Online Extra: Q&A with Japan's Akiko Domoto

The new governor of Japan's Chiba Prefecture and the only independent candidate, on giving voters a bigger voice in politics

Akiko Domoto, the new governor of Chiba Prefecture, bordering Tokyo, is anything but your typical Japanese politician. She spent much of her career as a TV newscaster and director, covering environmental, health, and women's issues long before they became causes célèbres. She continued to press for reforms after her election to the Japanese Diet in 1989. She co-founded the International Children's Network, the Biodiversity Network Japan, and several other organizations. Since 1999, she has served as president of GLOBE International, a multinational body of legislators in favor of environmental protection.

Domoto, who won the Chiba gubernatorial race in March, discusses her achievements and her future plans in an interview with Irene M. Kunii, Tokyo correspondent for BusinessWeek. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: What were your main accomplishments over the past year?

A: I think that one of my major accomplishments in the last year was to pass the Domestic Violence Act in the Diet. It was a culmination of years of work and finally passed in the Diet due to the hard work and support of women legislators. Now I have the unique opportunity to try to implement this law in Chiba.

I think my other main accomplishment was to be elected the governor of Chiba Prefecture. I think that this was a major accomplishment, because I was the only independent candidate and all of the other candidates had party support. Nevertheless, the people of Chiba supported me due to my position on revising Chiba's environmental and gender-equality policies. While many people have said that Chiba is a conservative prefecture, the residents of Chiba are very eager to change. I think of it as a citizens' grass-roots revolution, which was influenced by events all over the world and increasing globalization.

Q: What challenges do you face in your new job as governor?

A: I have many challenges ahead of me. One of them is actually a promise I made to the residents of Chiba, to hear their opinions directly to make policy in Chiba more democratic. Stated more directly, we need more participation by Chiba's residents in political decisions. Other challenges include finance and administrative reform, protecting the environment, creating a gender-equal society, improving the welfare system, and traffic safety. I will also be asking Chiba's governmental employees who are interested to work to implement the Domestic Violence Act in Chiba. This is a very new idea and way of doing things here.

Q: What needs to be done to reform Japan's political system?

A: From my experience in this election, the old system should be changed. The parties are too close to special-interest groups. Candidates [elected officials] should be free from relationships with special-interest groups. This would allow them to directly represent their constituents.

The people of Japan need to realize that we should elect truly democratic candidates, not candidates with ties to special-interest groups. This should start with towns and city assemblies, move to the prefectural level, and eventually to the national level. When this happens, there will be a big change in Japanese politics.

Q: Do you regard yourself as a role model for Japanese women? What is the message that you are conveying?

A: Yes, I guess I am a role model, but more than that, I think I have just shown them how to campaign and win. I think that there should be more women candidates, and they can run in the way I did, because they are closer to the people than the politicians tied up with special-interest groups. If women have the courage to run for office, recognize the importance of their perspective as women, and have important issues, they can win. This can be seen in the recent election in Osaka Prefecture's Shimamoto town. This town, with a population of 30,000, elected eight female assembly members [out of 18]. That makes up 44% of the local assembly. This is the highest rate of female elected officials in Japan.

Q: Do you have any anecdotes to recount from your first weeks in the governor's office?

A: When I first came into office, there was no computer of fax machine in my office. Obviously, I couldn't believe that the governor was expected to work without a computer or fax machine. I ended up bringing my own computer and fax in order to keep in touch with people all over Japan and the world.

An issue in Chiba called Sanbanse, land reclamation of tidelands in the Ichikawa and Funabashi cities, has been going on for some time. Up until now, policy on this issue was decided from the top down. I am trying to change it so that it is decided from the bottom up. Surprisingly, the bureaucrats here understood what I was trying to do faster than the citizens did. When the citizens are able to decide things by themselves, the governor will not have to decide everything. I believe that citizen participation is one of the most important issues I have to deal with as governor.

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