The 2005 Lower House election was a bitter experience for candidates on the Democratic Party of Japan’s ticket who ran in Tokyo’s 25 single-seat constituencies.
Then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pitched his postal privatization initiative and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, minus its postal reform foes, won by a landslide. Only Naoto Kan, now a DPJ deputy chief, won a seat in Tokyo.
The situation looks quite different this time round, however. The DPJ won a majority in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly poll last month and Prime Minister Taro Aso’s public support rating continues to sag.
Recent media polls showed the DPJ is expected to gain more than 300 of the lower chamber’s 480 seats.
Voters in Tokyo are often called swing voters, since many are not politically affiliated with a particular party.
In the single-seat Tokyo districts, the LDP and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, are fielding a variety of candidates, including some with Cabinet portfolios and the sons of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and New Komeito leader Akihiro Ota.
In the Tokyo No. 1 district, Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano is battling the DPJ’s former policy research chief, Banri Kaieda, while Ota is facing off with the DPJ’s Ai Aoki in the Tokyo No. 12 district.
The LDP is also fielding some of the so-called Koizumi children, who won their first Diet seats in 2005 under the banner of his postal reform drive.
But the ruling party candidates are struggling in several tough battles. One of the fiercest is in Tokyo’s No. 5 district, which consists of Meguro Ward and part of Setagaya Ward.
On Aug. 13, LDP candidate Yukari Sato gave a speech near Gakugei Daigaku Station in Meguro Ward with health minister Yoichi Masuzoe, who is considered a strong future candidate for prime minister. His popularity ratings top those of Prime Minister and LDP chief Aso and even DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama.
Masuzoe’s presence prompted many to stop and pay attention to Sato.
“(Sato) is such a capable female lawmaker with so much knowledge of economics. Please return her to the Diet with your support,” Masuzoe told the crowd.
Playing on her background as an economist, Sato pitched the LDP’s economic policies and asked voters not to be swayed by the DPJ.
“Don’t be deceived by the phrase ‘change in governmental power.’ What’s important is not a change in governmental power, but our pension, social security and employment in light of Japan’s outlook in five and 10 years ahead,” she said.
“Don’t be influenced by the trend, and look at candidates and their policies.”
Sato, who entered the Lower House in 2005, is often viewed as a typical Koizumi child — one of the “assassin candidates” sent by the former prime minister to defeat LDP defectors who revolted against his postal privatization plan.
But Sato failed to take the single-seat Gifu No. 1 district, which was home to Seiko Noda, one of the so-called postal rebels who was pressured to leave the LDP over the issue.
Although Sato lost, she managed to get elected through the proportional representation system. Noda, meanwhile, was eventually allowed to return to the LDP and is now the state minister in charge of consumer affairs.
There are three other candidates in the district: Yoshio Tezuka of the DPJ, Sakae Miyamoto of the Japanese Communist Party and Makoto Kinoshita of the Happiness Realization Party. Of the four, Sato and Tezuka are considered the front-runners.
“I feel I’ve waited for a long time (for the general election),” Tezuka told The Japan Times on Aug. 16. “I’ve not just waited four years (since the last poll). I’ve been claiming the need for a change in governmental power for 17 years, and it seems to be nearing, day by day.”
Unlike Sato, who is new to the district, the Tokyo No. 5 district has been home to Tezuka since he was first elected a metro assembly member in 1993.
Tezuka won Lower House seats in the 2000 and 2003 elections but lost to the LDP candidate in 2005.
To appeal to voters, he has made persistent efforts in the last four years, going around his electoral district by foot to garner support.
The day before the campaign kicked off, Tezuka took to the streets in front of Jiyugaoka Station with the DPJ’s Akira Nagatsuma, who is known as “Mr. Pension” for being the man who blew the whistle on the government’s pension management debacle.
“I had some bitter times in the past four years. But this election is not about me. It is about realizing a change in governmental power in Japan, where such a thing has never occurred despite being a democratic country,” Tezuka told the crowd.
Another heated battle is taking place in the Tokyo No. 10 district, where all the candidates are women: former Defense Minister and Environment Minister Yuriko Koike of the LDP, Takako Ebata of the DPJ and Toshie Yamamoto of the JCP.
Media forecasts say the race in the district is effectively a one-on-one battle between Ebata and Koike, another assassin candidate from 2005 who fulfilled her role by defeating LDP defector and postal rebel Koki Kobayashi.
The DPJ is fielding a fresh candidate in Ebata, a 49-year-old former associate professor of the University of Tokyo.
Although Koike is well-known and has held Cabinet portfolios, some media predict she will have a hard time defending her seat.
Koike is aware of the situation. When campaigning officially kicked off Aug. 18, she brought Koizumi to the district for a speech in front of Ikebukuro Station.
“The wind against the LDP is strong,” Koike told the crowd, criticizing the DPJ’s security policies and stressing her environmental credentials.
Koike’s campaign staff brought pinwheels to add color to the occasion.
“I will not complain or blame someone for this situation. I will accept the wind against the LDP and use it to revitalize the party,” she said.
Following Koike’s speech, Koizumi asked the voters to support Koike, and even suggested action to be taken should the LDP lose the election.
“Even if the LDP loses, Koike is an essential lawmaker who will have to reform the party and discuss policies with the ruling party,” he said.
While the situation may be favorable for the DPJ, Ebata’s side says Koike’s popularity should not be underestimated.
A senior member of Ebata’s campaign team said Ebata has just about managed to keep up with Koike.
The official said Ebata has made more than 2,000 brief street speeches since May 2007 so voters can become familiar with her and her policies.
Although some say the DPJ’s momentum has passed its peak, “I feel the momentum has become even stronger,” Ebata told The Japan Times on Aug. 14, adding that copies of the DPJ’s policy platform have been distributed in large numbers.
Touring the district, “I hear the people are saying they can’t depend on the LDP anymore,” she said.