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Campaigning in Tokyo heats up

Parties pull out all the stops as 24 candidates vie for five seats

by Alex Martin and Takahiro Fukada

With beads of sweat pouring down his forehead, veteran Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Toshio Ogawa addressed a small crowd in Tokyo late last month, begging for their support in the Upper House election.

The 62-year-old Ogawa told the gathering their votes would allow his party to “press forward with the political reform” that he said was set in motion when the DPJ won power in last August’s general election.

“Allow me to continue taking part in this ongoing reform,” Ogawa said. But only scattered applause greeted the veteran’s plea for support as onlookers began leaving the scene.

Ogawa is one of 24 candidates fighting desperately for the five seats in the Tokyo district up for grabs in the election this Sunday.

While the DPJ is throwing all of its weight behind the re-election of its two incumbents, the situation remains volatile as a diverse field of candidates scrambles for a share of the city’s 10 million votes.

And following recent trends, the estimated 3 million to 5 million swing voters who reside in Tokyo’s 23 wards and outlying regions are likely to be key in deciding who will be the winners and losers.

“All we can say at this point is that we’re trying our best,” said Hiroshi Fujimaki, an executive in Ogawa’s camp.

Ogawa, a founding member of the DPJ, is a former prosecutor and judge who has called for clean politics and prides himself on refusing to receive any corporate donations. He won the 2004 Upper House election alongside the DPJ’s other incumbent running for re-election, administrative reform minister Renho, with more than 990,000 votes.

But overshadowed by Renho’s recent surge in popularity and her appointment to the Cabinet, Ogawa’s camp fears DPJ votes may disproportionately swing her way.

Fujimaki said that with a majority of swing votes likely to be cast for Renho, Ogawa was concentrating on appealing to the loyal, core group of DPJ supporters and asking for support from labor unions, the party’s main vote-gathering machine.

While the DPJ enjoyed a rebound in its approval rates after Naoto Kan replaced Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister in June, recent polls show that support for the party has already begun to sag, likely a consequence of Kan’s call for a full-fledged debate on tax reform, including a potential consumption tax hike to cover the snowballing government debt and social security fees.

Voters interviewed on the streets were clearly affected by Kan’s remarks.

Teruhiko Nakaguchi, a 64-year-old pensioner from Nerima Ward, supported the DPJ in last year’s general election. But “now the era has already changed,” he said.

Nakaguchi said Kan’s policy stance has not been solid, pointing to how he abruptly hinted at doubling the 5 percent consumption tax, one reason the retiree has decided to cast his vote for the Your Party candidate this time around.

Hiroko Suzuki, a 65-year-old housewife from Toshima Ward, said she was “deceived . . . by whatever good things the DPJ was talking about” in last year’s general election. Suzuki said the prime minister has not made his policies clearly understood and has taken elderly citizens lightly while providing massive handouts to child-rearing families.

“People are angered by these things,” she said.

But during a stump speech in Tokushima Prefecture late last month, Renho — the most popular lawmaker in the Cabinet and the front-runner in the Tokyo election — played down the media hype surrounding the issue.

“It’s as if Mr. Kan’s comment on the consumption tax is the focal point of this election, but that’s not the case,” the 42-year-old mother of two said.

As the youngest member of the Kan Cabinet, Renho is serving her first term after working as a model and TV newscaster. She has called for a reduction in wasteful government spending and enjoyed a high media profile when she played a key role in the DPJ-backed “jigyo-shiwake” — the review of shady government-backed entities.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democratic Party, the main opposition party, is also sparing no effort to send its two candidates to the Upper House.

Incumbent Masaharu Nakagawa, 63, looks to gather votes through the backing of LDP-supporting industry groups.

A former Environment Ministry bureaucrat currently serving his first term, Nakagawa has promised to “build a sustainable society for the coming generations.” During the 2004 election, he got more votes than any other candidate in Tokyo.

But while Nakagawa enjoys the concentrated backing of the LDP, the party’s other candidate, Yukiko Tokai, appears to be suffering from a lack of virtually any support.

“We don’t have a support base, and can’t rely on organized votes,” said Ichiro Muramatsu, an executive in Tokai’s campaign team.

“This puts us in a very tight spot,” he said, adding that this means they have to appeal to swing voters.

Muramatsu said that by the time Tokai announced her candidacy a few months ago, the LDP’s Tokyo branch had already focused most of its energy on backing Nakagawa, giving Tokai little option but to campaign on her own.

A 42-year-old former TV newscaster, Tokai has said economic recovery is her priority, and she intends to “make Japan happy through economic strategies using the nation’s technological capabilities.”

But with both the DPJ and LDP suffering from sagging approval rates and the election looking increasingly confused, voters may turn to new, alternative candidates.

Kota Matsuda, a Your Party candidate and founder of the nationwide Tully’s Coffee Japan Co. chain, says his background as an entrepreneur gives him insight into coping with the ailing economy.

“Have you had a tasty cup of coffee today?” Matsuda asked onlookers in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district. “I’ve expanded Tully’s Coffee from zero to some 300 shops,” he said.

While emphasizing how his party is intent on rebuilding the economy, Matsuda said he is running for office because he feels strongly that Japan needs to be “better” and “rebuilt.” “Please remember the name and face of Kota Matsuda, everyone,” he told the crowd.

While the area was crowded with hundreds of people, Matsuda said he didn’t know whether he could obtain enough public support to win the race. “Honestly, I don’t know” how people feel toward him, Matsuda said. “I’ll just have to work hard, do whatever I am supposed to do.”

While Matsuda is popular among company employees and budding entrepreneurs in their 20s to 40s, one of his camp’s executives admitted few women in their 50s and above know about him.

“We want the names of Your Party and Kota Matsuda to penetrate across all age groups” by direct appeal to voters on the streets and by sending out postcards, he said.

Toshiko Takeya, an accountant and managerial consultant running for New Komeito, also said her business career will be valuable for national-level politics.

“My job has been searching out problems, showing the way to solutions, and opening up a road to regeneration,” Takeya told crowds in Tokyo’s Shinkoiwa district. “I would like to utilize these experiences to resolve the mounting problems facing Japan.”

Takeya admitted she is not well-known to voters yet. “I still feel like a nameless freshman,” Takeya told The Japan Times.

But an executive in Takeya’s camp said they were aiming for around 800,000 votes — a level the party has obtained in previous elections — and that she has been getting good support from New Komeito lawmakers and members of Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization.

An executive in her campaign said the party has never lost any seats in the Tokyo district. “The party’s headquarters are certainly here. . . . This is the place where we absolutely cannot lose,” the executive said.

Hiroshi Yamada, from the Spirit of Japan Party, was mayor of Suginami Ward for three terms since 1999.

He stressed his achievements of slashing 1,000 workers from his ward office and reducing a ¥94.2 billion public debt to nearly zero.

Based on his success, Yamada believes the government should cut the number of Diet members in half and the number of civil servants by one-third.

The 52-year-old proposed that the central government transfer jobs to local governments, and local governments in turn transfer jobs to the private sector, thus lowering administrative costs. By reducing costs, the burden on the taxpayer will be lessened, while Japan’s international competitiveness will be strengthened, Yamada argues.

While drawing the minimum victory line at 600,000 to 700,000 votes, an executive in Yamada’s camp said there are still many people who have not heard of him.

Yamada, however, said he is confident of winning the race because he is the only candidate who has been a municipal head, and he is sure he can also rebuild the nation’s finances.

Akira Koike, the Japanese Communist Party’s policy chief and a medical doctor, is well-known by the public because he appears often on TV programs. Strongly opposed to a tax hike, Koike said his stance is to drive a wedge between candidates who support an increase and those who are against it.

Koike said increasing the consumption levy is aimed at compensating for tax cuts for big corporations, not to rebuild the nation’s finances or to pay for social security.

The JCP camp aims to garner 900,000 votes. An executive of the party said 660,000 people in Tokyo voted for the JCP in the proportional representation system for last year’s election and 700,000 people voted for the party’s candidates in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race. “On top of that, we shall add 1.4 to 1.5 times (the number of votes) to reach 900,000 with Koike’s fame, good public reception and jobs,” the executive said.

The executive also said the JCP has more than 300,000 supporters in the capital. If they multiply their votes by asking their family members and acquaintances, the executive said that would reach the 900,000 threshold.

“Victory hinges on whether we can get all this done within a limited space of time,” the executive said.