Anthony Bianchi’s life in Japan took root in the 1980s when the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn native landed a job with the Inuyama City board of education in Aichi Prefecture on the JET Program exchange initiative. He continued to work in Inuyama after JET, and in 2003 gained citizenship, becoming the first-ever North American to hold an elected position in Japan.
In 2006, Bianchi ran for mayor of Inuyama, receiving enough votes to finish third out of eight candidates. He was re-elected to city council in 2007 and started his third term in April. Following a benefit concert for Japan at his alma mater Xaverian High School on March 31, I caught up with the politico in this exclusive interview.
What’s changed for you since you last spoke with JETAA NY in 2008?
I was just reelected for a third term. There are now only four council members with more years on the council than I. That changes the dynamics a bit. How much so we will find out over the next few years. Other than that, local front burner issues have changed, but the job stays pretty much the same. That being said, of course the earthquake and tsunami have changed the country. As a council member in a municipality that was not directly affected, we have to keep in mind what we can do to contribute to the recovery while maintaining necessary levels of service for the people of the city.
How has the election of the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009 changed the way you and your colleagues work in Inuyama?
Unfortunately, not very much. They have been mostly unable to implement their manifest. Due to that they have been soundly defeated in local elections. Keep in mind that the recent local elections were the first since the DPJ took power. The significance of that is that most localities still had a pre-DPJ administration makeup. So they have even less local influence now than they had before they took power. Unless there is a dramatic change in the way they govern, they will loss power in the next lower house elections. A tremendous chance to make significant change has been squandered. What the aftermath will be remains to be seen, but I am afraid it will not be good.
How has the election of President Obama changed any impressions or attitudes of the average Japanese citizen?
Of course, the election of Mr. Obama was watched with great interest here and welcomed. For lack of a better description, it was seen as America becoming a more forward thinking, open and kinder society. You must remember that just as Americans are not cognizant of Japanese political national and domestic issues, so are Japanese not cognizant of America’s. That being the case, President Obama’s election was viewed for its social implications by the Japanese.
What are some of the biggest changes in the JET Program that you’ve observed over the years? Do you work with any JETs?
I sometime talk to those who administrate the program or former participants, but it has been a long time since I was a JET. I really don’t know what things are like on an everyday basis for current participants, and there are no JETs in Inuyama.
In Inuyama I started a program based partly on my JET experience. It is called the Native English Teacher (NET) Program. I started and ran it for seven years before leaving to run for office. The program continues to this day and has six teachers all directly employed by the city. The teachers here must have some ESL qualification. Currently, all teach their own classes based on original materials created by the group.
Although we had some tough going in the first few years, the participants here are pretty much accepted as regular teaching staff at their schools.
Tokyo has mulled budget cuts for the program that may threaten its existence. What are some of the positive effects of JET that you can share with your colleagues in local government to help quantify its value?
I think the program did not get proper considerations during its evaluation by the oversight committee. Although I think JET could use some retooling and needs to redefine its goals, the program has great benefits for the country. One of the greatest, but overlooked is the former participants themselves. They all have a great knowledge, understanding and affection for Japan. All have gone on to various careers and are a great but underutilized network.
For the complete interview, click here.