On a mission to save bankrupt city

Tokyo bureaucrat chucks stability to run for mayor of Yubari, Hokkaido

by Takahiro Fukada

Naomichi Suzuki walked away from a stable job at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government last month, deciding he’d rather run for mayor of a bankrupt city in Hokkaido.

The decision to try to lead the resurrection of Yubari didn’t come easy, and it was an ardent request from a group of the city’s young people that moved the 29-year-old Suzuki to declare his candidacy.

A native of Saitama, Suzuki had no affiliation with Yubari until he spent two years there through last March, on loan from Tokyo.

He said that when he was asked to run, he took stock of his life. Stability was guaranteed as long as he stayed with the metropolitan government, while winning the April election is hardly a sure thing. The Yubari mayor is paid around ¥3 million a year, much less than his civil service salary of about ¥5 million.

Though recognizing all these factors, people in Yubari still kept asking him to come back to the northern city, and that moved Suzuki.

“Since they asked me to do the job together with them, I thought I should respond to their passion by staking my life,” he said during an interview with The Japan Times last week.

“As many people feel that the future is dark, I believe the most important thing is to hammer out a vision for Yubari that shows what we will do.”

After joining the metropolitan government in 1999, he had held various administrative positions. When word went out for a volunteer to go to Yubari after it was declared bankrupt in March 2007, Suzuki raised his hand.

With the city trying to revive itself, he thought he would be able to learn how to manage a local government efficiently with a severely limited budget, and he was dispatched there in January 2008 to help with the recovery.

Suzuki said his role was to add local government manpower, but he was unhappy with how the city relentlessly streamlined services.

Between April 2006 and last April, Yubari’s administrative workforce was chopped from 260 to 102. The city in 2007 started charging for collecting household garbage and raised sewage fees from ¥1,470 per 10 cu. meters to ¥2,440.

The additional burden is especially hard on people over 65, who account for more than 40 percent of the city’s residents, Suzuki said, adding they have little choice but to suffer through it because their age precludes finding work to make some extra money.

The higher cost of living also makes the city less attractive to companies, since they have to consider the financial burden on employees, he said.

In Suzuki’s eyes, the city prioritized debt reduction at the expense of people’s livelihoods.

“The city has been doing everything to pay down its debts. I was asking myself whether that was the correct way to maintain the city,” he said.

Suzuki worked in Yubari’s citizen’s section, handling medical subsidies for single-parent families, the disabled and infants, as well as other tasks.

Besides his job at City Hall, Suzuki worked with various groups, helping them plan festivals. He also revived festivals that hadn’t been held due to lack of funds.

Along with such activities, he conducted a survey of 6,000 households to find out people’s concerns and expectations for the city. His findings later became a 150-page report submitted to the Hokkaido and central governments.

Although he had no previous personal connection with Yubari, he said the people there gave him a heart-felt welcome.

For Suzuki, Yubari has two primary qualities: warm-hearted, open-minded people and great natural beauty.

On the other hand, Yubari, effectively under the central government’s control, has mounting problems desperately in need of solutions, including a declining and graying population, and dire finances that will remain a burden to younger generations, he said.

Yubari collapsed in March 2007 under a deficit of around ¥35 billion, which had improved only to about ¥32 billion in fiscal 2009.

Suzuki also said he believes the local government and residents need to cooperate to make life there better.

“Certainly, since Yubari went bankrupt, this is an era when people and administration will have to work toward reviving the city,” Suzuki said. “I want to convince the public that City Hall and the people should work together.”

Suzuki met with Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara late last month to tell him of his decision.

“Gov. Ishihara encouraged me by telling me I am a lucky man to be asked (by residents to run for the race), and he told me that ‘as a man, it is such a good story to hear that they want to work together by staking their lives and that you would sincerely respond to that request,’ ” Suzuki said.

Suzuki plans to move to Yubari this month to prepare for the campaign. He said he will run without party affiliation.

He also said he is determined to live in Yubari the rest of his life.

“Unless I’m resolved to bury my bones (in the city), I shouldn’t run for mayor,” he said.