MIYAZAKI — When So Watanabe, a 32-year-old former Mainichi Shimbun reporter, indicated late last year he would represent the Democratic Party of Japan and take on Liberal Democratic Party incumbent Shinpei Matsushita, 43, for the Miyazaki Prefecture seat in Sunday’s Upper House election, the issues seemed obvious.
Opinion polls at the time showed Miyazaki’s voters were concerned about pocketbook issues like employment and the consumption tax, as well as education and health care. Thus, the campaign was initially seen primarily as a clash between two relatively young candidates who would woo voters with promises of bringing their youth and vitality to the Diet.
But then, disaster struck.
On April 20, Miyazaki Prefecture confirmed its first case of foot-and-mouth disease. As the number of cases rose, anger toward the DPJ-led government grew, with the local beef industry, which has long backed the LDP, blasting then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and then farm chief Hirotaka Akamatsu for not responding as quickly as when the LDP-led government responded to an outbreak of the same disease back in 2000.
Matsushita and local LDP members accused DPJ leaders of being pampered city slickers out of touch with Miyazaki’s realities. Hatoyama’s lack of a timely response was one of the factors that prompted him to step down as prime minister, and when Naoto Kan visited the prefecture after taking over in early June, he declared the foot-and-mouth disease was a national crisis.
By then, how the central government would assist the prefecture once the crisis had passed had displaced all other local issues in the Upper House race.
By the time the campaign kicked off June 24, Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru had declared a state of emergency and movement within towns where the disease had been discovered was restricted, as local and central government officials, including personnel from the Self-Defense Forces, slaughtered and buried more than 276,000 cattle and pigs.
Matsushita and Watanabe, along with Hiromitsu Baba, 35, the Japanese Communist Party candidate, agreed to limit their campaign speeches and appearances and avoid holding large public rallies. They also pledged to take other measures, such as refraining from excessive hand-shaking, all to decrease the risk of spreading the infection.
Even without criticism of how the DPJ handled the outbreak, and the agreement among the candidates to limit their campaigns, the DPJ’s Watanabe was facing a tough election.
At the official announcement of his candidacy May 7, former DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa admitted Miyazaki Prefecture, a traditional and conservative LDP region, would be a challenge.
A month later, with Hatoyama gone and the public blaming him and Ozawa for the political turmoil of the past nine months, local media predicted Miyazaki voter turnout in the July 11 election would be lower than normal, which usually means good news for the incumbent and bad news for the challenger.
A poll by the Miyazaki Nichi Nichi Shimbun late last month showed Matsushita had a fair lead over Watanabe and was well ahead in districts outside the city of Miyazaki, while Baba was running a distant third.
“It is a tough election, but many people don’t want to go back to the way things were under the LDP, and there is a new generation of younger Miyazaki residents who are thinking about not only the foot-and-mouth disease problem, but the larger, more long-term issues like education reform, economic and bureaucratic revitalization, and dealing with social security issues,” Watanabe said. “Voters who are thinking only of the short term are probably going to support Matsushita, but younger voters thinking longer term are probably going to support me.”
Watanabe believes he has a good chance in the city of Miyazaki, especially among younger people and small-business owners connected to the service industry. Throughout May and June, hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes in the city suffered greatly as tour groups and business travelers stayed away. Many small businesses were forced to close their doors or cut back on staff.
Some business owners say they will support Watanabe precisely because he is what Matsushita and the LDP claim he is, a newcomer who has spent a lot of time in Tokyo and lacks deep connections with traditional agricultural special interests.
“If Matsushita wins, he’s going to put the interests of the local beef industry first and the interests of those of us outside that industry second. He may be able to get central government funding for the beef and pork farms, and related businesses in the short term,” said Hajime Kimura, a restaurant owner in the city.
“But Watanabe is thinking long term and knows the concerns of the ever-increasing number of prefectural residents who live in cities like Miyazaki.”
By contrast, Matsushita and his supporters are campaigning not only against Watanabe and the DPJ but also against members of their own party who supported the economic policies of former LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Heizo Takenaka, who served as Koizumi’s postal reform minister.
Casting himself as a traditional LDP populist politician who was once a farmer, Matsushita has told voters that solving the foot-and-mouth crisis requires the trust of farmers and the work of politicians like himself.
“I come from a farming background, and I understand what needs to be done. The LDP must work hard to return to its base of support, and to regain the trust of the people of Miyazaki, and we need politicians who know what needs to be done,” Matsushita told a campaign rally in Miyazaki last week.
His supporters not only criticize the DPJ for being out of touch, but also those LDP members who supported Koizumi’s policies.
“Koizumi’s biggest supporters in the LDP were often pampered city boys and girls who had no understanding of the economic realities of life outside of Tokyo. Matsushita, though, has shown he understands and cares about local concerns. Politicians like him will help rebuild Miyazaki,” said Hiroko Ikeda, 54, a resident of the prefectural capital.
The prefecture will definitely need central government assistance to rebuild. While the candidates promise funding from Tokyo, the exact amount that will be needed is unknown.
Unofficial estimates by academia and the private sector put the prefecture’s economic losses as high as ¥43 billion annually over the next three to five years, because not only cattle ranchers but also the trucking, distribution and retail industries that depend on the beef industry will be struggling to recover.
The 276,000 animals slaughtered to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth amounted to nearly 23 percent of the prefecture’s beef cattle herd.
And then there are the costs, much harder to calculate, stemming from the damage to Miyazaki’s reputation.
Tourists and conventioneers have been avoiding the prefecture, even though the disease doesn’t affect humans.
Questions are already being raised in Miyazaki over how much money the Diet will make available for hotels, restaurants and other service industry businesses, regardless of which party is in power.
Nor is the economic damage limited to businesses within the prefecture.
A mid-June survey by the Miyazaki Truck Association revealed numerous cases of trucks with Miyazaki license plates being rejected by customers in other prefectures and being forced to return to Miyazaki without delivering their cargo, even when the cargo consisted of lumber and, in one case, pianos.
Given the economic devastation, voter concerns are focused on dealing with the present situation and the candidates are focused on future assistance instead of determining the origin of the outbreak.
But at least one voter sees a positive effect of the disease on the political rhetoric.
“The outbreak has forced the Miyazaki candidates to address a very real issue, not talk about their lofty, vague ideals or grand strategic plans as much as candidates in other prefectures are doing,” said Yoji Tamura, 63, who owns a small farm on the outskirts of Miyazaki.
“How the candidates are responding to the crisis gives voters a chance to see what they are really made of.”