MISAWA, Aomori Pref. — The city assembly here has attracted nationwide attention, not for its legislating, but for a member who was punished for his casual attire.He claims his dressing down symbolizes his crusade against corruption. “I know it all looked like a kindergarten-level farce,” said Yuki Ito, recalling the dress code strife. “But in fact, it was all about challenging the city’s political structure.”It all started when Ito, a 49-year-old publisher of a small local paper, was elected to the assembly in March 1996 with a vow to blow fresh wind into what he considered a stale city legislature.Not possessing a tie, Ito continued attending assembly meetings dressed in a colored shirt and casual slacks, despite criticism by colleagues who claimed his attire was inappropriate for such a formal occasion. Demanding freedom of expression, Ito stuck to his way. The assembly eventually established a dress code in December that required male members to wear a tie and females to dress “moderately,” becoming the nation’s first and only municipal assembly with such rules.But when the assembly met in March for this year’s first session, Ito showed up without a tie, prompting his colleagues to slap him with a five-day suspension. Calling it a violation of basic human rights, Ito immediately launched a hunger strike in Misawa City Hall that lasted five days.Ito made a concession and came to the June meeting with a string tie in hand — which he planned to put on just as the chairman addressed the opening of the meeting. The assembly chairman did not allow him in.Facing a stalemate that could last until his term ends in 2 1/2 years, Ito finally gave in last month and attended the September meeting in adherence to the dress code. Ito suspects his aggressive questions during the meetings threatened some members, prompting them to seek an excuse to shut him out of the meetings.According to Ito, the Misawa assembly has long been monopolized by a few locally powerful men who were elected not for their policies but for their profit-generating connections. Frustrated by a legislative body that seemed to serve merely as a faithful servant to the municipal government, he decided to run for an assembly seat “to strengthen the watchdog function of the assembly.”In the June 1996 session, he raised questions about alleged corruption involving the former mayor. Assembly chairman Takashi Hadachi argues that the dress code decision had nothing to do with Ito’s other activities on the assembly. “I would also prefer to see more members actively participate in deliberations. We never tried to shut him out of the meeting intentionally,” Hadachi said.Ito remains skeptical. “(The assembly) is keen on the externals because they lack substance,” he said. “They say the way I dressed undermined the assembly’s dignity. But I wonder which is more degrading: not wearing a tie, or reporting a fictitious business trip?”Observing Ito’s battle from afar, Hideo Uchiyama, an expert on politics and president of Niigata University of International and Information Studies, roots for the assemblyman’s stance and efforts. “He has successfully sent the message that an assembly should not be perfunctory but instead be substantial,” Uchiyama said.In the remainder of his term, Ito hopes to unmask corruption in municipal politics, achieve more transparency and work toward fair and equal distribution of the city’s resources for its some 43,000 citizens. “But what I can do in four years is limited,” he said, adding that people must also openly stand up and voice their opinions.
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