My Unforgettable Experience Working In The Japanese Diet During COVID-19

Japanese Diet
Image Sourced from Unsplashed and Taken by Louie Martinez

Tyson was one of two fellows apart of the Australian National Universities’ National Parliamentary Fellowship Program. The program saw him working within the Japanese Diet in both the Opposition and Ruling Parties as he researched Japanese Foreign Policy. The program, which was intended to be three months was cut short due to Covid-19 but he was still able to spend 6 weeks in Japan. If you would like to find out more about the program, please find the links below.

In the early days of February 2020, as I landed in Tokyo, I had yet to really realise just how much of an insightful experience working in the Japanese Diet would be during COVID-19. With gaining a greater understanding of Japanese Foreign Policy as my goal at the time, this is my reflection on the 6 weeks I spent in Tokyo working for a politician in the Diet during the pandemic.

To put things into perspective, As of the 5th of February, the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which would later become one of Japan’s largest hotspots, took port, Japanese cases were numbered at only 33, and global cases at the time were only numbered at 24,554. The resulting explosion of cases on the cruise ship throughout February became the largest amount of cases outside of Tokyo at the time.

Working in the Japanese Diet: A Summary

From the first week until the sixth week of the National Parliamentary Fellowship Program, I was able to gain significant access to government officials, academics, and journalists. Through both my politician’s connections and my university’s, I was able to meet former foreign ministers, high-ranking foreign affairs ministry officials, academics, and journalists. My surprise at the possibility to be in such meetings, and the type of access given to me, was only superseded by being given the invitation to regularly voice my own opinions. Whether it be on matters ranging from foreign policy to cyber technology, or how Australia was dealing with the then catastrophic bushfires, my politician and coworkers always gave me a chance to speak.

Myself pictured with Furukawa Motohisa 古川元久, Member of the House of Representatives

My time in the Opposition and Ruling Parties in the Diet

At the beginning of the program, I and the other fellow were each given a politician to work under, with one being part of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and the other being a part of an opposition party. I started my fellowship in Furukawa Motohisa Sensei’s office, who is a part of the opposition’s Democratic Party for the People and a member of the House of Representatives. During my time with Furukawa Sensei, I was able to participate in meetings with two former foreign ministers, various Diet members, government department officials, company representatives, journalists, and was even given the chance to learn how to properly serve tea to guests as well. With the time being what it was, I was also able to observe how the opposition lobbied the ruling party to enforce greater measures against COVID-19. While cliché, no one day was honestly ever the same and the Chief of Staff of Furukawa Sensei’s office was always happy to have me help her with any of the numerous office-related duties. From the day to day requirements of preparing documents for events, to acting as an attendant at a climate change event, or even MCing an earthquake prevention event with my other program fellow, there was always something to do. Overall, working in the opposition was a valuable experience to see how Japan’s parties operate within the government on a day to day basis and in times of crisis.

The second part of the fellowship was intended to be with Asahi Kentaro Sensei, a first time member of the Upper House and a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. However, due to COVID-19, I was unfortunately only able to spend one week at his office. Even so, in just four days I was able to observe a foreign policy committee meeting featuring the foreign minister, I attended a meeting on vaccine research for COVID-19, and interviewed Nakayama Norihiro, the parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs. On top of this, I also attended a large scale event which featured key members of the entertainment industry addressing various politicians and government officials on the effect COVID-19 had on their work. As one of the members broke down, it was at that moment that I felt the full impact of the virus in Japan and that at the very least, the government was listening. Overall, while my time with Asahi Sensei was short, the access given to the ruling party in comparison to the opposition one was easy to see and as a result, the access given to myself was also unforgettable.

Out front of the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo

Reflecting on my experiences interviewing Politicians, Government Officials, Academics and Journalists

The research component of the program, which was comprised of interviewing politicians, senior government officials and journalists was possibly the most insightful part of the program. One of the highlights for myself included discussing the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula and negotiation strategies with the chief negotiator during the 2002 Japan-North Korea Summit meeting. Moreover, having the opportunity to interview two former foreign ministers, numerous politicians, senior MOFA officials specialising in U.S-Japan relations, as well as journalists provided a well-rounded perspective on Japanese domestic and foreign policy. One of the most interesting outtakes I took from these experiences was the altering shift in perspectives between politicians, government officials and journalists. The politicians, in particular, were charismatic and focused on the overall messages of their policies, whereas the government bureaucrats were more detail orientated about policy issues. Contrastingly, journalists, being separate from the governmental infrastructure, were more inclined to criticise and give a more open view. Overall though, despite foreign policy being my main focus, I was also able to gain extensive knowledge about how Japan reacted in times of crisis and their domestic policy as well.

Myself pictured with Nakayama Norihiro 中山のりひろ, current Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs and member of the House of Representatives.

Key takeaways from working within the Japanese Government

Overall, thanks to the program and the openness of my co-workers, the government officials, and politicians that I met with, I was able to gain a greater understanding of the domestic and international governance framework within which Japan, the bureaucracy and its politicians operate in. In terms of COVID-19, as the weeks went by and cases rose, so too did the government’s raising of the issue; however, it was interesting to observe that the usual issues of scandals were still existent between the ruling and opposition parties. In saying that, whether it was concerning the effects of Covid-19, political scandals, or larger foreign policy issues, each and every aspect of monitoring how the government functioned was extremely insightful. It’s certainly one thing to study a government’s foreign policy and domestic governmental institutions, but a whole other experience to work within one; especially during a global crisis. For anyone interested in politics or working in the Japanese Diet, I’d highly recommend applying to the National Parliamentary Fellowship Programme.

Finally, I would like to express my thanks to both Furukawa Motohisa Sensei and his staff, as well as Asahi Kentaro Sensei and his staff as well. Furthermore, my thanks goes out to all of the staff at my university and everyone else that made this experience possible. It was truly unforgettable.

Interested in the Program or something similar? Check out these blogs below:

National Parliamentary Fellowship

Clarence Ma on the New Colombo Plan Scholarship to Japan

From Kamaishi to Tokyo with Emily Hallams– Details Emily Hallams time working as a JET Coordinator of International Relations and her time with the Australian New Zealand Chamber of Commerce (ANZCCJ)

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Tyson Mauk

Tyson is an avid follower of North-East Asian politics, business and culture with a particular love for all things Japan. You can usually find him chowing down on some Ramen, or possibly in an Izakaya.

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