Ryokichi Kawashima, a 94-year-old parliamentary election candidate, speaks in front of his election campaign poster on a street during an interview with Reuters in Hanyu, north of Tokyo. Photo by Reuters.
When Ryokichi Kawashima burst into a Tokyo city office to
register as a candidate in Japan's parliamentary election,
the woman behind the counter first froze, then stuttered:
"Are you serious?"
He was. Kawashima had just taken ¥3 million ($NZ42,540) from
the sum saved for his funeral and at 94, and just three hours
before the deadline, he became the oldest contender for the
upcoming election to the lower house of parliament.
"I just felt that now it was my turn," said Kawashima,
proudly pointing at his poster on a board in Hanyu, a sleepy
town tucked away among rice fields on the fringes of the
sprawling Tokyo metropolis.
"It occurred to me when I watched a TV debate between the
major parties," he said, speaking in Japanese. "I just
couldn't stand how fragmented and disorganised they have
become. They have no grip on reality."
The silver-haired Kawashima is an independent, self-financed
and his campaign team is mostly family. He acknowledges he
has little chance of winning a constituency that is also
being contested by candidates from the ruling Democratic
Party of Japan and the main opposition Liberal Democratic
The LDP is heavily tipped to win the most seats in the
But Kawashima, born in the year that marked the end of World
War One, represents the most-talked-about and fastest growing
part of the Japanese society: the elderly.
Japan has aged at an unprecedented pace over the past three
decades and at little over 30 million, those aged 65 or older
make up a quarter of the country's population, stretching
Japan's annual social security bill to ¥100 trillion.
There is a general consensus among political parties that the
benefits must be reformed, with more of a focus on an
"all-generation" system rather than the current emphasis on
But Kawashima, who is using posters, flyers and flags in his
campaign, is not making benefits for the elderly an issue.
Instead, he drives around in his white Suzuki pushing a
staunchly anti-nuclear and anti-nationalist stance.
Relations with China are a hot campaign topic after long
simmering tensions over a disputed island chain flared up in
September when Japan bought the rocky islets from a private
Japanese owner, triggering anti-Japanese protests.
"I fought in the Sino-Japanese war for seven years and the
Chinese helped me survive in the tough post-war years, so I
know them well," said Kawashima.
"That whole dispute over the islands and talk that they will
invade us is just pure fear-mongering. Their rulers may say
such things, but I know they would never do anything like
Kawashima, a widower, lives on his own and looks eminently
capable of looking after himself. His driving licence is
valid for another three years, he only needs a stick to help
walk, and does not use spectacles.
He stayed on in China after World War Two, working with
trading companies. When he returned to Japan he became a
salesman for Japanese kamado cookers, travelling around on a
Later, he retired to Hanyu where he ran a securities company.
Kawashima's decision to contest the election was taken after
a family gathering attended by his 62-year-old daughter and
three younger siblings: two brothers aged 85 and 76, and a
little sister who has just turned 80.
"All of my friends are dead, so I organised a family
gathering and asked them for help," he said in an interview
in his living room that had a Buddhist family altar in the
corner, while his son-in-law poured coffee and answered
Kawashima then waved to his grandson and his friend who were
walking into the backyard in rubber boots to pick up the next
stack of election posters.
"Thanks very much and stick them out nicely!" he shouted out