Shizuoka race lights up national landscape

by Sayo Sasaki

Kyodo News

SHIZUOKA (Kyodo) Electing a governor in Shizuoka is normally regarded as just another local race, but campaigning this time around is feeling a lot more heated with national analysts touting it as a weather vane ahead of the general election.

With Prime Minister Taro Aso’s support rate falling, his Liberal Democratic Party has taken to playing down its role in the Shizuoka campaign, while the Democratic Party of Japan is pulling out all the stops in hopes of reaping a windfall when voters head to the polls this Sunday.

Yukiko Sakamoto, backed by the LDP and New Komeito as well as the departing incumbent, Yoshinobu Ishikawa, is emphasizing that she is the only woman among the four candidates, rather than stressing party support.

Sakamoto, 60, a former Upper House member and ex-deputy governor, has been campaigning vigorously throughout the prefecture’s 37 municipalities, which her campaign staff calls “a rare move” in a conservative prefecture with 3.8 million people and an LDP-dominated assembly.

“We’re alarmed,” said Kengo Ono, head of her campaign office. “This should have been an easy race for us, but we feel the wind is blowing against us, especially since (Kunio) Hatoyama’s resignation” as internal affairs minister over the row about keeping Yoshifumi Nishikawa on as Japan Post’s boss.

Female lawmakers, including Seiko Noda, state minister for consumer affairs, and Yoko Kamikawa, former state minister for reversing the falling birthrate, have stumped in the prefecture for Sakamoto, while Aso so far has stayed out of the picture.

The opposition-backed Heita Kawakatsu, 60, has been taking another approach. The former head of Shizuoka University of Art and Culture has been highlighting the support he’s getting from the DPJ.

He has often been accompanied on the campaign trail by high-profile lawmakers, including DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, Secretary General Katsuya Okada and deputy chief Naoto Kan.

“Our opponents are trying to hide the fact that they are the LDP,” Hatoyama said in a speech in the city of Shizuoka. “But look at our candidate. He is putting the DPJ at the forefront in the campaign.”

Candidates backed by the DPJ have recently won major mayoral polls in Nagoya, Saitama and Chiba, giving the party significant momentum heading into the general election that must be held by fall.

But even with backing from the DPJ and two other opposition parties, Kawakatsu is taking nothing for granted.

DPJ supporters are split between him and another candidate, Toru Unno, 60, who has served in the Upper House for the DPJ, according to the campaign staffs of both candidates.

“I am not voting for the LDP because I want a change,” said a 45-year-old noodle shop owner listening to a campaign speech in front of Shizuoka Station. “I’m thinking about one of the DPJ candidates this time, but I wish I could see the difference between the two.”

The DPJ reportedly tried to unite behind a single candidate but failed, thus creating a campaign in which no single candidate appears in command.

Campaign workers generally believe Sakamoto and Kawakatsu are more or less neck and neck, with Unno just a little behind followed by the Japanese Communist Party’s Sadayoshi Hirano, 59.

The election was called after Ishikawa resigned in a deal with a landowner who would only remove trees from his property near Mt. Fuji Shizuoka Airport if the governor stepped down. The standoff had delayed the airport’s opening.

It remains unclear whether voters will choose someone to follow the path Ishikawa has laid down during his four terms or elect someone to take a different course.

“I think people know in their minds that it is about choosing our governor and not about which party wins,” said Unno’s campaign chief, Hiroyuki Oishi. “But they’re getting confused by talk of this local election being one that is leading up to a general election. This is quite annoying.”