first-term Upper House member from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, shot to stardom in Japan last November when, as a member of a government committee tasked with screening ministries' budget requests, she had several fierce, face-to-face battles with bureaucrats.

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Renho in her Diet office SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

While the 42-year-old politician is certainly not the first or only one to point out wasteful spending of taxpayers' money, she has been among the most intense, relentless — and publicly combative — in doing so.

In particular, her comment on the nation's next-generation supercomputers — "Why should Japan be the world's No. 1 (in the speed of supercomputer processors)? What's wrong with being the world's No. 2?" — drew huge public attention and was repeatedly aired on national TV.

The budget-screening process, made public for the first time under the new DPJ administration, has been one of the very few political victories won by the party since it swept to power in August 2009 promising changes — but whose ratings have plummeted to critical levels of around 20 percent in recent months.

Indeed, Renho, an ex-swimsuit idol turned TV journalist who won a seat in the Upper House of the Diet in the summer of 2004, has been a target of fierce criticism herself. Leading scientists and some politicians loudly protested her "supercomputer" comment, calling the committee's decision to freeze the project — a decision later reversed by the government — as "absurd."

It was also shortly after her sudden rise to prominence that some people started making snide remarks about Renho's background as the daughter of a Taiwanese trader in Tokyo who had dual nationality until the age of 18, when she opted for Japanese nationality.

One of those was Takeo Hiranuma, a hardcore conservative who served as a trade minister in Liberal Democratic Party administrations that held almost unbroken power for more than 50 years prior to 2009. While slamming moves to downsize the supercomputer project, Hiranuma blurted out at a speech in Okayama Prefecture in January: "I don't want to say this, but she is not originally Japanese. She was naturalized and became a Diet member."

Renho, who goes by her first name only, doesn't flinch at such attacks, saying "I don't care at all." On the contrary, buoyed by her success with the first round of budget screenings, she is currently wielding the ax against a bundle of dokuritsu gyosei hojin (independent administrative institutions) and koeki hojin (public-interest corporations), which are either subsidized by the government or authorized by it to undertake various projects.

The second round of screenings — led again by Yukio Edano, the minister in charge of government revitalization — started on April 23 and continued through Wednesday. It will resume at the end of May. The outcome of the waste-cutting proceedings could sway not only the fate of the struggling administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, but also the personal career of Renho, who is toward the end of her term and will be seeking re-election in the Upper House race this summer.

Renho, who lives with her Japanese freelance-journalist husband, their twin children and her mother in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, recently spared 30 minutes out of her incredibly busy schedule to talk with The Japan Times. At her Diet office in Nagata-cho, Tokyo, the trim politician, donning her trademark white jacket, displayed the same sharpness she has shown on TV. On a variety of questions covering such topics as her upbringing, her parenting tips and her short-lived but well-remembered career as a swimsuit-clad "campaign girl," she kept firing crisp, cut-to-the-chase answers back, wrapping up the interview in 30 minutes and 34 seconds — just 34 seconds behind schedule.

What kind of child were you when you were growing up? What were your parents like? How did they raise you?

Well, my father is Taiwanese and my mother is Japanese. I was born and grew up only in Japan and have never lived in Taiwan. I have an elder brother who is one year older than me, and another brother who is two years younger than me. So I played like a boy . . . climbing trees. I was a very active child and I loved sports. My family was very strict about discipline, like how I shouldn't break promises or not tell lies, and even on such things as how to hold chopsticks.

What were your childhood dreams back then? What kind of career, for example, did you envision having in the future?

I had no such ideas.

You mean you had no dreams about your future?

No. I was a very realistic child. I was constantly told by my father to always think of what I would be doing five years later, and to plan for that. Many children, when they are asked to think about their future, they think far far off, so they tend to come up with unrealistic visions like running a flower shop or becoming a professional athlete.

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New heights: Renho on the Great Wall of China in November 1995, when she was studying the Chinese language in Beijing. COURTESY OF RENHO

I wasn't thinking like that at all, so when I was in the first grade of my junior high school, I was thinking how I would be living right before college, what I would want to do in college, and what I would need to do every day to prepare myself for my college life. That way, I was able to see what I lacked at that point. And again when I entered college, I tried to envision myself five years down the road — which would be right about the time I was getting a job. I was thinking how I would live and work when I entered the job world. That's how I was able to see my future realistically.

You studied law at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. How did you imagine your future five years from then?

First, before entering college, I was thinking I would want to work, using my skills. I wanted to make money myself. My parents had very clear ideas about rights and obligations. So they told me that it was their obligation to put their kids through college, but after that I would have to stand on my own feet, being well aware of my rights and obligations. So I never thought of getting married and becoming a housewife. My mother was working, too. I thought that, if I studied law in college, I could perhaps get a lawyer's license, and even if I didn't, I would have no problems finding jobs at lawyers' offices, which are everywhere in Japan.

And I figured that Japanese society would have a lot of legal disputes in the future and that Japan would have an Americanized justice system.

But you ended up in the showbiz world.

Yes. When I was a sophomore in college.

Wasn't that move driven by your desire to buy a new car, not so much by any interest in show business?

The price (of the car I wanted) was ¥3 million.

Then, as a TV idol, didn't you make appearances in events across Japan?

Well, the job of "campaign girls" — and that of the "Clarion Girls," in particular — is to make visits to various retailers dealing in car audios made by Clarion. So I traveled around Japan.

I understand it was around then that you started to appear in picture books, often wearing swimsuits. How did you feel about that work?

It was my mission. As long as I was being a campaign girl, I had an obligation to wear swimsuits. I had also agreed to going on a tour of regional retailers. In return, I got what I wanted, which was my car. It was all included in my yearlong contract. There was nothing wrong with that.

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