Ishihara, Asano are in capital duel

Miyagi reformist vs. hawkish, hip-firing, popular Teflon incumbent

by Jun Hongo

Organizers of the 40th Annual Ome City Marathon were furious when Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara scheduled the first Tokyo Marathon for Feb. 18, the same day as their race.

But Ishihara refused to change the date, steamrolling Ome committee members in the process.

So how did the hawkish governor then end up as the honorary starter at rescheduled Feb. 4 Ome race?

“There’s no point in opposing him,” said Seita Hiraoka of the Ome Marathon organizing committee. “And we’d rather ‘live and let live.’ That’s why we asked Gov. Ishihara to be our honorary starter.”

With cameras on him, Ishihara thanked Ome for changing the date and praised the organizers for their work.

Yet, as the gubernatorial election campaign kicked off Thursday, Ishihara, who is seeking a third term, is fighting his own public image to win the race.

Ishihara, who is backed by the Liberal Democratic Party without his solicitation, has had to deal with a number of problems, including his office’s misuse of public funds and lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of metro government directives that plaintiffs feel stamp on their freedom of thought.

And there is a larger than usual number of politicians who think they can beat an incumbent considered weakened.

But ever since the 74-year-old politician announced in December that he would run again, political analysts and his rivals have been trying to uncover his secret weapon: his huge popularity despite the scandals. And his racist and sexist slurs appear not to faze voters.

Ishihara’s three main rivals for the governorship are former Miyagi Prefecture Gov. Shiro Asano, 59, prominent architect Kisho Kurokawa, 72 — both running as independents — and Manzo Yoshida, 59, a former Adachi Ward mayor who the Japanese Communist Party said it will back. Asano has been endorsed by the Democratic Party of Japan, effectively by default.

The three are opposed to Tokyo playing host to the 2016 Summer Olympics, one of Ishihara’s pet projects and his main campaign platform focus, and are going after the incumbent over recent scandals about his behavior in office.

However, Norio Toyoshima, a political analyst and professor of government administration at Kyorin University in Tokyo, said the candidates all face a tough challenge battling against Ishihara’s charisma, one of the characteristics he shares with the popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

“Voters see Ishihara as a stubborn man, and also a father figure who can be depended on. He’s not afraid of opposing the central government,” Toyoshima said, noting his perceived fearlessness in the face of a huge bureaucracy also makes him similar to Koizumi.

And despite the criticism, which has reached an unprecedented level, Toyoshima said Ishihara’s accomplishments combined with his charisma “cancel out the scandals and place him as the front-runner in the gubernatorial race.”

Ishihara has made several clear achievements, including establishing metro legislation requiring reduced emissions from diesel-powered vehicles in Tokyo and pulling off a successful Tokyo Marathon, and that appeals to voters, Toyoshima said.

Ishihara’s public image began taking hits in September when the Tokyo District Court ruled that a metro directive ordering teachers to stand and sing the “Kimigayo” national anthem was unconstitutional, and the punishments opposing teachers received were illegal.

Then in November, the JCP revealed in the metropolitan assembly that Ishihara had spent huge amounts of government money to take lavish trips overseas in his capacity as Tokyo governor since he first took office in 1999.

This was followed by more disclosures by the JCP, including a report that Ishihara’s fourth son was chosen to direct the creation of a piece of public art in Davos, Switzerland, at a Tokyo promotional event organized by the governor and that Ishihara had personally approved the appointment.

Throughout the scandals, the governor has appeared calm and composed, appealing the “Kimigayo” case to the high court and countering the JCP claims by saying party members were trying to bully him.

Shiro Asano is considered to have the only chance of beating Ishihara.

Asano, now a professor at Keio University, has said Ishihara’s office lacks transparency and announced earlier this month that, if elected, he would make “sweeping reforms of social expenses.”

The former senior official at the health ministry also pledged to improve metro disaster plans and programs for the elderly, which he said have been neglected under Ishihara.

Asano was a reluctant candidate. When the DPJ approached him to run for governor, Asano refused, saying he had “already graduated” from being a governor.

Ishihara has tried to use Asano’s change of heart against him, telling reporters it did not make sense for someone who served as Miyagi governor to just come over to Tokyo to try to do the same.

And questions have also arisen about Asano’s past record as governor.

Miyagi’s finances deteriorated in the 12 years Asano was governor.

The prefecture’s reserve fund to deal with an economic downturn or sudden decline in tax income shrank to 14 billion yen in 2005 when Asano left office, from 30 billion yen in 2003.

Yet Asano still made a name for himself in Miyagi as a reformist, introducing greater public disclosure and implementing new welfare strategies.

He also has pledged that as Tokyo governor, he would improve programs for the elderly and metro disaster plans that have been neglected under Ishihara.

During a news conference earlier this month to announce his candidacy, Asano admitted the prefecture’s finances worsened while he was in office.

But Asano said he would bring reform to Tokyo, claiming he knew from experience that Ishihara had brought a dangerous state of secrecy to the governor’s office. He was referring to when he assumed the Miyagi governorship after his predecessor, Shuntaro Honma, was convicted in 1997 for bribery while in office.

“I know how critical Tokyo’s situation is,” Asano said.

Political analyst Eiken Itagaki, who has written several books on the LDP and the DPJ, praised Asano’s eagerness but said Ishihara will probably still win.

Itagaki said that despite Asano’s big declaration that he would clean up Tokyo politics, there are very few differences between his and Ishihara’s platforms. He pointed out that both men have promised to improve the capital’s disaster plans and develop new welfare policies.

The race may be a tossup between the two, Itagaki said, since both will have to win over nonaffiliated voters, just as former TV celebrity Hideo Higashikokubaru did in Miyazaki’s gubernatorial election in January. Higashikokubaru won as an independent in a landslide victory against candidates put up by the major parties.

For Asano to win, Itagaki said, he needs to play up his expertise in welfare policymaking and try to attract the anti-Ishihara vote. He said there is a danger that voters who don’t choose Ishihara will be split between Asano, Kurokawa and Yoshida, ensuring Ishihara a win, Itagaki said.

The analyst also said the DPJ failed to find a candidate — it approached popular TV newscaster Tetsuya Chikushi, former House of Representatives member Banri Kaieda and the DPJ Deputy President Naoto Kan — probably because no one they asked thought they had a real chance of beating Ishihara.

“Even if Kan had joined the race, the chances of him winning were slim. It’s like a match between a yokozuna and a komusubi,” Itagaki said, referring to the sumo grand champ and the lowest rank.

“Ishihara is the obvious front-runner and the question is not whether he will win. It’s on how much of the previous gubernatorial election’s 3.08 million votes he can hold onto after all the scandals.”

But Asano’s backers are determined. Yurika Takahashi, member of a group that finally persuaded Asano to run in the gubernatorial race, said Ishihara has no skills in international diplomacy. Some of the more outrageous things the governor has said have included calling Koreans and Taiwanese by the slur “sangokujin” and saying the French language was “disqualified as an international language because French is a language in which one cannot count.” Ishihara also raises eyebrows over his frequent visits to Tokyo’s war-related, contentious Yasukuni Shrine.

“I feel shame as a resident of Tokyo that he is our governor. Is it really necessary to have him serve another four years?” Takahashi asked.

But she has no illusions about the battle Asano faces, saying he will have to work very hard to attract voters as Ishihara easily will get a large number of votes.

Ishihara received a record-breaking 3.08 million votes in the 2003 gubernatorial election and Asano won his first Miyagi race with about 290,000 votes. Takahashi said that even with the difference in sizes between the two prefectures, Asano received a much smaller share of the votes than Ishihara.

“The numbers are widely different and I know that incumbents have an advantage over their challengers,” Takahashi said. “But it still is important for new ideas to be spread to the public.”