Ex-gov. Tanaka challenges a New Komeito stronghold

by Sayo Sasaki

Kyodo News

AMAGASAKI — While the Japanese public’s attention is intensely fixed on which party takes the lower house in the upcoming election, the race had seemed more like a done deal to voters in an industrial city in western Japan.

The Hyogo city of Amagasaki, halfway between Osaka and Kobe, where some 460,000 people live, has continuously fielded a single candidate, Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, to the House of Representatives in the past seven elections. This has allowed the New Komeito party heavyweight to serve 23 years at the center of Japan’s political arena.

That was before Yasuo Tanaka came along. The House of Councillors member who heads the minor opposition New Party Nippon announced his candidacy in the same Hyogo No. 8 district in late July with the full backing of the increasingly popular major opposition Democratic Party of Japan, instantly changing the political landscape in the static electoral district.

Better known as a former Nagano Governor who called for drastic changes in the prefecture and a Bungei Award-winning writer, Tanaka enjoys widespread recognition in Japan, making him a tough rival for Fuyushiba in the district where several other candidates have declared bids.

“I want Mr. Tanaka to change Amagasaki a bit,” said Hiroaki Yoshida, 69, a probation officer who attended a gathering hosted for the public to attend and question Tanaka directly. “Until now I felt useless voting because the outcome would stay the same, but now we have a real option.”

Although the 53-year-old has no large support organizations after the local labor union association that usually backs the DPJ decided to support another minor opposition candidate instead of Tanaka due to discord over an airport’s construction, he is widely expected to garner support from swing voters and those tired of a consecutive win by a single candidate.

But backlash is fierce in a city some residents call “the Land of Soka Gakkai,” a religious group that has been the main body of support for New Komeito.

“Why is he running in the election from Amagasaki? At first, I thought maybe he was born here or something, and he’s not,” said a 34-year-old female employee at a clothing shop in Amagasaki’s main shopping arcade, who declined to be named.

Tanaka has been repeatedly confronted with the same question when touring the city during his election campaign.

Fuyushiba, who moved into the city before his first election, was also critical of Tanaka, saying he is asking for support while staying at a hotel and not moving into the city.

“I cannot hand over Amagasaki to a stranger who has no ties to the city. Please help me win,” exclaimed Fuyushiba during a stump speech in front of a station, and some 300 supporters gathered there roared in agreement.

For weeks until mid-August, Tanaka was without a campaign office in Amagasaki. He said at a gathering that it was due to being declined “six or seven times” by real estate owners who all seemed willing at first but suddenly change their minds a few days later.

But he was still hopeful, saying during an interview with Kyodo News that the people will understand and accept him eventually. He explained his reason for picking the Hyogo electoral district as being moved by how its people always go help others during disasters like the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 and a large fatal derailment accident in 2005.

“I want to reform this state that is sitting on bureaucracy through the land of Amagasaki, where people hold courage and kindness in the face of great adversity,” he said.

The race has attracted much attention for the differences in the two candidates’ campaign styles and also for appearing like a scaled down version of the overall election, in which the DPJ threats to throw the Liberal Democratic Party from power, breaking its rule that has continued almost unbroken for more than 50 years.

As Tanaka has said he was asked by former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa to move into the lower house from the upper house when he declared his candidacy and Fuyushiba is with New Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, some have even dubbed the race a “proxy war.”

Added to this were the political careers of the two — Fuyushiba has served as the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister, while Tanaka as a governor called for stopping the construction of dams, a task the ministry deals with.

Tanaka has been hopping between Tokyo and Amagasaki for media appearances. When he is in the electoral district, he travels around the city in campaign vehicles to attract voters, handing out pamphlets that call for a change in bureaucratic government and carry his photograph together with those of well-known figures of reform, Ryoma Sakamoto, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and U.S. president Barack Obama.

Fuyushiba, in contrast, has vigorously campaigned through the city, sometimes on a bicycle, so far meeting some 30,000 supporters by visiting their houses or attending small meetings with them since late September, when rumors began that the general election would soon be held, his office said.

Supporters for the 73-year-old veteran come into the city from other prefectures, soliciting local voters to cast their ballots for Fuyushiba as well. Shop owners in Amagasaki’s main shopping arcade said every day they have five or six customers who ask them for support.

But even with such strong backing, uneasiness is evident in Fuyushiba’s office. Shigeyuki Hirata, Fuyushiba’s longtime secretary who has overseen his election campaigns, said he has “never experienced an election like this before.”

“If a candidate is going to go in full throttle, he has to make preparations for it,” he said. “But we just don’t see those preparations. We don’t know what (Tanaka) is doing.”

“How this wind will turn, whether it becomes a large rainstorm or tornado, we do not know.”

Tanaka smiled as he spoke inside his office in Tokyo during an interview with Kyodo News.

“Those fixated with old-style elections must wonder why I am leading such an air-fairy election campaign,” he said and added all the backlashes were expected as he went through the same problems when he decided to run in the 2000 Nagano gubernatorial election.

“It’s what comes with doing something unprecedented. I’d say things without obstacles are not worth trying.”