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Ishihara may just benefit from ‘divine retribution’

by Philip Brasor

There are 11 men vying today for the office of Tokyo governor. Four are taken seriously by the media, the eccentric inventor Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu is humored as a perennial also-ran, and the remaining six are dismissed as margin-dwellers who are in the game to draw attention to themselves or advocate for specific issues.

One of the latter, 41-year-old Keigo Furukawa, wants to “expel” foreigners from Tokyo. That being the main plank on his platform, he isn’t going to attract much serious consideration except from rabid rightwing isolationists, though some of his other ideas, such as legalizing casino gambling, merging Tokyo’s two subway lines and having them operate round the clock, and providing more public housing, merit discussion.

Discussion has been in even shorter supply than in past elections owing to the ongoing crisis. It was originally thought that the present governor, Shintaro Ishihara, who has already held the seat for 12 years, would not seek a fourth term, but he announced he would on March 11, which was also the day the earthquake struck. Ishihara isn’t used to being shut out of the news cycle, and his notorious crack about the tsunami being “divine retribution” may have been a manifestation of resentment at having his thunder stolen by the gods.

It hardly matters to most people, since all media surveys have him winning comfortably. If it matters to Ishihara, it’s because, like some of those margin-dwellers, he craves attention: After news outlets already reported Tokyo Waterworks’ announcement that tap water radiation levels were above acceptable levels, he called a redundant press conference and repeated what they’d said word for word.

Reportedly, he ran for a fourth term because he was afraid none of the other candidates would follow through on his policies. Most of those policies remain unrealized. Except for restricting emissions from diesel-powered vehicles and promoting Haneda Airport as an international hub, Ishihara has accomplished little in terms of lasting substance. Two pet ideas, the ShinGinko bank and bringing the Olympics to Tokyo, have been major money-losing failures, and some of his infrastructure policies, such as moving the Tsukiji fish market and expanding expressways, don’t receive much support from the average Tokyoite.

Ishihara’s popularity, if that’s what you want to call it, is based on his imperious, contrary temperament. Voters want a strong leader and see in that mischievous smile and the occasional eruption of sour candor the marks of leadership. Whatever else he is, Ishihara is his own man, which is why he no longer needs a political party to support him. Hideo Higashikokubaru, the former comedian who rewrote local politics as governor of Miyazaki Prefecture, probably counted on the same sort of appeal when he contemplated entering the race. He also rejects affiliations, and might have had a possibility of winning if Ishihara had bowed out. Why he announced his candidacy almost two weeks after Ishihara announced his is a mystery, but as some commentators have noted, he isn’t really interested in the Tokyo governorship. What he really wants is to be prime minister, a job Ishihara gave up on a long time ago.

Before Ishihara’s announcement, the only candidate who could have challenged Higashikokubaru was Miki Watanabe, the successful businessman behind the Watami chain of restaurants. Thanks to years in the media spotlight as a representative go-getting entrepreneur and a semiregular commentator on Nihon TV news shows, Watanabe enjoys a high profile as someone who gets things done.

He is also unaffiliated, but unlike Higashikokubaru, with whom he seems to share a political philosophy, he has made an effort to clarify his policies. Tokyo Shimbun sent questionnaires to the principal candidates on topics ranging from fiscal policy to environmental concerns. Higashikokubaru’s responses were stated vaguely in terms of “aims” and “studies,” while Ishihara reiterated his “accomplishments” and sidestepped specific questions. Watanabe talked about slashing municipal salaries, securitizing public land and creating an “interactive relationship” with neighboring prefectures for more effective disaster readiness.

The fourth main candidate is former lower house member Akira Koike of the Japan Communist Party. Simply being the JCP candidate means Koike hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, and while his positions are conventionally liberal, they provide a context against which the practicality of everyone else’s positions can be measured. Instead of cutting welfare he believes in spending money to “increase demand”; and unlike those who advocate greater separation from the central government, Koike resents Nagatacho’s attempts to hoist education and welfare off on municipalities.

Most critically, he says Tokyo must rethink its earthquake countermeasures in terms of all those cramped, wooden structures that still make up large portions of the city’s residential areas. (Though he doesn’t address moving the capital.) The fact that the majority of these residences are in the poorer wards does much to explain why it isn’t as big an issue as it should be. Two days after Fuji TV aired a debate among the main four candidates, Koike complained in the Asahi Shimbun that the program ended just as the discussion started to get interesting.

Koike’s frustration is understandable, but given that the debate and NHK’s “fair access” presentations by all the candidates (which the weekly Shincho called “hilarious”) were broadcast in the wee hours, it’s fairly certain that few people were watching. TV exposure, which would have benefited Higashikokubaru and Watanabe the most, was lost to the crisis. In the larger scheme of things, the coinciding of the campaign with the disaster is just one more circumstance helping Ishihara win an election that was his for the taking. Perhaps the gods are on his side.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.