AOMORI — Perched on the upper tip of Honshu, Aomori Prefecture is tired of being left behind.
The region of 1.4 million people spends half the year covered in snow. Its people are old. Unemployment hit a nationwide high of 7.9 percent this spring. People in the prefecture call themselves the “forgotten north,” a land where the promise of prosperity seems out of reach.
The Liberal Democratic Party has held a virtual monopoly on power for much of the last 54 years, relying on the dogged loyalty of Aomori and other hinterlands, which became known as the “LDP Kingdom.” With rural voters now clamoring for change, the party finds itself struggling to defend its traditional home turf, considered a key battleground in Sunday’s Lower House election.
Nationwide polls show that the LDP is headed for a historic drubbing at the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan, the leading opposition party.
“People have always voted for the LDP,” said Wataru Naito, who owns a small men’s clothing shop in the central shopping district in the city of Aomori. “But we want to turn things over to a new generation and give the DPJ a chance. We can’t keep going in the same direction.”
For decades, the LDP has relied on the rural vote. Powerful organizations led by local politicians and interest groups mobilized voters. In return, lawmakers rewarded the countryside with public-works projects and agricultural policies to restrict imports.
But just as the U.S. Democratic Party machine withered in New York and Boston by the 1940s, time seems to have expired on the LDP.
The party has not come up with an answer as young people followed jobs to the cities, leaving behind an older population with dwindling services.
“Japanese society, especially provincial society, has been undergoing huge changes over the past decade and a half,” said Columbia University professor Gerald Curtis, author of several influential books on Japanese politics. “And the LDP either couldn’t see it or refused to see it. Their recipe for success was the only recipe they knew.”
Two-thirds of Japan’s 127 million people now live in cities, up from one-third of the population in 1950. Aomori’s population has fallen 6 percent since 1995, while Tokyo’s has risen 10 percent. Over the last five years, more people have moved out of Aomori percentage-wise than any other prefecture in the country.
Aomori voters blame former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for policies they believe benefited urban centers at the expense of rural Japan. During his five years in office from 2001 to 2006, Koizumi championed free-market reforms to steer the world’s second-biggest economy out of its “lost decade” of the 1990s.
He privatized government entities, relaxed trade restrictions on food imports, loosened labor laws, pushed banks to purge bad debt and cut pork-barrel spending. To slash costs, Tokyo ordered smaller villages and municipalities to merge.
Critics point to Koizumi’s reforms for exacerbating the urban-rural divide and creating an underclass of temporary workers unprotected during economic downturns.
“Politicians today just care about the big cities,” said Chikara Inoue, a 64-year-old rice farmer in the city of Aomori.
For farmers, the DPJ is offering ¥1 trillion in household income support to offset any price declines. It also has watered down its support for a free-trade pact with the United States, saying it would “take positive measures” toward an agreement rather than “conclude” a deal.
“This next election will reflect what farmers are feeling,” said Inoue, who worries that rural life is slowly disappearing. “We certainly have doubts about the DPJ, and we’re not all that excited about them. But it’s more this sense that the LDP needs to be crushed.”
DPJ candidate Hokuto Yokoyama, a 45-year-old academic-turned-politician, is taking aim at the Aomori No. 1 district, which spans 479 sq. km of rice paddies, apple orchards, coastline and the city of Aomori.
He faces Jun Tsushima, the son of incumbent Yuji Tsushima, an LDP heavyweight who is retiring after 33 years in the Diet.
On a recent afternoon, the mood was upbeat at Yokoyama’s campaign headquarters as volunteers prepared flyers and stuffed envelopes. He says his priority is to shrink the economic gap between urban and rural Japan.
“Under Koizumi, the thought was that you could lift the country’s economy by lifting just the big cities,” Yokoyama said. “But regional budgets have been cut as a result, and Aomori is getting left behind.”
With comparatively more children and the elderly than the big cities, places like Aomori stand to benefit from the DPJ’s social welfare-heavy proposals, such as its plan to give families ¥26,000 a month per child through junior high school.
“The DPJ is offering Aomori better policies,” he said. “And this is why this time, things will change.”