Jul 11

JET alum/Inuyama city councilman Anthony Bianchi

By Michael Glazer (Chiba-ken, 1995-97) for the JETAANY Newsletter 

Bensonhurst, Brooklyn native Anthony Bianchi (Aichi-ken, 1987-91), the first-ever North American to hold an elected position in Japan, is still going strong in his role as a city councilman in Inuyama-shi, Aichi-ken. Michael Glazer (Chiba-ken, 1995-97) recently did a recorded interview with Anthony to discuss the hot local topics, learn more about politics in Japan and get a sense of how things look across the pond. 

You have a very interesting background. How does a JET program teacher become a city council member? 

Well, I’ll try to make the story as short as possible. I studied filmmaking at New York University and I was interested in Kurasawa films and whatnot, and I was out in L.A. for a while. I came back to New York. I was working for New York City and I saw an ad in the paper about the Expo that was held in Gifu about 20 years ago. So I went over to Japan on a homestay program and decided it would be nice to try to live there for a year or so. I joined the JET pro­gram, stayed for a couple years, and decided I wanted to stay longer. 

 I was teaching, working for the Board of Education in Inuyama, and I kind of got involved in the administra­tive aspects of it. I was banging my head against a lot of brick walls and finding that I had to get in touch with the mayor and the city council people to help back up what we were doing. I finally got to a point where I got tired of complaining about things and needing other people’s help, so I decided to try and do something my­self. I ran in the election and somehow I got elected, believe it or not. 

Once you were elected into office, were there any things early on that struck you as unexpected? 

Yes, actually there were a few things in the beginning. One was that the coun­cil sessions seemed to go a little bit too smoothly for my liking. At first I thought I was missing something. That maybe people were somehow getting information through all the channels that I wasn’t quite in touch with yet. But I started to realize there’s a tendency here where, once things get to the council session, the katachi, the form is more important than the content. 

As long as the council session isn’t too rocky, everything is considered to be going well. Once proposals from the mayor or the city get to the council floor for a vote, by and large they get passed. I just felt there wasn’t enough debate about certain things. It also took me a little while to learn the procedures and learn what I could do about that myself. 

Lately I’ve been putting out more legislation and trying to cause more debate than usual. Actually, in the last council session, I caused a bit of a debate that some people didn’t care for, and it became sort of a hot topic. But these are important things that need to be discussed and not just “rubber stamped.” Some people don’t like it. But, you know, I’m from Brooklyn, so what are you going to do about it. [Said in a humorous tone.] 

So how does debate happen in Japan? 

In the U.S., there seems to be a little more debate and people giving their opinions as the leg­islative session goes on. Here, sometimes there’s a lot of back and forth, before the session starts. But once it starts, what they do is try to drag things out. Once it’s officially turned into a bill and it’s on the agenda, people don’t want to vote against it. 

You must have learned a whole lot in the process of running for office. 

Actually, we were fairly lucky. I had some people around us who were familiar with the process who gave us some hints. We decided we should campaign by instinct. I don’t know if you’re familiar with campaigning in Japan. It’s a lot of people out there with sound trucks repeating their name over and over again and annoying catch phrases, especially on this level. We decided that we would just let people know what we wanted to do. I say “we” because this is not some­thing you really do on you own. People who decided to support me had the same kind of ideas about what was wrong with the city and what needed to be done as I did. So we just let people know what our ideas were, and we hoped that enough of them would write my name on a little piece of paper on election day and we would get a chance to do something about it. 

You mentioned a split in bunmei (civilizations) within the city council.  

It’s been really difficult to try and put our finger on how to deal with it. I don’t think there’s anything devious about it. But they really believe that up until the administration decides on the agenda you can say whatever you want. But once it’s decided, it’s your job as a council person to make sure that things get implemented and move ahead smoothly. 

But I think, if you don’t think it’s a good policy, you have to fight it until the end. And the difference is, they’re acting as a spokesman for the administration. But that’s not really our job. Our job is to be a spokesman for the people. And I think it’s better to judge every policy on its own merits all the time, every time, until the end. 

Are you seeing generational dynamics play out in Japanese politics? 

What I found that was surprising in the last city council election, seven new members were elected. I used to think I was one of the younger guys when I first got elected, but I ain’t anymore. 

But now I see even some of the younger guys still have what I like to call a kind of old fashioned way of thinking where everybody has to work in lock step, and to reach a final decision, we all have to look like we agreed on something. The thing is some of the older members aren’t that strict about doing things that way. So it’s kind of strange. It’s not really based on age. And yes, in Japan, it’s changing a little bit. Actually, the American election now is causing some interest here in the fact that, within the next month or so, they are probably going to dissolve the upper and lower house. And there’ll be an election here. And the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) is worried about the timing. 

If in the American election, Obama gets elected, that represents change. The LDP has been in power for 50 years since the end of World War II and that wouldn’t bode well for them, so they’re trying to avoid that timing. That generational as­pect– I don’t know if it’s generational aspect, or a cultural aspect — is kind of like a split in civilization. I would just say in our council we have a problem that is one of bunmei. We have two different civilizations in our city council. 

Listen to  the full podcast at  http://jetaany.org/documents/JETAA-Bianchi-Interview.mp3.

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