Growing up in late 1960s Japan, Mieko Nakabayashi had an unlikely goal. The eldest daughter of a farmer-turned-land-developer, she dreamed of living overseas.
“I was so curious about the world,” she recalls.
Four decades later, that Saitama Prefecture schoolgirl has grown into a power player with a résumé spanning the Pacific Rim and two nation’s capitals. Nakabayashi, 50, has worked as a television reporter, think tank researcher, and professor. For a decade, she worked as a U.S. Senate budget staffer.
Her biggest move came last year, when she was elected to Japan’s House of Representatives. Long acquainted with the cherry blossoms of Washington, D.C., she now heads to work amid the droning cicadas and gingko trees that surround Japan’s parliament, known as the Diet.
There, her trademark light blue jackets stand out amid a sea of dark-suited male lawmakers. She’s known as a budget hawk and an advocate for openness.
“During this kind of era, you have to really involve people,” she says. “You cannot hide. People have to be involved and convinced.”
She attributes those convictions to her time living and working in the United States, including two and a half years earning her master’s degree in political science at WSU. To many Japanese, politics is a thing best kept at arm’s length, with public spending decisions left largely to lawmakers and bureaucrats.
“People just take it for granted and feel it’s natural,” says Nakabayashi. “It’s kind of sad, I think.”
In a diverse career, one key consistency has been her love of public policy. That’s what she was covering in the late 1980s as a TV reporter fresh out of college in Japan. She interviewed company leaders for an economic policy program.
“I started to realize that I didn’t know much,” says Nakabayashi. “And I thought I should learn language seriously and see the world seriously.”
She was accepted into a WSU master’s degree program. After a three-day drive from the home of friends in Los Angeles, she nervously motored into Pullman late at night. Her first impression, after Tokyo and L.A: She couldn’t believe how dark it was.
The next morning, she was stunned at the size of the WSU campus and the beauty of the wind rippling through Palouse wheat fields.
Nakabayashi was also surprised at the accessibility of the professors, who’d sometimes host discussion groups in their homes.
“I never felt so close to professors in Japan,” she says.
An internship at a Washington, D.C., law firm led to a Senate job as a Republican budget committee staffer. Wading into the nitty-gritty of policy-making, Nakabayashi felt a familiar feeling.
“After I’d worked one year, I really started to realize that I knew nothing. Again,” she says. So she stayed for a decade, finally returning to Japan to marry her husband, a Japanese surgeon she’d met at a friend’s party. Leaving the United States, she cried.
She was teaching at her undergraduate alma mater when a Japanese lawmaker recruited her to run for the House of Representatives.
“My mother really hates politicians,” she says, laughing. “She didn’t like it.”
But when a lawmaker from the Yokohama suburbs decided to retire, Nakabayashi agreed to run.
Campaigning in Japan is sharply different from what American voters are used to. Rather than relying heavily on broadcast ads, campaigns plaster posters of Japanese candidates’ faces throughout neighborhoods. The candidates ride around in sound trucks, repeating their names over and over through blaring loudspeakers. Wearing a white sash, Nakabayashi also worked the suburban subway platforms, building name recognition with harried commuters.
She won. In a stunning upset, her party also wrested control of parliament from the Liberal Democratic Party, which had long dominated Japanese postwar politics.
Nakabayashi took office last year. She is believed to be the first WSU alumnus ever elected to Japan’s parliament.
“Mieko has been able to exercise subtle but substantial influence,” says Peter Ennis, a columnist for Weekly Toyo Keizai, a Japanese business magazine. “She has practical policy experience and practical legislative experience, something that many of her DPJ colleagues lack.”
She was quickly appointed to the budget committee, where lawmakers have their work cut out for them. Burdened with massive national debt, Japan is struggling to prop up its social security and public health care systems amid sharply declining birth rates and general insecurity about the nation’s future. Long the world’s second-largest economy, Japan is being eclipsed by a fast-growing China.
More than ever, Nakabayashi argues, Japanese taxpayers must get involved in their nation’s spending decisions. After all, they’re the ones paying the bill.
That’s particularly true of women, she believes. Japan’s parliament has a low percentage—about 11 percent—of female members. Nakabayashi says that women— many of whom control the family finances—are a largely untapped political asset at a time when the nation’s books are increasingly hard to balance.
“I think Japan is now at a phase where they cannot avoid asking the people how much of a burden they want to shoulder, or what services to cut,” she says.
The resulting decisions, she says, will shape the country’s future for years to come.
“National defense, international relations, education, they’re all prioritized by the budget,” she says. “Budget-making is nation-building.”