Unlike the days when representing the people as a Diet member was considered the prestigious road to success, some politicians today are leaning toward local administration, hoping to improve their careers and achieve their policy ideals.
Amid growing calls for decentralization of power and the lingering political turmoil in Nagata-cho, the nation’s political center, some Diet members have started warming to governorships.
Three of six major candidates in the April 11 Tokyo gubernatorial election — Kunio Hatoyama, Shintaro Ishihara and Koji Kakizawa — all were with the Diet for over 20 years and have experience as Cabinet ministers.
At the mayoral level, Tadatoshi Akiba, a former Lower House member of the Social Democratic Party, won the Hiroshima mayoral election in January, and Yasuyuki Kitawaki, a Lower House member of the Democratic Party of Japan, has declared his candidacy in the April mayoral election in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.
Political experts say the trend reflects both the rising attraction of being someone who can exercise local leadership over a wider range of administration and the declining prestige of national politics.
Ishihara, a former transport minister, quit the Lower House in April 1995, saying he finally realized he could do nothing for the nation as long as he stayed in the Diet. He is now running in the Tokyo race, saying the governor’s post will enable him to change Japan from the capital.
Kakizawa, a former foreign minister, gave up his Lower House seat and lost his membership in the Liberal Democratic Party when he entered the race for governor, a post he believes should play a greater role in these times of decentralization. “For me, the Tokyo governor’s post is second in importance only to that of the prime minister,” Kakizawa said.
Muneyuki Shindo, a professor of administrative science at Rikkyo University, said lawmakers are splitting into two categories: those pursuing ambitions to climb the national politics ladder, hopefully to the prime ministership; and those more attracted by power at the local level.
It is also true that some Diet members have found themselves trapped in power struggles in the current turmoil following the collapse in 1993 of the LDP’s 38-year reign, and have realized they have not spent their time and energy to achieve policy ideals, Shindo said.
Hatoyama, a former education minister and ex-deputy head of the DPJ, said the Tokyo governorship is attractive to him because he can directly handle administrative issues without wasting time on political power struggles. “My experiences as a Diet member have left me feeling powerless in the central political world,” he said.
Governorships have recently grown more attractive partly because some relative newcomers, including Mie’s Masayasu Kitagawa, Kochi’s Daijiro Hashimoto and Miyagi’s Shiro Asano, have become well-known both in and out of their prefectures for demonstrating strong leadership, something rare for the position in the past. “I believe the activities of these governors have stimulated not a few Diet members who are frustrated or disappointed with national politics,” Shindo said.
He also noted some politicians have become aware that heading a local government can provide them a good opportunity to hone their political skills, which may help them later if they return to national politics.
Not too long ago, former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who earlier served as Kumamoto governor, and Masayoshi Takemura, who served as Shiga governor, played key roles in a political realignment.
Working with others, they formed a coalition government under Hosokawa in 1993, putting an end to the LDP’s 38 years of monopoly.
Takeshi Sasaki, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo, said governors can stand closer to the public than politicians working only in the Diet.
Governors-turned-lawmakers agree with Sasaki. “Some public projects in local areas subsidized by the central government are in trouble now because they were planned by those in the central government who are not familiar with the situation in those areas,” said former Hokkaido Gov. Takahiro Yokomichi, now a Lower House member of the DPJ.
He was referring to debt-ridden development projects such as one in the Mutsu Ogawara area of Aomori Prefecture and another in the eastern Tomakomai area of Hokkaido.
Yokomichi said he returned to national politics because he realized he had to change the current system, which hinders local governments from being more independent. “The job of governor was really interesting,” he said. “But still, I faced obstacles in dealing with issues with the central government,” Yokomichi said, noting that the central government wields a strong influence over projects carried out by municipalities.
Because municipal governments have to seek central government approval of their projects and subsidies to carry them out, the state has tremendous control over local-level projects, Yokomichi said.
Tetsundo Iwakuni, who served as Izumo mayor in Shimane Prefecture before entering the Lower House as a DPJ member, welcomed the recent trend of Diet members warming to local-level politics. “It does not necessarily mean they are tired of national politics. It’s always good to have experience in local politics to improve political skills as well as administrative skills,” he said.
The experiences in local politics will educate politicians about what people in local areas expect their governments to do and make them aware of factors that need to be reformed for decentralization, Iwakuni said. “My experience taught me that I can achieve little toward changing Japan, even if I carry out reforms at Izumo, unless I change the system (of relations between the state and local governments) at the national level,” Iwakuni said.