A new anti-establishment political group led by actor-turned politician Taro Yamamoto made a surprisingly strong showing in Japan's upper house election on Sunday, reflecting a sense of stagnation and growing frustration over vested interests in the country.
Reiwa Shinsengumi candidates Yasuhiko Funago, 61, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, and 54-year-old Eiko Kimura, a cerebral palsy sufferer, were elected after being placed first and second on the group's proportional representation list. Yamamoto, 44, who came third, failed to retain his seat in the House of Councillors.
"Taro Yamamoto may have lost his parliamentary seat, but Reiwa Shinsengumi made a huge advance," said a smiling Yamamoto at a press conference early Monday, noting that the grassroots group now qualifies as a political party eligible for subsidies as it cleared the hurdle of gaining 2 percent or more of the votes cast nationwide in the election.
(Taro Yamamoto, right, leader of newly created political group Reiwa Shinsengumi, smiles at a hotel in Tokyo on July 21, 2019, after his party's candidate and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis patient Yasuhiko Funago, left, wins a seat through proportional representation in the House of Councillors election.)
It is the first time since the current electoral system was introduced in 2001 that a group that is not a major political party under relevant election laws has won a parliamentary seat under the proportional representation system.
"I am full of emotions that this moment has arrived," said wheelchair-bound Funago in a statement read out by his helper. "I may appear weak, but I have more guts than others as it has been a matter of life and death for me."
Funago, who became the first person with Lou Gehrig's disease to be elected as a Japanese Diet member, was diagnosed with the progressive neurological disease in 2000 when he was working at a trading house. After completely losing mobility of his limbs in 2008, he uses a special sensor that detects his biting moves to control a computer and communicate.
Kimura has been disabled since she was 8-months-old. Using a wheelchair, she is a long-time activist who has called for integration into society of people with disabilities.
"Each and every vote of people with disabilities in harsh conditions has pierced my heart, and they have made me feel I must work hard," she said.
The Diet must now make changes to its facilities and rules to accommodate the two, including those for allowing them to bring helpers to its building's floors, as it has never had members with disabilities so severe they cannot press voting buttons on their own.
In the past, it altered a seat when wheelchair-bound Eita Yashiro, 82, was elected to the upper house in 1977, and it prepared documents in Braille for lawmakers with weak eyesight.
"The people wanted someone to breathe new life into politics," said Yamamoto, who has been characterized by some political analysts as Japan's Bernie Sanders. "Nothing will change unless 'bothersome' people join the Diet."
Actively using social media, Yamamoto garnered more than 970,000 votes, the largest number of votes given to an unsuccessful candidate under the current electoral system. The previous record holder was Komeito's Tomoko Ukishima, with 445,000 votes.
In the previous election six years ago, Yamamoto gained a seat in the Tokyo constituency by attracting 660,000 votes.
Reiwa Shinsengumi has proved popular, drawing large crowds as Yamamoto campaigned in jeans and a T-shirt while calling for the abolition of the consumption tax -- which the Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to raise in October -- and increasing the minimum wage to 1,500 yen ($14) nationwide.
The group raised about 400 million yen in donations since its launch in April, and at least 3,500 volunteers helped its election campaigns.
Advocating the creation of a "society that doesn't cut anyone off," it fielded a number of candidates representing people who have often been overlooked in society, including sexual minorities, single parents and part-time workers.
"We will win big in the (next) lower house election. We aim to win the leadership," said Yamamoto, adding he himself will also run in the election. "We will create a society in which no one is cut off."
Yamamoto became known for his antinuclear activities following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis. As an independent upper house member in 2013, he was reprimanded for handing a letter on the nuclear disaster to then-Emperor Akihito at a garden party, triggering criticism that his action could amount to political exploitation of the emperor.
Toru Hasuike, 64, the brother of Kaoru Hasuike, who was abducted by North Korea and returned to Japan in 2002, also ran for Reiwa Shinsengumi but did not win a seat. Hasuike, a former employee of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., told reporters in May that he shared Yamamoto's antinuclear stance.