Live streaming instead of legislating: Japan’s YouTuber MP Yoshikazu Higashitani fired for not showing up at work
Since he was elected to Japan’s parliament in July, Yoshikazu Higashitani has spread celebrity gossip on his YouTube channel, explored the sights of Dubai and handed out snacks to children displaced by an earthquake in Turkey.
One thing he has not done is show up for work.
On Wednesday, he was expelled from Japan’s upper house of parliament, the House of Councillors, making him the first elected lawmaker in the country to be removed from office in more than seven decades.
Before his short-lived career as a lawmaker, Higashitani, 51, was well-known for his lengthy livestreams during which he dished out salacious celebrity gossip under the alias “GaaSyy.” He ran for parliament from Dubai, claiming that he could not return to Japan because the police were investigating him for fraud. While in self-imposed exile, he campaigned and promised to expose dozens of celebrity scandals.
To the surprise of many, he won — running as the candidate of the single-issue NHK Party, which is dedicated to making changes to how Japan’s national broadcaster is funded. But he has missed every session in the House of Councillors since then.
In the meantime, he has maintained diverse interests, balancing his lengthy rants about celebrities with breezy posts about touring La Sagrada Familia in Spain and playing water sports in Thailand, using the hashtag “#endlesssummer.” Last week, he said he traveled to Turkey, and in videos posted online was seen distributing snacks to children in areas devastated by a February earthquake, in front of a camera crew.
The founder of the NHK Party, Takashi Tachibana, told reporters in January that police had asked Higashitani, a fellow party member, to cooperate with investigations related to accusations of defamatory comments and threats he had made in his videos, and that the YouTuber would return to the country in March. (The police declined to comment.)
In February, the House of Councillors demanded that Higashitani apologize in an open session, a disciplinary act second only to expulsion. He had agreed to do so, only to backtrack on that decision last week, saying that he did not feel safe enough to return, despite having immunity from arrest as a lawmaker.
Tachibana said last Wednesday that he would step down as head of the party. “As party leader, I will take responsibility for GaaSyy’s failure to keep his promise that he would come back to the upper house to make an apology,” Tachibana said at a news conference.
He added that the party would be renamed “Seijika Joshi 48 To,” which translates to Politician Girls 48 Party, and that actress Ayaka Otsu would replace him. Tachibana said that the party would broaden its goals and would also recruit only female candidates to run for upcoming local elections.
Koichi Nakano, a professor of comparative politics at Sophia University in Tokyo, said that the party’s rebranding was a response to a movement to increase the number of female candidates in elections.
“NHK Party must have thought that they can poke fun at that in a right-wing, misogynist way, by treating female candidates as if they were teen pop idols like AKB48,” Nakano wrote in an email, referring to a popular female pop group.
He added that Higashitani’s notoriety and what he characterized as the populist appeal of his party got him elected. “It’s unusual, to a degree, but Japan has had its own share of media-celebrities who are complete amateurs of politics, including comedians, actors and pop singers, though none was as unserious as GaaSyy,” Nakano added.
Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus, wrote in an email: “The NHK party, despite rebranding, has achieved little except to register discontent with the establishment and unhappiness with the mandatory fees every household has to pay, even if they don’t watch NHK.”
Muneo Suzuki, who heads a key disciplinary committee in parliament, told reporters on Tuesday that Higashitani had already been given ample time to correct his behavior, but that he had ultimately undermined the electoral process. “GaaSyy doesn’t understand what democracy means in principle,” he said.
Dozens of protesters, mostly members of the Seijika Joshi 48 Party, rallied in front of the legislature before lawmakers cast votes over whether to expel Higashitani. Among the 236 lawmakers who attended the session, all but one voted in favor of his ouster.
Higashitani could not immediately be reached for comment, but in a statement read on the House floor by Satoshi Hamada, a fellow lawmaker, Higashitani said that his removal was unjust.
“There will continue to be people like me running for office. If you do not want the world you have made to be destroyed, please exclude those people from candidacy from the very beginning,” he wrote in the statement. “I wish the same punishment upon lawmakers who leave their seats immediately after propping up their nameplates and ones who are asleep and don’t show up like myself.”