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Tokyo governor election to spell trouble for the LDP?

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In Brief

On 9 February, voters in the richest municipality in the world, the Tokyo Metropolitan District, will elect a new governor. Despite the job’s many attractions, Japan’s stultified political parties were unable to find candidates within their own ranks. Instead, they have had to line themselves up behind independents — all men (there are no women running) who have either burned their bridges with the established parties or never had any bridges at all.


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The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which dominates the metropolitan assembly, hounded former governor Naoki Inose from office over corruption allegations — hoping he would be replaced by someone more amenable to its spending plans and ordinances. But none of the current candidates stand to further the LDP’s interests any more than Inose.

Twelve of the 16 candidates are cranks. But four are quite serious and, in their persons and issues, offer a microcosm of the Japanese polity.

The most intriguing candidate is former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, whose political resume and friendships have garnered him the greatest international attention. Hosokawa is running as the candidate most determined to fight the restarting of the nation’s nuclear reactors, which have remained shut down while the national government deals with safety issues in the aftermath of the March 2011 meltdown in Fukushima. Hosokawa’s candidacy has the support of the great showman of Japanese politics, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. The two former prime ministers, both in their 70s, have found common ground in resisting the current government’s plans to jolt Japan’s nuclear industry back to life. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pushing hard for the restarts. First, to respond to Japan’s deteriorating trade position post-Fukushima due to increased hydrocarbon imports. And second, to bolster nuclear power technology exports, a task for which he has declared himself ‘Japan’s number-one salesman’.

Most citizens remember Hosokawa’s brief prime ministership of 1993–94 as a flash of hope when Japan seemed to be entering a new, better era in its politics. With the fiery and still immensely popular Koizumi as his guarantor and crowd generator — and the short campaign season favouring the candidates with the greatest name recognition — the Hosokawa candidacy should be a cakewalk.

But Hosokawa has failed to connect with most voters. Despite being more than just a single-issue candidate, he has not vigorously outlined his other proposals or defended himself. Instead, he has let the news media and his enemies in the ruling LDP paint him as an out-of-touch scion of a great samurai family.

Hosokawa’s failure to ignite the imaginations of the voters has paved the way for former Health, Labour and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe to march to victory. Masuzoe has the support of the ruling LDP — which is enjoying eight times the level of support of any of the opposition parties — and the LDP’s coalition partner New Komeito.

Masuzoe has been smart to bore in on a stealth issue: how Tokyo can meet its medical, hospice and elder care needs. The general impression of Tokyo — young at heart thanks to its universities and vibrant economic climate drawing young adults out of the more rural prefectures — is broadly accurate. But sections of Tokyo are set to undergo a demographic revolution. The now ironically named ‘new towns’ — the bedroom communities settled by a uniform mass of young families in the high growth years — will age at a rate 50 per cent faster than the national rate. Masuzoe, who struggled to maintain his professional life in Tokyo while caring for his mother during her five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, has found a willing and interested audience for his ideas on caring for the elderly.

Labouring in the shadow of the two main candidates are Kenji Utsunomiya, former chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, and General Toshio Tamogami, former Chief of Staff of the Air Self-Defense Forces.

Tamogami seems to be in the race to drum up support for his Ganbare Nippon! Zenkoku Kodo Iinkai (‘Do your best, Japan! National Action Committee’) ultra-nationalist group. He is supported by former Tokyo Governor and nationalist icon Shintaro Ishihara — and by a Facebook and Twitter army of supporters nationwide who have made a mockery of any internet-based attempts to gauge popular opinion.

Utsunomiya is supported by Japan’s sizable Communist Party and increasingly marginal Social Democratic Party. He made his name defending and fighting for the poor and downtrodden. His vision of Tokyo is rather rougher than most voters are willing to concede. Still, he has sensible and relatively unambitious ideas on how to approach basic problems such as caring for the elderly, childcare and transportation. On the stump he is feisty, punchy and convincing. But voters seeing him on television are only exposed to ‘absent-minded professor’-like clips of him talking blearily about social injustice, the high cost of hosting the Olympics, and his opposition to nuclear power.

By contrast General Tamogami is handled by the news media with a disturbing level of deference. Stations show images of him giving speeches or shaking the hands of voters — never mentioning the astonishing breaches of discipline and politicisation of the Self-Defense Forces that forced his early retirement. With his past and the substance of his numerous big-ticket promises unexamined, a depressing number of voters will put his name down on their ballot papers. This is because he offers the most adamant assurances of protection, whether it be from natural disasters, energy shortages, or foreign infiltration — the latter not being as irrelevant as one might think: the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has jurisdiction over some of Japan’s most remote islands stretching southward and westward, all the way to the Marianas and Guam.

Whoever wins on 9 February, the biggest losers will be the LDP’s Tokyo branch and Prime Minister Abe.

None of the candidates, not even LDP-supported Masuzoe, are more likely to further the interests of the LDP than Inose. Hosokawa or Utsunomiya and their anti-nuclear message would be unwelcome. And the prime minister’s current ally, Masuzoe, was one of his great tormentors during Abe’s brief 2006–07 time in the top job.

Once safely in office Masuzoe will likely revert to the role of scold and mule, demanding accountability and transparency — where the Tokyo LDP and the prime minister’s supporters in big business would want indifference and opacity.

Michael Cucek is a Research Associate at the MIT Center for International Studies, adjunct fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan, and the author of the Shisaku blog on Japanese politics and society.

2 responses to “Tokyo governor election to spell trouble for the LDP?”

  1. Thanks for the excellent write up, MTC. But are you able to clarify one point: what do you mean by Utsunomiya’s vision of Tokyo being “rougher than most voters are willing to concede”? I am genuinely interested, as I am not overly familiar with that candidate.

    • zo –

      Utsunomiya-san portrays Tokyo as being much harder to live in, its future much more fraught, its socio-economic inequalities much starker and its problems much deeper than most Tokyo residents can readily accept. As a candidate, he needs to be more positive about the district, its people and its prospects. Not talking about what is right about the TMD erodes confidence in Utsunomiya’s powers of judgment. The voters know that as compared to most urban agglomerations, Tokyo is a paradise. A majority will not vote for candidate who sees the TMD as a staggering pile of troubles.

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