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Sunday, March 4, 2012

News photo
Actor Taro Yamamoto outside the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo, following meetings he had there on nuclear power issues on Jan. 24. SATOKO KAWASAKI

CLOSE-UP: Taro Yamamoto

Actor in the spotlight of Japan's antinuke movement

Taro Yamamoto is being made to pay a high professional price for challenging powerful vested interests

On a rainy midwinter day, Taro Yamamoto stood with a small group of people in front of Shimokitazawa Station in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward and addressed passers-by in that artsy youth-culture hub.

News photo
Yamamoto in the 30-km Chernobyl evacuation zone in Ukraine in December 2011 by a monument erected in April 2011 wishing an early end to the Fukushima radiation crisis. JUN NAKASUJI

"I am an actor — Taro Yamamoto," he announced. "And I would like to ask you to add your signature to a petition we are putting together that calls for a local vote on nuclear power plants."

The 37-year-old went on to explain that the campaign aims to get the signatures of 214,236 of Tokyo's eligible voters (one 50th of the total). Members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Assembly would then be legally bound to vote on whether to hold a referendum among the citizens within its jurisdiction, asking if Tokyo Electric Power Co. — operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant — should be allowed to run such facilities or not.

One of those standing with Yamamoto, Nicholas Saito, a high school student with a Japanese mother and Austrian father, said: "Taro-san is passionate on the nuclear issue. Some in the media have accused him of taking his stance to make himself more famous — but he isn't. He is thinking about the country and the health risk to children caused by radiation."

Yamamoto was the first actor to speak out and call for Japan to totally renounce the use of nuclear power following the explosions and triple reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima plant in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake that struck the northeastern Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

Previously, it had been taboo for anyone in the entertainment world here — and in most of the media, for that matter — to say anything negative about nuclear power in this country. That was (and still is to degrees) because advertising and sponsorship paid for by power utilities and connected interests comprises a significant proportion of those sectors' revenues.

Nonetheless, on April 9, 2011, Yamamoto declared his opposition to nuclear power on Twitter, and the following day he joined the front rank of a 15,000-strong antinuke demonstration in Tokyo.

As he tells it in his recent book "Hitori Butai" ("One-Man-Play"), just a month later an offer for him to appear in a TV drama series was withdrawn because of his actions. Yamamoto then quit the entertainment agency to which he belonged and became a freelance actor.

Since then, he has been participating in protests across Japan calling for the authorities to cease the operation of nuclear power plants. His views have attracted considerable attention, and as of now he has almost 170,000 followers on Twitter.

Born in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, Yamamoto and his two older sisters were brought up by their mother, who sold Persian carpets, after their father died when he was an infant.

In 1990, when he was 16, Yamamoto made his TV debut in a students dance-contest program called "Dance Koshien," where the popularity of his performance ensured he was invited back many times.

Then, after he dropped out of high school, he landed his first movie role in 1991's "Daida Kyoshi" ("Pinch-hitter Teacher"). From 1996 to 2002, he worked as a reporter for a TV documentary series called "Sekai Ururun Taizaiki" ("World Stay Report"). During that period, he also played a leading role in "Battle Royale," a movie made in 2000 by the renowned director Kinji Fukasaku, and acted in many other films and TV dramas. In 2003, Yamamoto won the prestigious Blue Ribbon Supporting Actor Award.

Despite his busy campaigning schedule, Yamamoto was happy to talk at length with The Japan Times a couple of days after that appearance he made in the rain outside Shimokitazawa Station on Jan. 24.

May I start by asking you to tell me about your childhood?

I always had loads of energy. When I was in elementary school; for instance, I'd hop on a Takarazuka City garbage truck that did lots of pick-ups and then went to my school's kitchen to collect the waste. So I'd join it near my house and help the workmen and ride on the back until we reached my school. I used that truck as my school bus.

Did the school not call your mother to complain?

News photo
Yamamoto with a dosimeter at Chernobyl. JUN NAKASUJI

Yes they did — but my mum got many calls about my behavior.

How was your time in junior high school?

Well, I would always point out illogical comments made by the teachers, so I was not a good student in their eyes.

For example, school rules banned the use of hair mousse, but teenagers want to use that kind of stuff. Boys who wore their hair a bit long used soft mousse so the teachers didn't notice — but when I used it on my short hair, I stood out.

One day, my teacher said to everyone: "Yamamoto wears hair dressing. Until he washes it out, you may not go home."

I thought, if everyone said I didn't need to wash my hair, the school rule might change. So I told the teacher: "I won't wash my hair. You should allow the use of hair dressing."

I thought the other students would fight to be able to use hair dressing. However, they chose to go home. As a result, I had to wash my hair.

How were your high school days?

In junior high school, one grade had only two classes and so there weren't many classmates to choose from. I found it hard to have friends who supported me.

But in high school, one grade had 11 or 12 classes, so I enjoyed having a wider circle of friends. Around that time, I also had an opportunity to appear on television.

Was that in "Dance Koshien"?

Yes. The weekly program went out on Sunday. One week when I happened not to see it, a performer on the show was the talk of the class the following Monday. Everyone was excited by that dancer, who was also a high school student.

The following Sunday I watched the program and that student appeared again, but I couldn't understand why my friends were so excited about her performance. That made me a bit upset, because I had great confidence in my own ability.

Did you think that dancer was not as good as you?

Yes — but that made me realize my friends didn't recognize my talent. I was angry about that, too, and that anger drove me to apply to do an audition for the dance contest.

News photo
Yamamoto solicits antinuclear power petition signatures outside Shimokitazawa Station in Tokyo in January. ERIKO ARITA

I watched you dancing in that contest on YouTube. You wore swimming trunks. Why? At the first audition, I wore a school jersey and a leotard for a middle-aged woman. Then at the second audition, I thought it would be better to be more simple. Actually, though, it wasn't swimming trunks I was wearing; it was my underwear (laughs).

But then some viewers complained to the school. The principal told me: "We have received complaints. Stop appearing on TV or don't come to school."

Because my mother had always said that I should graduate from high school, when the principal gave me that ultimatum, I seriously started wondering which option I should take.

He said I could consult my mother, and I guessed that if I talked to her I would not be able to continue performing on TV. But when I telephoned her and explained the situation, she said, "It's your life; decide for yourself."

I was so surprised and moved to tears, because her words were the opposite of what I had imagined.

I think your mother was incredible.

Well, I think there must have been a gap between my image of my mother and her true self. I probably misunderstood her ideas on parenting before that.

My mother had brought me up pretty strictly. She thought she should discipline her children so they would be able to cope if she died. If she died suddenly, we would become foster children, and so she tried to raise us to be good so we wouldn't bother our foster families and would be properly cared for by them.

I was strongly influenced by her, and whenever I received any money, such as an otoshidama (New Year's gift of money), my mother would collect a percentage of it.

It sounds as if she was taxing you.


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