An Interview with Doi Takako

No other person has arguably had a more decisive impact on the postwar Japanese political scene than Doi Takako, Lower House Representative for Hyogo Prefecture and former chairwoman of the Japan Socialist Party. It was Doi who almost single-handedly led her party to overwhelming victories in the 1989 and 1990 national elections, causing the iron-handed Liberal Democratic Party to lose its majority for the first time since coming to power in 1955 and giving the LDP good cause to worry about its unstable future.

Doi was born in Kobe on November 30, 1928, the daughter of a physician father and ex-school teacher mother. As one of five children, Doi’s earliest experience of challenging injustice came on her first day of elementary school when she defended a disabled girl from bullying by a boy student; Doi and the boy received a severe scolding by the teacher in front of the class. As she grew older, Doi got a firsthand taste of the horrors of World War II when she had to assist her father in amputating the arm of a wounded civilian following an air raid by U.S. forces. That ghastly wartime memory was one of many that shaped her strong anti-war/pro-Constitution ideology years later.

In 1956, Doi earned her master’s degree in constitutional law at Kyoto’s Doshisha University and later taught at her alma mater and other Kansai colleges. While she was a student, she saw a film about U.S. president Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation that moved her to tears; it was around then that she decided she wanted to be a lawyer who takes the side of the dispossessed and underprivileged. If Lincoln was able to do what he did, Doi thought, she would be able to do the same thing — or more — because she was a woman. She often thought of her female classmates who were forced to give up a college education at their conservative parents’ behest, and she decided to achieve something with her career that only a woman could do.

Ironically, Doi, an unshakable believer in Japan’s postwar Peace Constitution, was initially reluctant to jump into national politics, opting instead to serve on various Kobe-area municipal organizations where she felt she could have a closer contact with ordinary people during the turbulent 1960s.

As the story goes, she staunchly refused an invitation to run on the Japan Socialist Party ticket in ’69. But when the then-deputy mayor of Kobe repeatedly tried to reassure her that she had no chance of winning anyway, an insulted Doi angrily quit her city commission post on the spot and accepted the JSP challenge, saying, “I’ve just decided to run in the election.” Local voters have returned the fiery, outspoken Doi — or ‘o-Taka-san’ as she is affectionately known — to her House of Representatives post ever since.

Climbing the Socialist Party ranks, Doi served as chairwoman from 1986. The decisive 1989 upper House of Councillors and 1990 lower House of Representatives elections saw Doi reach her peak of popularity amid the LDP’s humiliating defeat, a victory she compares to “moving a mountain.” Her bold leadership in challenging the status quo gave a new impetus and inspiration to women and other voices in society long left out of Japan’s governing process. Doi was actually chosen Prime Minister by the Upper House following the LDP’s crushing defeat in 1989, but the decision was soon overturned by the LDP’s majority in the Lower House.

In July 1991, Doi stepped down as head of her party (since renamed the Social Democratic Party of Japan or SDPJ). Although somewhat out of the party spotlight now, she nevertheless remains a potent political weapon against the ruling LDP. And to Kansai residents she remains as popular and controversial as when she first ran for office, as much for her bashing of Japan’s political establishment as for her unabashed fondness for the Hanshin Tigers baseball team and other traditional Kansai pastimes.

In the following interview excerpts, Osaka-based freelance journalist
Brian Covert talks candidly with Doi Takako — the force that has moved the mountain known as Japanese politics.

Main Title

Let’s start off with the passing of the PKO bill. Now that it’s done, how do you feel?

Firstly, the bill’s contents are problematic. The biggest problem now is the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces that has been prohibited under any circumstances by the spirit of the Constitution. We cannot agree with it. But don’t misunderstand that we [in the party] are opposed to Japan’s international contributions just because we disagree with this law. We have made a lot of suggestions so far about what Japan can do in non-military areas. We have also submitted our own bill. I want to stress that it is actually we who are thinking deepest about Japan’s important role in international contributions.

The second problem was the way the bill was deliberated in the Diet. The PKO bill was hastily enacted by force, cutting off scheduled questioners among the opposition. Such a method of deliberation should receive no sympathy at all from the public. It’s abnormal. The bill was enacted against the rule of democracy.

You often say that “Japan is an economic giant, but a human rights midget.” What is your thinking behind that?

It has often been pointed out to me that Japan’s awareness of human rights has a long way to go — in stark contrast to its economic power. It’s painful to have it pointed out that while Japan may be in the black in trade, it is in the red in morality. Domestically, not enough is being done about discrimination and discrepancy [between haves and have-nots]. Not to mention abroad: neither Japan’s postwar political policy nor its attitude has reflected any sign of regret for causing the Second World War.

With the Cold War over, North-South problems in particular have come under much discussion recently. Regarding the gap between North and South, Japan as an advanced nation will come under question as to how it makes efforts to eliminate or correct that gap in Asia. As just one example, Japan’s ODA has so far stressed economic development. But I have proposed that priorities be shifted to protecting the environment, abolishing poverty, and upgrading medical treatment, education and sanitation — in other words, social development.

During the height of your popularity back in 1989-90, if you had become prime minister, what changes would you have made by now?

I would have done a lot of things!
[laughs] First of all, distrust in politics was growing stronger back then; politics did not reflect the will of the people. One scandalous event after another further ruined the people’s trust. First we need to pass drastic laws that prevent bribery or corruption, and which establish political ethics. No policy can succeed without the trust of the people. Nothing makes people more distrustful of politics than ambiguous explanations, makeshift excuses and buying time. So if you find you were mistaken about something, you should clearly say so. When you are certain of something yet wander around aimlessly, this is not democracy. I strongly believe that clarity is necessary in politics.

You mentioned distrust in the government by the Japanese public. Do you think it’s possible to regain that trust, after everything that’s happened?

It will be more and more difficult when it comes to recovering trust. It’s pretty hard for the public to trust again in a government that doesn’t have a responsive attitude towards people’s anxiety or mistrust.

You’re still very popular among the public. What is the most satisfying part of being a popular politician?

[laughing loudly] Now that one is too difficult to answer by myself!

There are people who say they can’t grasp what’s going on in the Diet, even after watching or listening to the process. Politics must be easy to understand. A Freedom of Information Act hasn’t even been passed in Japan. I have often been told there are too many things politicians don’t want the public to hear and know about. But I say whatever is on my mind and when I’m asked about something I don’t know, I tell people I’ll find out and make it clear. Maybe that could be why people empathize with me.

How would you assess your own performance or leadership of the Socialist Party, both strengths and weaknesses?

That’s asking someone to look back on their past and politics should always look forward. There are many things I did well and others that didn’t go well. There are many things I could tell you but I prefer to make use of such experiences for what I do in the future. Looking back on the past just doesn’t agree with me.

How do you see future Japan-U.S. relations? What should the limits be for a Japan that is always trying to please the United States?

It would be hard to answer that concretely. Japan-U.S. relations are indeed important but I think the relationship must always be consciously viewed as part of the international community — not just between each other but in the global context. It’s important that both countries have their own firm views as to what the future of the world should be and how both countries can co-exist, and that they be more open with the other. Japan should not just follow what America thinks; it should have its own views. This would never be a minus in the relationship. I think it’s very important that both countries be open to each other as to their ideas on how the global community ought to be.

Do you have any direct message or appeal to the American people concerning U.S.-Japan relations?

If I remember correctly,
The New York Times ran an editorial on April 20 [1992] titled “Japan’s Better Example,” which said it’s important for Japan to be more highly appraised and taken more seriously for its international role in non-military areas, and that Japan should be more proud and confident about it. I would like to think that more than a few Americans also think that way, since I feel the influence of The New York Times is very strong.

In May 1991, I spoke at Montana University and I also went to Chicago to speak to the Japan-America Society. While talking to Americans over there, I found they were quite sympathetic to my way of thinking. I have many American friends. I believe it is especially important to go there actively to promote openness. When it comes to the Japan-U.S. relationship, everything Americans have heard up to now seems to have come from either Japan’s ruling party or the Japanese government. When Japanese public opinion has differed, it wasn’t always clearly communicated [to the outside world]. It’s important for us opposition parties to make our positions better known for the sake of democracy. In a democracy, that fact that these opinions exist should not be ignored, right? I think it’s very important to have more opportunities to debate or put forward questions.

At the time of my U.S. visit, I made various suggestions. For example, I said that Japan would like to work towards an international rule banning the trade of military weapons. I also proposed that we refrain from giving aid as part of ODA to those developing countries that allocate more than 20 percent of their budgets to defense, that are developing biochemical weapons or that are fiercely competing for the development of new weapons. It seemed that Americans were also interested in this subject; I gained confidence after seeing that many of them felt the same way I did. There are scholars who even suggest a movement to extend Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution to the world.

Finally, what is your vision or dream of the Japan of the future? What kind of historical legacy do you desire for Japan and the Japanese people?

Hmmm… When it comes to Japan’s image, this is a country that has so far been appraised for its economic power. [I would like Japan to be known] not only as an economic power, but also as a power for human rights and environmental issues — and as an internationally reliable nation. Even though Japan has economic power, it is lacking in those other areas. Maybe that could be why some people overseas are worried about Japan’s economy even now.