“The city with the highest rate of depopulation.” In Japan, which has struggled to maintain its population for decades, this title is a particular disgrace. Yokosuka, a medium-sized coastal town about an hour south of Tokyo, bore the title in 2013. In 2014, it only managed to drop to second place.
It was a wakeup call for local Chikara Takeoka, who responded in a way few people do at the age of twenty-five: he quit his stable career and jumped into politics.
In a country where the average age of city council members is around sixty years old, Takeoka has been leveraging his position as a young person to cause a typhoon of change.
Discovering a Unique Advantage
You don’t have to be born to a wealthy family in a thriving metropolis to become a person of influence. Humble beginnings come with their own advantages.
Local community was a constant for Takeoka growing up. He and his older brother were born and raised in Yokosuka by a single mother and the local neighborhood. As a university student, he helped run local activities like Sports Day, which eventually led to his appointment as the youngest neighborhood council member in Yokosuka. Before Takeoka, the youngest members were in their fifties.
“Since I’m a different generation,” he says, “I thought it would be a unique experience. This kind of thing is how innovation happens.”
After university, Takeoka moved far from Yokosuka to Hokkaido, the northernmost part of Japan. There, he worked hard with local schools to improve education, but his impact was limited. He began to realize one very important fact: at the end of the day, you need to change the system to make true change. Someone needed to upset the status quo in the systems running Yokosuka. And what was the status quo in Yokosuka?
So, realizing his youth was a distinct advantage, he ran for Yokosuka city council at twenty-five.
Campaigning against the Odds
Setting out on a new career path—whether it’s joining a new company, launching a startup, or getting into politics—requires more than passion for change. No matter how inspiring your message or how desperate the need for reform, you’ll need a strategy to make it to your goal.
A little know-how doesn’t hurt, either.
Takeoka wasn’t exactly a political newbie. In university, he majored in politics, interned as a secretary for city council member Junpei Kayama, and remained involved in local activities as a neighborhood council member. And he’d need that experience—the road ahead was far from easy.
Although there were around forty seats available, incumbent members were highly likely to be re-elected, meaning there were only around ten seats actually in play. And with around fifteen new candidates running, some with the support of national political parties, Takeoka’s chances didn’t look great.
As if that weren’t enough, he was joining the race later than most.
Adversity was everywhere. So how on Earth did he win?
He relied on his local roots and marketed what made him different: his youth.
Because of his late start, he poured all of his personal time into political activities to make himself as visible as possible during an eight-month campaign. He made speeches in front of the local train station in the morning, afternoon, and evening. He sought out local events to attend, big and small. Instead of riding around in an election car announcing his candidacy, he went around by bicycle or on foot to show off his youth. By the middle of the campaign, people began to recognize him, and his supporters started to grow.
Finally, to the surprise of many, he won.
Finding the Outside-the-Box Advantage
Succeeding as an outlier isn’t just about getting recognition for being different—it’s about leveraging a unique position for change.
In Takeoka’s case, youth has been a huge advantage not only for his campaign, but for the job itself. His younger perspective has enabled him to identify unnecessary expenses older councilmembers haven’t noticed, such as the leased fax machines that cost Yokosuka more than 3 million yen annually.
Then there’s his connection with young people in the community. “I think I’m accepted relatively easily when reaching out to younger people. Local middle and high school students follow me on Instagram, so I was able to take individual surveys on the actual situation during the COVID-19 mass school closings.”
It’s a direct and honest connection to the youth of the community that the city government otherwise wouldn’t have. And that’s important, since many of Takeoka’s proposed policies are about raising the quality of Yokosuka’s education. For example, he made club supervision the responsibility of locals and adopted a subject-specialist teacher system in upper elementary school. Both initiatives have decreased the workload of teachers. As part of the technologically-literate generation, Takeoka also pushed to have tablets and computers at all elementary, middle, and special education schools in Yokosuka.
All of this comes back to addressing the ultimate goal of increasing population. “Investing in the fields of child-rearing and education will capture the interest of future generations and help increase the population,” he says.
Keeping Your Eye on the Prize
On the path to achieving a personal mission it’s easy to get distracted by small wins—or even big ones, such as getting elected. That’s why it’s helpful to periodically remind yourself of your ultimate goal. Even better, work it into your day-to-day routine.
Takeoka stays connected to his constituents in the simplest of ways: “Chit-chatting with neighbors is important. ‘That restaurant is closed,’ or ‘I hurt my leg and it’s hard for me to get to city hall these days’ . . . Social issues are hiding in those conversations. You just need to pick up those small seeds, keep them close, and step into the challenge.”
Without this insight, it would be easy for Takeoka to forget about what’s going on outside his window and focus his energy on climbing the political ladder. But that’s not why he got into politics.
Like many youths these days, Takeoka is more focused on making change than acquiring power and influence. “I don’t have any specific position I want to be elected to. It is more about what I want to do. If Yokosuka suddenly became the city with the highest rate of population increase in Japan, I’d probably quit my job!”
It’s the goal of influencing change that matters, not the rat race. Every day he leverages himself as an outlier, he gains a little more power to disrupt the status quo.