Almost meeting the Prime Minister… but not quite

Last month I was in Japan for two weeks, finally being reunited with my family after a 6-week seperation. This is simply because Ryoko wanted to go home for 2 months, but I of course could only get 2 weeks of vacation off. So while I was very happy to see my family again, there wasn’t a lot to do once we got there, since Ryoko’s mother wasn’t feeling well and Ryoko had to fix all the meals, etc. while we were there.

Ryoko’s home is literally a 30-second walk to the shore of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. She’s on the northwest shore in the small town of Imazu. Ryoko’s father is retired, having worked for Mitsubishi his entire career, and now he occupies his time by running a small kiosk at the ferry dock, which is also nearby. You can see it here. (Also, if you go a little bit north, you’ll see a small shop labeled 青空趣味の店 Aozora hobby shop that is Ryoko’s home. Her mother also runs a small seasonal shop that sells local crafts, and since the location is registered at their home address, it shows up there on the map.)

Anyway, my father-in-law heard from the director of the ferry that Japan’s Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo, would be landing at their dock the next day! With the recent incident of the Minister of Agriculture committing suicide after being indicted for taking bribes, the LDP was in trouble with an election coming up. With the polls showing the LDP taking a serious hit in Shiga prefecture (which contains Lake Biwa), the Prime Minister himself was stumping through the prefecture, which he was doing by taking a ferry around Lake Biwa and stopping at several places to speak.

Now the exact timing and schedule of his tour was not released to the public for security reasons. However, the places he was actually going to stop at needed to know the exact schedule, therefore my father-in-law found out from the director of the ferry company. Since my family and I would often spend time with my father-in-law by going to the ferry landing and chatting with them, I decided to be there the next day when the Prime Minister would be visiting so that I could see him and possibly get a handshake with him.

So I showed up about 30 minutes before the designated time, and just sat and a bench and read a book. Usually at the dock there are a few people in tourist clothes waiting for the next ferry, but this time there were 4~5 people standing around in dark suits and wearing earpieces, trying (and failing utterly) to look inconspicuous. Over the next 20 minutes, a lot of local citizens just ‘happened to’ show up, acting nonchalant. Evidently even though the itinerary wasn’t publicly released, it can’t compare to the communication potential of gossip in a small town!

There was one strange incident, though. When other people were just starting to show up, the obvious undercover policemen started getting really fidgety. Walking back and forth, looking around everywhere, etc. One of them came up to me to talk. He introduced himself and showed me his badge, and then he said something that seemed really strange. In Japanese he said, 「外人さんがこのところにいるのはちょっと困りますが・・・」 This translates to “It bothers/worries us to have a foreigner here right now…” I told him I was visiting my in-laws who live just down the street, and I thought I would catch a glimpse of the Prime Minister. He didn’t seem to buy it though, but fortunately my father-in-law came up and corroborated my story, which seemed to satisfy the policeman.

A few minutes later when a good crowd had arrived, a ferry flanked on either side by police patrol boats came into the dock. About two dozen reporters seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and as soon as the boat was docked the Prime Minister’s entourage streamed out of the boat, with the first few literally running as fast as they could (I wonder what the rush was?) As Shinzo Abe came off the boat and into the waiting area, he was immediately surrounded by reporters trying to get pictures and statements, and other people just wanting to shake his hand. He stopped for maybe a minute or two and shook hands with the crowd. My father-in-law went up and got to shake his hand, but considering how my mere presence made the policemen nervous I decided to stay in the back out of the crowd. After shaking some hands, Abe then went on his way without making any statements to the press. There was an entourage of vehicles all ready for him and his staff, and in 5 minutes the ferry and waiting area was again empty.

The policeman’s choice of language to me could easily be interpreted as quite racist. He could have said, “it’s a little unusual to see a foreigner here,” or something else more subtle. On the other hand, even though I found his choice of language to perhaps not be ideal, he was actually very polite in his demeanor and tone. I was sitting on a bench when he approached me, and he squatted to speak with me at my level, as opposed to speaking down to me from an erect position. Although I do wonder if I would have been allowed to stay there if my father-in-law hadn’t been there to back me up.

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1 Response to Almost meeting the Prime Minister… but not quite

  1. Peter says:

    That’s interesting, Derek. I’m curious as to what the policeman’s concerns were to have a foreigner present. If someone was indeed planning on causing trouble or making a scene, they could do a much better job if they didn’t already stand out like a sore thumb. (Given your height and ethnicity, I assume that was the case.) Standing back seems like a prudent decision, given the circumstances. Still, seeing the Prime Minister is cool, even if you didn’t get to shake hands.

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