Two days into the campaign for the Lower House election, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a stump speech last Thursday at Fuchu Station in his western Tokyo constituency.
Though a prominent advocate for the elimination of nuclear energy, many passersby didn’t even recognize the man who was leading Japan at the time of the Fukushima crisis, and simply breezed past him. Some stopped and listened but most just took pictures of him with their smartphones and swiftly went on their way.
“As the prime minister who handled the nuclear crisis after the March 2011 natural disasters, I believe it is my duty to lead this country in gradually phasing out nuclear power,” Kan, 66, told around 30 of his constituents in front of the station, in stark contrast to the hundreds who gathered at his campaign stops during the last general election in 2009.
Kan is blamed by many for his administration’s confused response as the catastrophe at the Fukushima No. 1 plant rapidly escalated, and for the precious time wasted due to his chain of command’s sluggish response — a failure Kan was taken to task for by many of those who bothered to listen to his speech in the Tokyo No. 18 district.
A large part of the electorate also feels betrayed by Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan in the years since it swept to power in 2009 as it has reneged on, failed to implement and even reversed many of its campaign pledges.
“You are a liar!” one passerby yelled at Kan. “You failed once, and you won’t get another chance.”
But Kan’s is not alone in facing a daunting struggle to win re-election in Sunday’s vote: His predicament mirrors the strong headwind facing many of his DPJ comrades.
Analysts are warning that even Cabinet members such as industry minister Yukio Edano and education minister Makiko Tanaka could lose their seats in the Diet due to the extent of hostility toward the DPJ. The party’s current leader, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, is all too aware of this.
“We cannot expedite political reform if we lose our majority” in the pre-eminent Lower House, Noda said last Thursday in Nagoya. “I am very concerned.”
Many voters are expected to cast their ballot for the Liberal Democratic Party, headed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The largest opposition group, ousted from power by the DPJ in 2009 after a half-century of virtually uninterrupted rule, is increasingly seen as a better option due to its vast experience of governance.
Recent polls predict the LDP could win by a landslide even without the assistance of New Komeito, its former ruling coalition partner for about a decade from 1999 and the party’s key ally since 2009. A survey by the Asahi Shimbun showed that 54 percent of respondents are opting for political stability as their paramount concern, while only 36 percent cite reform of the current system.
“The DPJ tanked the economy,” said Tetsuo Miyake, 67, who owns a furniture business in Tokyo’s western suburb of Kichijoji, in Kan’s home district. “I have higher hopes than ever for the LDP. I am confident the party would implement changes this time (once in government).”
The LDP’s candidate in the No. 18 district, Masatada Tsuchiya, Kan’s long-time archrival, is but one of the many LDP candidates who are benefiting from voters’ shifting allegiances.
Tsuchiya, 70, has been trying to unseat Kan since the 2005 Lower House election and has twice lost to him in the single-seat district, which includes the cities of Mitaka, Musashino and Koganei. But Tsuchiya, who served as Musashino mayor for 22 years, remarked that things are very different compared with the 2009 campaign.
“Three years ago, everybody refused to take handouts of the LDP’s policy platform. But this morning we distributed all of the pamphlets we had prepared right away,” said Tsuchiya, whose campaign is playing up the DPJ’s failure to carry through on its 2009 policy pledges and his experience in terms of governance.
Though it won a massive 308-seat majority in the last Lower House vote, the DPJ is forecast to suffer a crushing defeat Sunday and could even end up with less than 100 of the chamber’s 480 seats. Still, with media polls also suggesting that some 40 to 50 percent of the electorate has yet to make a final decision on which party to back, DPJ candidates are clinging to their final hope: unaffiliated swing voters.
Many of the capital’s electoral districts are well known for the capricious manner in which constituents change their mind from one election to the next.
“I voted for the DPJ in 2009, but I do not want to vote for it again,” said Takako Yamamoto, 70, who lives in the Tokyo No. 1 district. “However, I’m not sure if the LDP has really departed from the corrupt old (political) system” that marked its long postwar rule.
Yamamoto is still wondering whether she should vote for LDP candidate Miki Yamada, saying, “I am not sure what Yamada can contribute to change yet.”
Yamada, a 38-year-old rookie candidate, is engaged in a tough battle with DPJ Lower House member Banri Kaieda, who served as industry minister in the aftermath of last year’s natural and nuclear calamities. Their electoral district consists of Chiyoda, Minato and Shinjuku wards.
A former trade and industry ministry bureaucrat who graduated from the University of Tokyo and went on to obtain an MBA from Columbia University, Yamada is one of the candidates the LDP is counting on to help sweep away its image as old and obsolete, and to rebrand it as the party best able to reverse Japan’s political and economic decline.
Yet even though she inherited a solid campaign team from Kaoru Yosano, a long-time LDP lawmaker who defected to the DPJ and became industry minister, Yamada’s unproven political track record — unlike her seasoned DPJ opponent, Kaieda — means she has a much harder time attracting audiences to her campaign events.
“It’s going to be a very tough race as Yamada is a first-time candidate and did not have much time to prepare,” said Shigeru Uchida, her campaign manager.
Some are still on the fence and skeptical whether the LDP has been reborn, as it is touting.
“The DPJ failed due to lack of experience and even lied to us,” said Takashi Otsuka, 55. “I’m not saying the LDP is the best choice, but it could form a more stable government.”
In another departure from the last general election, “third-force” parties have come to the fore, seeking to break up the DPJ-LDP duopoly — most notably Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), which was founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and is now led by former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.
Nippon Ishin is projected to win a swath of seats in the Kansai region, centered around Osaka Prefecture, of which Hashimoto is a former governor and where he continues to call the shots. This would give it substantial influence in the maneuvering that will ensue if the LDP fails to win an outright majority on its own, or in conjunction with New Komeito. In such a scenario, Nippon Ishin might well find itself in office as part of an LDP-led tripartite coalition.
Yet the party lacks a solid campaign machine and political funds in Tokyo and the wider Kanto region, and neither the DPJ nor the LDP view it as a threat in the area, according to officials from the two parties’ campaign teams.
“We have a long history in this area that we expect to capitalize on,” said Uchida, the head of LDP candidate Yamada’s campaign team. “We are not really worried about third-force groups.”
Perhaps not without good cause: The LDP and DPJ each received more than ¥10 billion in government subsidies this year, while Nippon Ishin, which only became incorporated as a political party in September, cannot receive any such aid until January.
The cash-strapped party’s candidates have been asked to contribute ¥1 million each to cover the cost of making campaign posters and brochures, and many have had to drop out of the race simply because they couldn’t raise that level of funds despite being officially endorsed by Nippon Ishin.
The party’s candidate in the Tokyo No. 1 district, Yoshitaka Kato, 38, conceded that he’s in a tough spot as he challenges Kaieda and Yamada His campaign posters were delivered just one day before the electioneering period was officially launched, and he had to take out a multimillion-yen loan to fund his campaign, according to one of his supporters.
His campaign team consists of a group of novices, mostly students from Hashimoto’s political training school in the city of Osaka, Ishin Seiji Juku (Political Restoration School).
Kato, who quit his post at the Bank of Japan on Nov. 20 to run in the election, is touting his financial and economic expertise but is fully aware that, due to Nippon Ishin’s lack of pedigree and its Kansai roots, he is having to start from scratch.
“I think I still have a chance to win,” Kato said. “But even if I don’t, I am sure other reform-minded candidates will come after me to change Japan. I will be happy if I can at least create some momentum for political change.”