DISSATISFACTION EASY TO FIND

Pension reform, SDF weigh on voters’ minds

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

If anything, Sunday’s House of Councilors election will probably be remembered for the clarity of the issues voters were being called on to judge.

Fresh in voters’ minds as they headed to the polls were the contentious government pension reform plan and its decision to place the Self-Defense Forces contingent deployed to Iraq in a multinational force.

For many people interviewed by The Japan Times, the election seemed to be an opportunity to show their dissatisfaction with the Liberal Democratic Party-led government.

At a polling station in Tokyo’s Koto Ward — where warehouses and factories along centuries-old canals are being replaced by new apartment buildings — Motoyo Fujita said she voted for Yukio Aoshima, a former Tokyo governor who is running as an independent, because she felt he would be “least likely to waste taxpayer money.”

The 38-year-old housewife said she was particularly incensed by media reports that the Social Insurance Agency spent some 60 million yen collected as pension and health insurance premiums to buy more than 700 electric massage chairs to be used at the agency’s offices.

“Isn’t that incredible?” she asked. “I think there is so much wasteful spending in the bureaucracy.”

Her husband, Yu, a 39-year-old systems engineer, said he voted for the Democratic Party of Japan. He said his distrust of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi deepened after he made important decisions without providing a full explanation to the public.

He cited Koizumi’s decision to send SDF troops to Iraq and his recent handling of the case of a Thai orphan girl, in which the Justice Ministry’s refusal to renew her short-term visa was reversed overnight at his suggestion.

“Even though the decision itself might be reasonable, the way Koizumi sidestepped official rules and procedures in deciding the matter worries me,” he said. “He might even rewrite the Constitution just like that.”

Orthopedic surgeon Yasushi Kojima, 38, was another voter who said he cast his ballot for the DPJ, in the hope that party leader Katsuya Okada might change the way things are run in Nagata-cho.

“I like Okada because he comes from a rich family,” Kojima said. Okada’s father is the chairman of the major supermarket chain Aeon Co., and his brother is its current president.

“I believe in the idea of noblesse oblige,” he added. “Everything goes wrong when a poor person enters politics.”

Kojima and his 24-year-old wife, Akane, said they are also unhappy with the government’s pension reform plan.

“We don’t feel like having children in Japan, as things are,” the doctor said. “We can’t possibly side with the view suggested by some old-guard politicians that couples should bear more children for the country’s sake.”

The election came at a time when the economy is finally showing signs of steady recovery, usually something that helps buoy the government’s popularity.

However, the economic upturn did not seem to have that much of an impact this time around. Owners of small businesses were actually mixed in their views.

The 73-year-old owner of a computer parts manufacturer in the Kamata district of Ota Ward, Tokyo, said he voted for the LDP, as he has always done, citing his conviction that Koizumi’s reform efforts have finally put the economy on a recovery track.

“Throughout the postwar period, the Japanese economy has relied largely on that of the United States, and it is sad but true that the LDP, which is not so much more than a puppet of the U.S., can best serve the economy here,” he said.

But as for pension reforms, a key issue in the election, he said he personally felt more sympathy toward the proposals put forward by the opposition parties.

“I hope both sides continue to discuss their reform plans even after the election,” he added.

The 60-year-old owner of a trucking firm said he voted for the LDP as “a business owner” but had other feelings as an individual.

“Deregulation of the trucking industry has led to cut-throat competition, but the industry cannot turn its back on the LDP,” he said.

Nearing retirement, he said he is dissatisfied with the ruling coalition’s pension reform plan, which was rammed through the Diet in the closing days of its ordinary session last month.

“Votes will definitely be divided even within my company, since younger workers voiced stronger anxiety regarding the future of the pension system,” he said.

The Kamata area is said to have a high concentration of members of the Buddhist lay organization Soka Gakkai, which supports New Komeito, the LDP’s ruling bloc partner.

A 50-year-old housewife said she has continued to support New Komeito even after it teamed up with the LDP.

“I have faith that the party will always put the interests of the people on the street first,” she said.

But supporters have been shaken since New Komeito, which has traditionally called itself a pacifist party, supported the SDF dispatch to Iraq.

“I personally have mixed feelings when I think about the worries of the SDF members’ relatives,” she said. “But I believe, as the party has explained, that they have been sent on a mission of peace.”

A muggy Sunday saw crowds flocking to the amusement facility adjacent to the Tokyo Dome in Bunkyo Ward, which features a spa, roller coaster and shopping complex.

A 38-year-old physician from Osaka who was visiting Tokyo for the weekend with his girlfriend said he was going to vote for the DPJ as soon as he returned home later in the day.

“I’m tired of all these problems with the pension system and the SDF dispatch to Iraq. It’s about time the ruling party was replaced,” he said, adding that the DPJ’s plan to raise the consumption tax to help fund the pension system is “the fairest way, considering the circumstances.”

Fumiko Tsunoda, a 40-year-old female entrepreneur who runs a marketing company, said she cast an absentee ballot for the DPJ the previous day because she had planned to visit the amusement park with her 3-year-old son.

“I realize there will always be discrepancies between the ideal and the reality in politics, but I am extremely frustrated by the LDP’s forceful attitude concerning the SDF dispatch to Iraq and the pension system,” she said.

“If in a few years’ time my son asks me what was going on, I will be too ashamed to explain.”

While few people were forthcoming in divulging who they voted for, a 21-year-old student who said his father is a New Komeito lawmaker said he voted for his father’s party, as well as its candidate in the Tokyo district, Masayoshi Hamada.

“I think parties like the DPJ are just making a fuss over issues like the pension system without having any good solution themselves,” he said.

But many young people, including a couple from Chiba Prefecture, both 20, expressed apathy toward the election.

“We don’t have jobs and the society is in shambles,” Kosuke Sato said. “Nothing is going to change, no matter who takes charge.”