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Friday, Jan. 4, 2013

Mac who would be governor says: Smile


Staff writer

Makoto Tonami was born in 1948 in Aichi Prefecture and graduated from the prestigious Kyoto University with a degree in agriculture. Upon graduation he went to work for trading house Itochu Corp., a job that would take him on business trips around the globe.

News photo
Just smile: Trader and politician Mac Akasaka poses at his office in Tokyo's Akasaka district on Dec. 18. JUN HONGO

But after working for 25 years in the Fortune 500 company, he called it quits and decided to pursue a different lifestyle.

"I didn't want to remain a salaryman all my life," said Tonami, who is better known by his alias, Mac Akasaka.

The 64-year-old instead chose to become a politician and has run in seven major elections so far, including the Tokyo gubernatorial race on Dec. 16.

What helped Akasaka stand out from the other candidates — other than his purple hair — were his unique video broadcasts in which he sometimes dressed up as Superman or space aliens.

The videos went viral, not only due to the flashy outfits but also because of his offbeat messages.

"Have you been smiling lately?" Akasaka asks in the introduction to one of his official five-minute broadcasts, which are used to explain proposals for reducing spending or improving disaster preparedness.

But Akasaka continues to lecture on the importance of smiling — at times punctuating his words with comical body movements — until concluding that a "lack of smiles is the reason why people are feeling depressed."

The YouTube clip has been viewed more than 200,000 times.

His other political pledges include ending nuclear power generation and aborting Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. But such pledges have been moved to the last section of his "manifesto," which mainly focuses on his "smile therapy."

Two days after winning 38,855 (0.6 percent) of the ballots cast in the Tokyo gubernatorial election, Akasaka explained his intentions to The Japan Times.

"Smile therapy is my lifework," he said, adding that reducing the suicide rate in Japan is one of his main political goals.

Despite government efforts to reduce suicides, Japan saw the rate in 2011 surpass 30,000 for the 14th consecutive year. While laws have been enacted to counter the problem, they haven't had much of an effect.

"A politician's task shouldn't be about just passing a bill through the Diet and then waiting for change to happen. It should be more than that," Akasaka said.

Putting a smile on the public's face and giving them peace of mind should be more effective than what the government is trying to do, he said.

"When someone walks into an elevator with you overseas, they usually give you a smile and ask how you are doing. Here, we try not to make eye contact with each other. I just think that kind of a friendly culture should become the norm in Japan as well," Akasaka said.

In fact, since he began promoting the importance of smiling, many depressed people have visited him to seek his advice.

"Japanese doctors rely too much on antidepressants, but it doesn't cure the source of the problem," Akasaka said. "They should instead be promoting a change from within, encourage more smiling."

Mac's quirky message is only slowly getting across. He's been spat at, had rocks thrown at him and even been threatened during his speeches, which often take place on Shibuya's bustling street corners. He usually sings or dances while delivering his message.

Some view his campaign as a joke, the act of a desperate middle-aged man seeking his 15 minutes of fame.

"Some see my outfit or my moves and decide that I am joking. But I am not," Akasaka explained. "Half of what I do, I do because I enjoy dancing and singing. But the other half is for putting smiles on the faces of others."

The seven elections he has run in have cost him approximately ¥30 million to ¥40 million. Despite only having a staff of six and forgoing use of the ubiquitous campaign poster, the cost of running in the Tokyo gubernatorial election this month came to ¥5 million.

"My goal really is to get elected and do what needs to be done. . . . I hope I can inspire those who are depressed by sticking to my challenges."

For that reason, Akasaka is not satisfied with last year's election, although he won 38,855 votes — over eight times more than the last time he ran for governor.

"I wanted to gather 100,000 votes, and it would have been possible if the young voters had been able to vote online — especially considering how popular my political broadcasts have been online," he said. "But that's OK. I won't give up. Its OK to fail 1,000 times in order to succeed even once."

Regarding his private life, Akasaka refused to comment on his family.

When he is not busy campaigning, he is running a trading company that deals in rare earth metals, now a ¥5 billion business.

His hobbies include aerobics and visiting hot springs resorts. At the end of December he planned to visit one of his five vacation homes in Los Angeles.

But he will quickly return to campaign mode this year, with an eye on the Upper House election in July.

Akasaka said he may tone down his performances a bit, but the message will remain the same: Smiling and maintaining a positive mentality can solve many of today's most serious issues.

As for newly elected Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose, who garnered a record-breaking 4.33 million votes, Akasaka believes Tokyoites made the wrong call.

"The look on his face, the way he is always frowning . . . he won't do any good for Tokyo."



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