As the Liberal Democratic Party scrambled to squelch any finger-pointing over the poor showing of its candidate, Shintaro Ishihara took his first stab Monday at the U.S. following his election to the Tokyo governorship, saying bilateral ties will improve if the U.S. Yokota Air Base is returned or used jointly by both nations.

In a television interview the morning after emerging victorious over 18 other candidates in Sunday’s gubernatorial race, Ishihara, 66, said he favors the idea because the capital does not have a full-fledged international airport. “Japan-U.S. relations will become much better” after the Yokota base question is resolved, Ishihara said. Part of his campaign platform was a vow to seek the base’s return to Japan.

“I like America,” Ishihara said on TV Monday, scoffing at the widely held view that he harbors anti-American sentiment, partly because of his 1989 book, “The Japan That Can Say No,” which he coauthored with then Sony Chairman Akio Morita.

Ishihara, a prize-winning novelist and former Lower House LDP member known for his nationalist views, won by a comfortable margin over contenders backed by the major parties.

In addition to his popularity, Ishihara is believed to have obtained support from voters who normally back the ruling LDP, which fielded former U.N. Undersecretary General Yasushi Akashi.

Final results showed Ishihara had won 1.665 million, or 30.5 percent, of all valid votes, according to metropolitan election administration officials. Roughly 810,000 votes separated him from runnerup Kunio Hatoyama, former deputy leader of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Yoichi Masuzoe, a popular political scientist, came in third and Akashi came in fourth, followed by Man Mikami, backed by the Japanese Communist Party, and Koji Kakizawa, a former foreign minister who was ousted by the LDP when he defied the party by registering as a candidate.

On Monday, the LDP rushed to assess potential damage and contemplate if and where to lay blame for Akashi’s disappointing showing. His defeat marked the first time an LDP-supported candidate failed to place even second in Tokyo.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said he deeply regrets Akashi’s loss in the Tokyo race but indicated he would not hold the current party leadership responsible. “I myself strongly requested that he run and regret (the situation) as one who is responsible for the results,” he told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence. “It is regrettable that the LDP could not unite to support him.”

Asked whether party executives should be held responsible for the election outcome, LDP Secretary General Yoshiro Mori said officials were merely following standard party procedures, claiming that in all prefectures, including Tokyo, local chapters select candidates and party executives only give approval.

Speaking on the issue, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka indicated the current party leadership should be maintained as the government faces serious tasks both at home and abroad. “(The LDP) needs to weather these turbulent times with both responsibility and soul-searching,” the government’s top spokesman said.

Nevertheless, the outcome of the Tokyo race is a major embarrassment to the LDP, which fielded Akashi after a prolonged debate in the candidate selection process. The controversy that followed played a part in fraying the conservative vote.

Ishihara, meanwhile, spoke of the popular discontent behind his victory, saying the results show the “people have been waiting for a strong, clear message.”

His campaign slogan, “The Tokyo That Can Say No,” echoed the title of his book. He also said his win reflects the “people’s sense … that established parties are unaware that they have become worthless.”

In fact, voter turnout marked a sharp increase from four years ago. Despite the inclement weather, turnout hit 57.87 percent, 7.2 points above the 50.67 percent in the previous election.

Part of Ishihara’s pre-election message called for the return or joint use of land occupied by the U.S. Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo. Following his victory, he said he is confident that if the U.S. “is Japan’s real partner,” it will consider returning the base.

It was Ishihara’s second attempt to be elected Tokyo governor. In 1975, he ended up a close runnerup to the late Ryokichi Minobe, even though he won more than 2.3 million votes.

Sunday’s victory brings Ishihara back to politics four years after he abruptly quit the Lower House in the middle of his term, citing discontent with the state of politics in Japan.

In Osaka, incumbent “Knock” Yokoyama secured a second four-year term with a comfortable win over his sole rival, Makoto Ajisaka, who was backed by the JCP.

In nine other prefectures — Hokkaido, Iwate, Kanagawa, Mie, Shimane, Fukuoka, Saga, Fukui and Oita — incumbents jointly backed by the non-Communist major parties won re-election, while in Tottori, a former Home Affairs Ministry bureaucrat also won the gubernatorial race with the joint backing of major parties.

Voter turnout in the 12 gubernatorial races is estimated to have reached around 57 percent, compared with 55.12 percent four years ago.

Voters nationwide also cast ballots for local assembly elections in 44 prefectures and 11 major cities — Sapporo, Sendai, Chiba, Yokohama, Kawasaki, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima and Fukuoka — and for a mayoral election in Sapporo. In all the elections, candidates were vying were for terms of four years.

These polls constituted the first round of quadrennial unified local elections. Voting for the second round, in which the mayors and assemblies of smaller cities, wards, towns and villages will be elected, is set for April 25.

As for prefectural assembly races, a record 136 female candidates won seats. The figure surpassed the 79 marked in the previous elections four years ago.

A total of 698 prefectural assembly seats went to candidates with no party affiliation, topping the previous high of 623 set in 1995.

The LDP won 1,288 seats, followed by the DPJ with 170, New Komeito with 166, the JCP with a record 152 — surpassing the 122 garnered in 1979 — the SDP with 94 and the Liberal Party with 20.

As for city assemblies, final returns showed the LDP secured 233 seats, followed by New Komeito with 132, the JCP with 120, the DPJ with 114, the SDP with 15 and the Liberal Party with 1.

A total 117 female candidates secured seats in the assemblies of the 11 major cities — all with populations of more than 1 million. The figure compared with 85 in the previous polls four years ago. A record 122 independent candidates won in the 11 municipal races.

In addition to the local elections, Lower House by-elections were held Sunday in three constituencies in Tokyo and Shizuoka Prefecture to fill vacancies left behind by lawmakers who gave up their Diet seats to run for gubernatorial and mayoral elections.

LDP-backed candidates won the by-election in Tokyo’s No. 15 constituency and Shizuoka’s No. 8 district, while the race in Tokyo’s No. 2 district was won by a candidate fielded by the DPJ.

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