In Nagano, campaign platitudes don’t resonate amid dire economy

by Masami Ito

NAGANO — Walking the streets of Nagano, it is difficult to ignore the obvious halts in development.

There may be a shiny new building with fancy restaurants and clothing shops, but just a few doors or blocks away stands a run-down apartment complex with rusty stairs or a commercial building looking for tenants.

Residents say the local economy is going downhill. It used to be that new buildings were springing up all the time, but that was several years ago and these days construction has all but dried up.

Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, a Nagano native seeking re-election to the Upper House this Sunday, is telling voters the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is leading the nation to a more hopeful place.

“The people voted for a new government and we are answering the public by accurately implementing policies,” Kitazawa said in Matsumoto last Saturday. “We are moving forward to a Japanese society in which people can have dreams and hopes.”

But in Nagano, the current reality is harsh.

Yukio Tanaka, executive director of the Nagano Construction Society, said the size of the public works pie has been shrinking for years and rural areas can’t survive without a certain amount of public construction projects.

“Nagano is in a state of exhaustion,” Tanaka said. “We need to make sure that local construction companies can survive so that (the prefecture) can deal with natural disasters and clearing away snow, for example. . . . Nagano’s survival depends on it.”

There are six candidates running in the Nagano district — Kitazawa, fellow DPJ candidate Yoko Takashima, the Liberal Democratic Party’s Kenta Wakabayashi, the Japanese Communist Party’s Sanae Nakano, Your Party’s Yosei Ide and Hiroaki Usuda of the Happiness Realization Party.

According to recent polls, Kitazawa, 72, is leading with Wakabayashi, 46, and Takashima, 42, close behind.

As defense minister, Kitazawa may have the highest name recognition, but Wakabayashi, a certified public accountant, is the son of former farm minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi, who stepped down as a lawmaker in April after pressing the voting button on behalf of an absent fellow LDP member in the Upper House.

Keiji Kanai, director of the LDP youth division’s branch in Nagano, expressed confidence in Wakabayashi, who was chosen out of public applications and not as a second-generation candidate. Kanai said the button incident impacted the campaign for a while, but that has faded.

“I can’t say that there wasn’t any effect” of Wakabayashi’s father pressing the button, Kanai said. “But what makes up for (the negative effect) is the individual’s efforts to overcome it. It isn’t an issue anymore.”

The two DPJ candidates are meanwhile trying to stay afloat and not go down together.

Under their strategy, Kitazawa is trying to collect the block votes of interest groups and organizations, while Takashima is going after independent and swing voters.

Kitazawa is the oldest of the six candidates and spent five terms in the local assembly before heading to the Upper House, where he has served for 18 years. Takashima, on the other hand, is a mother of four and a former reporter for a local newspaper who had been serving her first year in the local assembly before quitting to run in this election.

Yoshiharu Mizuyori, Takashima’s campaign manager, said the DPJ had intended to back only Kitazawa but relented after Takashima expressed a strong desire to run.

“Of course, we understand that it is safer to have only one candidate,” Mizuyori said. “But that won’t lead to expanding the DPJ’s strength and that’s why we thought two people should run.”

But interest in the campaign appears to be low among ordinary people.

A 59-year-old taxi driver and ex-salaryman from Matsumoto said he has heard almost no discussion on the election and noted everyone’s focus has been on the World Cup, especially when Japan did much better than expected.

The driver, who asked that his name not be used, said he was an LDP supporter but switched over to the DPJ for the first time in last summer’s Lower House poll, when the DPJ swept to power.

But he expressed disappointment with the DPJ-led government and said he isn’t sure which party he will support this time.

“At first, I was glad that I had voted for the DPJ,” the cabby said. “But soon after, I realized that things were the same with any political party . . . I don’t know whom to vote for this time.”