Staff writer

Just a few years ago, Tokyo looked much more vibrant than Paris, London, or even New York, recalls former United Nations Undersecretary General Yasushi Akashi.

He reminisced about Tokyo’s quick tempo and spirited air that he said always inspired him. “But now the metropolis has lost its energy, and people have grim faces,” Akashi lamented at a news conference where he announced his candidacy for Tokyo governor. “I would like to make Tokyo a town with vigor again.”

On Feb. 18, Akashi accepted Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s ardent plea to run in the April 11 race, saying he had crossed the river of no return. Obuchi pledged the full support of the Liberal Democratic Party, but the task of capturing the hearts of Tokyo’s 9.7 million voters is turning out to be a rather surprising uphill struggle for Akashi, 68.

LDP lawmakers have become split among three conservative candidates in the race, after former Foreign Minister Koji Kakizawa and former Transport Minister Shintaro Ishihara tossed their hats into the ring. All three are running as independents.

By backing Akashi, who has close ties to New Komeito, the LDP has been hoping to garner support from the second-largest opposition party, which is backed by Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization. However, after much vacillation, New Komeito decided Thursday not to lend its full support but will instead allow its Tokyo chapter to back Akashi.

With the decision coming only 10 days before the election, it is uncertain if New Komeito’s local chapter can mobilize enough votes for Akashi even with the help of the influential Soka Gakkai. Akashi’s somewhat reserved personality — unlike the confident persona he exudes when speaking English — has become evident in televised debates, and may serve as another setback in efforts to attract the public, political observers say.

In early March, rumors that Akashi, who has spent most of his life in the U.S., might drop out of the race circulated among political circles. But when questioned by reporters about the possibility, Akashi, who headed U.N. peacekeeping missions in Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia, flatly denied it, saying: “I am the kind of person who rises to the challenge in a bad situation. “During my life, I have always done my best based on my own analysis (of the circumstances), and once I did, I calmly observed the results,” he said. “Like the saying goes, ‘Do your best and leave the rest to fate.'”

Calling himself “a tough negotiator” and “a persistent seeker of better policy,” Akashi said his U.N. experience “might come in very handy” in obtaining consensus and reconciling different viewpoints within the metropolitan government. He said he hopes to do his best as governor to “capitalize on my strength as a Japanese who has seen the world, who has seen the world’s other major cities, and who can take advantage of their advantages (and) learn from their disadvantages.”

Akashi said his goal is to boost Japan’s international status by making its capital “a global city that can compete on an international level” through such means as encouraging more foreign firms to do business in Tokyo. He also vows to prioritize solving the serious financial burdens and fiscal deficits that have placed the metro government in a budgetary straitjacket.

While other candidates have also put fiscal reconsolidation at the top of their policy agenda, Akashi stresses that only he can achieve this vital goal. “I will negotiate with the central government for an increase in financial assistance (for Tokyo) by securing a larger portion (of what the central government collects) of such levies as the consumption tax, income tax and gasoline tax. Mr. Obuchi has promised to support me,” Akashi said.

Indeed, on the first day of the campaign Obuchi said he was ready to accept all requests from Akashi if he becomes Tokyo governor. Also in his prescription for ailing Tokyo, Akashi vows to bring more international flights to Haneda airport and establish an international research park in the waterfront area.

He pledges to try to raise the status of working women, and promises to appoint women to two of the four vice governor posts and to create a committee to “eliminate whatever sexual discrimination” exists in metro government offices. On metropolitan administration, Akashi said that if elected, he will “try to be as visible and as communicative as possible, which was not the case with the present governor.”

Akashi maintains his policy pledges are all realistic and achievable. “I will not promise the moon to the citizens of Tokyo, which would be irresponsible, and which some of the candidates are doing,” he said.

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