Former minister for disaster reconstruction faces uphill battle in Ozawa's traditional fiefdom

Iwate hopefuls locked in close race


Tatsuo Hirano, former minister for disaster reconstruction, faces an uphill battle for re-election as a House of Councilors lawmaker in the fiefdom of former power broker Ichiro Ozawa.

Hirano, 59, parted with Ozawa last year when the influential politician bolted from the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan. Hirano himself left the DPJ this year after the party was ousted from power in December.

After an unsuccessful behind-the-scenes attempt to gain the support of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Hirano is running as an independent in Iwate Prefecture in a bid to win a third six-year term.

“This is a crucial battle,” said a senior staff member from his election campaign office.

Hirano’s strength lies in his career as minister for reconstruction under the previous DPJ-led government. He was directly involved in the recovery and reconstruction of Iwate coastal communities that were ravaged by the monster tsunami triggered by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck off the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

“I want you to allow me to stay at the forefront of reconstruction efforts as a lawmaker,” Hirano said in a stump speech in Hanamaki, Iwate, on July 4, the first day of the official campaign period.

Yoshio Nakamura, chief of the Kitakami Chamber of Commerce and Industry and head of a supporters’ group for Hirano, strongly believes in the candidate.

“Hirano visited us immediately after the disaster. We owe much to him,” Nakamura said. “We’ve established a good personal relationship with Hirano.”

Eight prefectural assembly members, including those affiliated with the DPJ, have expressed support for Hirano. The Hirano camp hopes to win wider support, mainly from nonaffiliated voters.

In an attempt to break Ozawa’s iron grip on Iwate, the ruling LDP has fielded Shinichi Tanaka, 46, former manager of Keio University’s rugby club.

“The key is to rectify the distortions in the politics of Iwate and Japan,” Tanaka said in the campaign kickoff speech, raising his voice as a crowd of 400 supporters filled the sidewalk.

In Iwate, the LDP suffered successive losses in the past six Upper House elections at the hands of candidates backed by Ozawa, who played a role in removing the LDP from power in 1993, after he bolted from the party, and helped the DPJ into government in 2009. But the clout of Ozawa, who was once seen as the power behind the throne, has waned in national politics even though he was acquitted last year of charges of political funding irregularities.

In view of the high public approval ratings for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the LDP’s first Upper House election victory in Iwate in 21 years seems a real possibility.

The LDP headquarters is giving Tanaka its full support. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga visited the prefectural capital of Morioka on July 7.

“Iwate Prefecture has long been controlled by a certain somebody. A candidate not supported by that somebody should represent you in the Diet,” Suga said in a speech. “The opportunity has come at last.”

Ozawa, former secretary-general of the LDP and former leader of the DPJ, is now leader of Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party), a small opposition party. His party fielded Toshinobu Sekine, 57, who served as a prefectural assemblyman for 10 years.

“I’d like you to consider the possibility of an LDP-led government out of control if the divided Diet is ended (by an Upper House election victory for the ruling coalition),” Sekine said in a street speech. “No one but Ozawa can provide a counterbalancing force.”

Ozawa is said to have more than 50 local support groups in Iwate municipalities. After visiting some of the groups July 1, he made no effort to conceal his sense of crisis to reporters.

“Iwate is my home prefecture and the foundation of my political activities. I definitely want the support of residents of the prefecture,” he said.

In mid-June, he allowed media access to his visits to more than 20 business groups in Iwate, mainly in Morioka. His remarks and behavior were in stark contrast to his usual covert style and reluctance to be interviewed, giving the impression that he is on the ropes.

Ozawa did not visit tsunami-hit Iwate coastal communities until some 10 months after the disaster. It was a mistake that has undoubtedly created a feeling of distrust among people of the prefecture.

“I wouldn’t have supported Hirano if Ozawa had shown himself in his home prefecture immediately after the disaster,” said a one-time senior member of an Ozawa support group. “There will be no great loss if Ozawa politics comes to an end.”