OSAKA — Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka said he has learned from the mistakes of other populist governors who took on the bureaucracy and lost, emphasizing that the age of traditional confrontational politics between small citizens’ groups and bureaucrats is over.
In an interview with The Japan Times, the 44-year-old novelist-turned-politician touched on his experiences in Kobe, first as a volunteer after the January 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and then during an unsuccessful citizen-led campaign to stop the construction of Kobe airport.
“I learned many things from my Kobe experiences. But Kobe is different from Nagano because the mayor and City Hall said they planned to build the airport without the input of the public,” said Tanaka, who officially assumed the governorship last week.
“In Nagano, many were supportive of Olympics-related construction and thought the (hosting of the 1998 Winter) Olympics was a good thing. But they got angry because promises made by politicians and bureaucrats about post-Olympic prosperity weren’t realized.”
One of his promises during the election campaign, which culminated in his Oct. 15 victory against three other candidates, including then Vice Gov. Fumitaka Ikeda, was to launch a review of public works projects with an eye toward eliminating those deemed unnecessary.
But partially in anticipation of resistance by prefectural bureaucrats and large businesses, the new governor emphasized that he would be flexible. “Not all public works projects are bad,” he said.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his experience in working with local activists in Kobe, Tanaka has a decidedly skeptical view of traditional citizen opposition movements in Japan.
“People who protested the Nagano Olympic construction and some involved in the campaign against Kobe airport were opposing the projects just for the sake of opposing,” he charged.
“Such groups aren’t working for the taxpayers but for themselves, the Japanese Communist Party and labor unions. They’re as insular as the construction companies and government officials they criticize.”
Intolerance and inflexibility toward compromise are the reasons why citizens’ movements haven’t really been effective, Tanaka added.
“All organizations, government or otherwise, contain both good and bad aspects. The Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate extorts money from bars and nightclubs, but it also passed out food and aid after the (Hanshin) earthquake. You have to judge the good and the bad.”
During the gubernatorial race, Tanaka was rather vague about specific proposals beyond a promise to move the governor’s office to the first floor of the prefectural headquarters. He also pledged to open up government through such means as holding twice-monthly meetings where anyone can visit him without an appointment.
But, mindful of the strong bureaucratic opposition to populist ideals that confronted former Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima, a comedian-turned-politician, Tanaka emphasized that his administration will take a more conciliatory approach toward the bureaucracy — a melting of walls.
“Japan is one country, but (there are) so many invisible ‘Berlin Walls’ between groups of people. But the wall between the Nagano bureaucracy and the people has been melting over the years without anyone really noticing it,” Tanaka said.
“The people of Nagano didn’t want to destroy the wall — they wanted it to continue to melt gradually.”
The governor also denied reports that his victory was the result of outside assistance.
“My victory wasn’t about activists from Tokyo coming into Nagano and stirring things up. It was about ordinary people recognizing, after so many years, the time had come for change,” Tanaka said.
Although different in style and political temperament, Tanaka indicated an admiration for some things Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has done, especially in terms of raising issues usually handled only by the central government, like the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
But Tanaka refused to say what he would do as governor in the event the U.S. military, under new defense cooperation guidelines, should request use of a Nagano-based facility such as Matsumoto airport.
He said only that he backs the current situation, voicing support for both the bilateral security treaty and the Constitution’s Article 9, which renounces war.
In response to those shocked with his openness about his past sexual exploits or embarrassed that he once directed a sexually explicit movie with a porno film actress in the lead role, Tanaka fired back that at least he is honest.
“Which is worse? My openness or the hypocrisy of those who hide what they do? People know who I am, my good and bad points, and they elected me taking both into consideration.”