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Tanaka battling in New Komeito heartland

Minor party chief takes on ruling coalition bigwig

by Eric Johnston

AMAGASAKI, Hyogo Pref. — Yasuo Tanaka, the leader of New Party Nippon and former governor of Nagano, is attempting to unseat New Komeito heavyweight Tetsuzo Fuyushiba in a race widely seen as a test of Tanaka’s popularity in a region where his volunteer activities after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake are still remembered.

Their head-on battle in the Hyogo No. 8 district is also a test of the ability of New Komeito’s supporters to get out the vote. This test is especially true for members of Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization and New Komeito’s main support group.

For the 53-year-old Tanaka, the decision to run in Hyogo Prefecture is something of a homecoming.

Before drawing national attention as the “antidam” governor and critic of wasteful public works spending, Tanaka helped lead an unsuccessful fight a decade ago to stop construction of Kobe airport.

His candidacy is also a direct challenge to Fuyushiba, one of New Komeito’s most powerful politicians. Fuyushiba has held various Cabinet portfolios, including transportation, which oversees airport projects.

In late July, Tanaka made the rounds of Amagasaki, a 15-minute train ride from downtown Kobe and the center of the Hyogo No. 8 district.

His catchphrase “Amagasaki Dream” plays on a long-ago past and a future vision of the region where vibrant, environmentally sustainable smaller businesses will have to replace the huge factories and public works projects, especially roads and bridges, that are a blight on the landscape.

“Amagasaki has a great history. But it’s not considered as chic as Kobe. Before heavy industry moved in, the area had lots of small businesses and even farmland,” Tanaka said in announcing his candidacy last month.

“The ruling party has long emphasized big projects that benefit heavy industry, but it’s time to reconstruct the city based on a model that is more environmentally sustainable.”

Despite a high media profile and a growing nationwide backlash against the ruling parties, however, Tanaka faces a number of challenges that make his race a tough one.

The first has to do with his Amagasaki Dream and the reality of the modern city. Efforts have been made over the past decade to reduce pollution levels, but a 2007 Environment Ministry report showed the rate of asbestos-related cancer in Amagasaki was still 14 times higher than the nationwide average.

The second problem is Tanaka’s relationship with the Democratic Party of Japan’s leadership. With only two members, New Party Nippon is too small to make a difference on its own. Although Tanaka had held an Upper House seat before he filed for candidacy in Sunday’s Lower House election, the other member, journalist Yoshifu Arita, is aiming for only the first time to get a Diet seat. He’s running in the Tokyo No. 11 district.

Tanaka has long supported the DPJ, especially former party head Ichiro Ozawa. His candidacy is supported by the DPJ, and party chief Yukio Hatoyama was on hand when Tanaka announced he would run, telling a small crowd in front of Amagasaki Station that Tanaka’s antidam policy could spread nationwide with his election.

But DPJ officials say Tanaka is not as close with Hatoyama as he was with Ozawa.

“Hatoyama and the DPJ will support Tanaka, but the chemistry between the two men isn’t the same as it is between Ozawa and Tanaka. If it appears Tanaka is losing, the DPJ leadership may be reluctant to directly campaign for him,” said a DPJ official in Osaka, speaking anonymously.

The third problem for Tanaka is that, while he is well-known in Kobe for his volunteer work after the 1995 earthquake and for opposing Kobe airport, he is running in Amagasaki, where he has fewer friends and supporters.

Rengo Hyogo, the prefecture’s most powerful labor union, with 300,000 members, is supporting 10 DPJ candidates in Hyogo but decided in early August not to endorse Tanaka.

The union cited a lack of a formal agreement with Tanaka on policy, his opposition to Kobe airport and his past criticism of former Rengo Hyogo leaders as the reasons for not supporting Tanaka.

And there is the challenge of gathering enough votes to overcome Fuyushiba’s supporters in Soka Gakkai, which has a strong presence in Hyogo Prefecture. Fuyushiba breezed through the 2005 election, winning nearly 110,000 votes, almost one-third of all eligible voters, to the DPJ candidate’s 83,000 votes.

But Fuyushiba’s position does not appear as secure as it was four years ago. Immediately following Tanaka’s announcement, many political pundits in respected weekly magazines predicted he was behind Tanaka and could lose, although a few polls released just before the Bon holidays had the two tied or Fuyushiba slightly ahead.

New Komeito, for its part, sees Tanaka’s challenge as a strike deep into its own territory. Six of New Komeito’s eight single-district seats are in the Kansai region. Fuyushiba and New Komeito have been hammering home the message to Amagasaki supporters that experience matters.

“There is no way we can entrust Amagasaki to somebody who comes in from the outside and has no relationship with the people or the town,” Fuyushiba told a rally with New Komeito head Akihiro Ota on the day Tanaka announced his candidacy.

Ota used the rally to attack Tanaka less than to attack his DPJ supporters, saying the DPJ could not be trusted because it has changed its policies on issues like the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

Tanaka and his supporters have countered by telling voters the only reason New Komeito is in the coalition government is because the LDP needs its votes in the Upper House, and that because of the opposition’s victory in 2007, New Komeito is now utterly powerless to challenge the LDP.

Amagasaki’s voters are aware the contest between Tanaka and Fuyushiba has larger implications for both New Komeito and the DPJ. But some who say they’re still undecided see more similarities than differences between the candidates on local issues.

“Both Fuyushiba and Tanaka sound similar when they talk about social welfare issues and caring for ordinary people. Honestly, I think either candidate could do a good job,” said Yoshinobu Nakashima, 23, a college student in Osaka who lives in Amagasaki.