|

Dismayed Tohoku faces first post-3/11 poll

Locals complain candidates not treating recovery as the priority

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

A mere 15 minutes before Azuma Konno, a Democratic Party of Japan candidate running in Sunday’s Lower House election, was set to make a stump speech in front of JR Sendai Station last Friday evening, a 7.4-magnitude quake struck deep off Miyagi’s shore, flooding one coastal district with 1-meter-high tsunami.

Konno immediately used his microphone to warn passersby that a tsunami alert had been issued, but as one of the Reconstruction Agency’s three vice ministers, he had to leave right away to deal with the emergency, abandoning his planned speech.

DPJ policy head Goshi Hosono, who had traveled to Sendai in support of Konno, an Upper House member from Miyagi before entering the race for Sunday’s election in the prefecture’s No. 2 district, also left immediately to join the government’s response to the temblor. Hosono did manage to briefly grab the microphone before his exit, although most people simply swarmed past him into the station.

“We are fighting a tough race, but I would like you to please remember that the DPJ is the party that suspended the reactors of the (earthquake-vulnerable) Hamaoka nuclear plant” in Shizuoka Prefecture, Hosono said, “and we’ve created a stricter watchdog (the Nuclear Regulation Authority) for the atomic energy industry, as well as being the ones who aim to eliminate nuclear power and promote renewable energies and jobs in this sector.”

After the tsunami alert, the first issued by authorities since April 2011, around 20,000 people had to evacuate coastal regions in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, including some 2,250 Sendai residents.

Although the damage was minor, the temblor was powerful enough to make many in the Tohoku region recall the Great East Japan Earthquake and 15-meter tsunami that laid waste to entire communities up and down its coast in March 2011, and refocused attention on the slow progress of rebuilding work that locals have repeatedly cited.

Sunday’s Lower House election will be the first held since 2009. And for voters in the northeast, the reconstruction and recovery of their shattered communities tops the list of issues they want their Diet representatives to push forward.

While all of the parties vying for seats have promised to hasten Tohoku’s recovery in their campaign platforms, many locals argue the issue isn’t being as strongly emphasized as other goals. Some even complain that candidates are merely paying lip service to what locals consider the most critical issue.

In Sendai, where 891 residents were killed — and another 30 remain officially listed as missing — when last year’s tsunami hit, the debris left behind has been cleared from the pulverized coastal districts, although some houses and buildings still await demolition.

Incinerating or recycling tsunami debris is making faster progress than anticipated in Sendai compared with other disaster-hit municipalities thanks to the city’s numerous large parks, where local authorities were able to temporarily store the rubble, as well as three new incinerators built after the disaster hit. The city is even helping to incinerate wood debris shipped from Miyagi’s badly hit coastal cities of Ishinomaki, Higashimatsushima and Onagawa.

But like most other municipalities, the construction of new homes is still stuck in the planning stage, and it will take few years for the city to finish erecting some 3,000 residences to allow disaster evacuees currently living in temporary dwellings to start rebuilding their lives.

Because of the time it is taking to build these homes, the central government in April extended the upper limit for people allowed to stay in temporary housing facilities by an additional 12 months, raising the maximum threshold to three years.

“I question whether a general election had to be held at this time. I really hope it will not slow down the recovery and reconstruction process,” said Masahiro Iitsuka, 51, who lives in a temporary housing compound in Sendai’s Asuto Nagamachi district — the city’s largest evacuee neighborhood — in Taihaku Ward.

“I’m following this vote with a very critical eye and extremely carefully. In fact, I’ve never been this interested in a general election before,” said Iitsuka, who heads the residents’ association at his complex.

In the 2009 Lower House race, many voters in Tohoku backed the DPJ, which won by a landslide and ended the decades-old rule of the Liberal Democratic Party.

In Miyagi, candidates running on the DPJ ticket won five of the prefecture’s six single-seat constituencies that year.

However, media polls last weekend showed DPJ candidates — including Konno — are up against it this time round and are struggling to secure another four-year term, as many of their LDP rivals are the front-runners.

In the Miyagi No. 2 electoral district, which covers part of Sendai and comprises some 470,000 voters, the DPJ’s Konno is battling five opponents for a Lower House seat: Kenya Akiba of the LDP, Masashi Nakano of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), Yasunori Saito of Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan), Fumihiro Kikuchi of Your Party and Kazue Fukushima of the Japanese Communist Party.

The campaigns of Nippon Ishin’s Nakano and Saito of Nippon Mirai also showcase how new political forces have emerged and are vying to destroy the present duopoly of the ruling DPJ and the LDP, which governed Japan almost without interruption for a half-century until 2009. Recently founded “third-force” parties such as Nakano’s and Saito’s are particularly targeting undecided voters.

In a curious twist, voters in the constituency elected Saito to the Lower House in 2009, when he had campaigned as a rookie candidate for the DPJ. But the former local TV weatherman quit the ruling party last December to protest Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s successful effort, with the help of the LDP and New Komeito, to pass legislation to hike the sales tax. Noda is the DPJ president.

Saito helped launch the Kizuna Party the same month with eight other defectors from the DPJ. In mid-November, the small party was absorbed by Ichiro Ozawa’s nascent Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s Life First) party, which merged with Nippon Mirai later that month. Ozawa, a former DPJ chief, also defected from the party due to his opposition to Noda’s tax hike goal.

At a gathering of Nippon Mirai supporters Sunday, Saito stressed the consistency of his policies and his unwavering position on key issues since the last Lower House election — in stark contrast to many of his former DPJ brethren, who are viewed by voters as betraying the party’s 2009 campaign pledges. As well as stressing the abolition of nuclear power — one of Nippon Mirai’s most fundamental tenets — Saito also pointed to his record of asking the most questions regarding Tohoku’s reconstruction during Lower House sessions since March 2011.

Despite switching party affiliation, some voters, including 35-year-old Miyuki Sugai, plan to continue supporting Saito. Sugai, an osteopath, said that even though she has grown disillusioned with the DPJ during its time at the government helm, she doesn’t want to back the LDP either.

“Many of my clients lived near the coast and haven’t been able to visit me (since last year’s tsunami). And if the consumption tax is increased, that will keep them from coming back” because of the prohibitive cost, said Sugai, whose family home and clinic were both damaged by the twin disasters.

Saito isn’t the only candidate who has changed parties.

Nippon Ishin’s Nakano was elected to the Lower House three times on the LDP ticket before joining the now-defunct Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan). The party changed its name to Taiyo no To (The Sunrise Party) when former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara joined it in mid-November. But just four days later after the rebranding was announced, Ishihara merged the party with Nippon Ishin, which was established earlier in the year by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.

Addressing a gathering of supporters Saturday, Nakano praised Ishihara, Nippon Ishin’s new chief, for his strong leadership as governor of Tokyo and also for offering his support to assist with the disposal of tsunami debris from Tohoku despite strong opposition from the capital’s residents.

“If the LDP wins big, it will definitely become arrogant. So I beg you to support and nurture a party such as ours so we can stop them,” the Nippon Ishin candidate told the crowd.

In the 2009 election, Nakano, who was representing the LDP at the time, was defeated by then-DPJ candidate Saito in Miyagi’s No. 2 district. The LDP’s Akiba, meanwhile, won a House of Representatives seat in that election via the proportional representation segment, creating a peculiar rivalry between Akiba with Nakano.

Polls indicate Akiba is leading the race this time, but Upper House LDP lawmaker Yutaka Kumagai, whose constituency is also in Miyagi, said the party isn’t taking anything for granted.

“We’re being careful not to let down our guard,” Kumagai said. “If it snows on election day, what’s scary is that voters supporting the LDP may decide not to go to the polls, assuming the party’s candidates can win without their vote, and that would work to the advantage of smaller parties.”

Several people who responded to a snap interview in Sendai’s shopping arcade district Sunday indicated they plan to vote for the LDP. “The DPJ didn’t meet my expectations once it took control of the government. I think this is a good chance for the LDP to seek revenge,” said a 40-year-old resident of the city who declined to be named.

Iitsuka of the Asuto Nagamachi temporary housing complex, where around 200 households are staying for the foreseeable future, said he also feels let down by the DPJ, as he had thought the party would institute political reforms after taking office for the first time in its history in 2009.

“Prime ministers changed every year during the LDP’s period of governance,” Iitsuka pointed out, though he conceded that “the same was true of DPJ administrations” in the years leading up to this Sunday’s poll.

Iitsuka, whose home in the city of Iwanuma in Miyagi was destroyed by the 9.0-magnitude quake last year, also feels that the natural calamities and ensuing nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima Prefecture proved too much for the DPJ to handle. “I think they did all they could within their capabilities,” he said.

He meanwhile thanked politicians ranging from Sendai Municipal Assembly members to Diet lawmakers for frequently visiting his housing compound.

Since moving to Asuto Nagamachi in August last year, Iitsuka said DPJ members have visited the district most often, followed by lawmakers of the JCP and New Komeito, among other parties. However, no one from the LDP has shown up so far, he said.

“I think it’s critical for politicians to listen to the voice of the people. We really want to talk to them about our situation,” including LDP lawmakers, said Iitsuka, who works for a Sendai-based IT company.

Iitsuka’s views carry weight, as he has worked hard to bring residents together and form a strong community in Asuto Nagamachi. He has held numerous discussions with the area’s inhabitants, who are effectively stuck in limbo until new homes for them are built, and has also dealt with the city’s bureaucracy to help improve living conditions in the area.

He confessed that he is pondering whether to give the DPJ one more chance in office because, in Iitsuka’s view, three years seems like a short time to evaluate the party’s ability to govern the country.

“Right now, none of the parties really stands out,” he said. “I will look very carefully into what each party has to say, and I’ll cast my vote for the one I think is most likely to carry through on its campaign promises.”