IZUMO, Shimane Pref. — The younger brother of the late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, the Liberal Democratic Party kingmaker, recently addressed a crowd of some 5,000 people, pledging to carry on his brother’s wish to revitalize Japan’s “furusato,” or hometowns.
The elder Takeshita, 76, who died Monday, had long been an advocate of developing rural areas, a grand scheme he called furusato “sosei” (development).
The former prime minister had been hospitalized since April last year, reportedly due to lower back pains, and announced in early May that he would retire from politics. The task of keeping his Lower House seat has been placed on the shoulders of his 53-year-old brother, Wataru.
But although the Shimane No. 2 constituency is dubbed the “Takeshita Kingdom” — with the late prime minister being elected to the Lower House 14 times since 1958 — and despite his death, which could attract sympathy votes, some observers say it remains uncertain if Wataru Takeshita can win the seat, even after inheriting his brother’s support organizations.
Forty-two “freshman” candidates in the upcoming poll had a parent or grandparent who was a Lower House member. This does not include candidates like Takeshita, who is aiming to inherit his brother’s seat, or those with family connections who served up until the time the chamber was dissolved for the coming election.
The electorate’s views on such “hereditary lawmakers” are mixed. According to an opinion poll of 1,000 voters in the Chugoku region conducted by the local daily Chugoku Shimbun in May, 34.6 percent of voters questioned were unhappy with the idea of lawmakers simply inheriting seats, while 57.9 percent said it depends on the individual’s ability.
“While the Democratic Party of Japan says it is a waste of money to invest in less-populated areas, we should not allow that to happen,” Wataru Takeshita told voters. “Our hometown should not be discarded.”
Because his ailing brother only announced his retirement in May, Takeshita was late in preparing for the election. Indeed, although he had been his elder brother’s secretary for the last 15 years, his name and face are unfamiliar to many voters.
In contrast, his main rival, DPJ-backed Atsushi Nishikori, 54, a former aide to former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama between October 1994 and January 1996, had been preparing for Sunday’s election since he narrowly lost to Noboru Takeshita in the 1996 general election by a mere 24,000 votes. There were 203,525 potential voters in the constituency.
To make up for lost time, Wataru Takeshita’s election campaign office has opted for a new campaign strategy in addition to traditional methods in which parties depend on organized votes from select industries and organizations. Since late May, Takeshita has taken to the streets to talk to the public directly.
“The new strategy is working well,” said Yoshiro Jodai, a Shimane Prefectural Assembly member and a key member of Takeshita’s campaign office. “Talking to people directly on the street is drawing attention. And they can see firsthand his good-natured personality.”
Traditional campaigning methods have also been utilized. Takeshita’s campaign team has so far organized hundreds of small gatherings at which participants’ names and photos have been taken. Company heads are required to collect a list of names pledging support for Takeshita.
In his speeches, Takeshita mainly criticizes the DPJ’s calls for unnecessary public works projects to be eliminated. Because Shimane has been the prefecture with the highest public investment per capita for the last 10 years, the DPJ’s calls sound threatening to those whose business depends on construction-related projects.
Nishikori, however, argues that the DPJ is not saying all public works projects are bad. Traditional pork-barrel politics, best represented by Noboru Takeshita’s political style, is what the DPJ is against.
“While my competitor calls the DPJ the party that neglects rural areas, who is responsible for making this region degenerated?” Nishikori asked. “Shimane Prefecture has received a large amount of investment for public works projects, so why has its population continued to decline and its economy continued to slide? It is clear traditional public works projects do not contribute to revitalizing the region and it is necessary to create new industries.”
Because Nishikori had been targeting Noboru Takeshita as his main rival, Takeshita’s retirement and his younger brother’s succession took him by surprise. Nishikori can also no longer play up the differences in their generations, because Wataru Takeshita is a year younger than him. Noboru Takeshita’s death has also possibly thrown a wrench into the works.
Nishikori’s campaign office, however, said this has not affected their strategy. “Although the face and (first) name have changed, the (Takeshita) political style remains unchanged,” said Kazuo Watanabe, a secretary to Nishikori.
Watanabe said more people are becoming aware of the negative side of pork-barrel politics. While in the past nobody appeared when Nishikori took to the streets in Kakeya, Takeshita’s hometown, now some residents gather to listen to him.
Hiroto Ito, 48, a local resident who supports Nishikori, said that for Shimane to be more independent rather than reliant on the central government, it is necessary to change the existing system.
“While many voters feel some sympathy for Noboru Takeshita, and casting a vote for his successor is a way of showing gratitude, they should consider the election in the broader context of the future of this prefecture as well as this country,” Ito said. “We should bid farewell to a system of relying on the state and change it to one in which each of us takes part in creating a better society.”
Ito said he believes Noboru Takeshita’s death may go against his younger brother’s campaign, pointing out that many believed everything that went on in the constituency was being carried out at the elder’s behest and with his knowledge, despite his protracted illness.
“Because Noboru-san had such enormous political influence (in this constituency), his death means that Wataru-san has lost a great deal of support,” Ito said. “To recover from this disadvantageous position, (Takeshita’s) campaign office will probably put more pressure on industries and organizations for vote-collection as well as to try to gather sympathy votes.”