Cities set to merge divided over new leader

by Taiga Uranaka

It looked like a match made in heaven when, on Aug. 10, the two beaming mayors of Hoya and Tanashi shook hands on a deal to merge the two western Tokyo cities.

But in the runup to the official inauguration of Nishi-Tokyo on Jan. 21, local residents are drawing battle lines along the old city boundaries in a dispute over who will head the new municipality.

Just as the two cities had managed to nail down details such as which municipal government buildings would continue their current functions, residents assumed they had negotiated which of the two men would pursue Nishi-Tokyo’s top post.

Citizens of both cities, therefore, were stunned earlier this month when both Tanashi Mayor Tatsuo Sueki and Hoya Mayor Kohan Hoya announced their intentions to run in the special election slated for mid-February for the merged city’s first governmental head.

Residents on both sides are worried what it will mean for them if the other city’s mayor takes the helm. Many, meanwhile, are dissatisfied with both options, seeing the two incumbents as carbon copies desperately trying to hold onto their jobs.

The two mayors have themselves admitted that they differ little in terms of policy goals.

“We are not so different,” said Hoya. “That’s why we could agree on the merger plan.”

In interviews with The Japan Times, both mayors admitted the contest between them was something they should have never allowed to happen.

“We tried to avoid this situation because we believe it will leave lingering unpleasant feelings among residents of both cities,” said Sueki of Tanashi. However, he added, “In the end, there is no choice but to decide the new mayor by ballot.”

The local chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party, which backed both men in their last respective elections, took on a mediatory role between the two to avoid embarrassment and even a possible loss to a third candidate likely to be fielded by the Japanese Communist Party.

But the negotiations collapsed when Hoya rejected the LDP’s offer to back him for a seat on the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly — a big step down from his mayoral post — if he pulled out of the race.

Lower House member Yozo Ishikawa, who heads the LDP’s Tokyo chapter, was quoted as saying that Sueki, a 69-year-old veteran politician in his fourth term as mayor and with two decades on the city assembly, has more experience in local administration than the 63-year-old Hoya, who is serving his second term after working as a local postmaster.

Hoya, a lifelong LDP supporter, felt betrayed when the party chose to back nonmember Sueki, according to sources close to him.

Ironically, both mayors secured victory in their last respective elections by supporting the cities’ merger. In other words, they arranged for the seat to be pulled out from under one of them. Apparently, both hoped it would be the other guy.

“Honestly, the merger would not have succeeded if we had discussed which of us would be mayor of the new city,” Hoya said.

Even among those at both city halls, the topic had been considered “taboo,” a Tanashi official said.

Tanashi, with a population of 77,000, is the industrial home to such major manufacturers as Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries and Citizen Watch Co. Hoya, by contrast, is a commercial city with many small retail outlets and a population of 100,000.

A look at a map illustrates the geographical sense of the merger — Hoya looks to be stretching its arms to cuddle the smaller Tanashi in the north and the south. Such a shape means inconveniences for residents living in the “arm” areas.

“Some schoolchildren in Hoya have to walk 30 minutes to go to school, (even though) there is a school in Tanashi that is only 10 minutes away,” a Tanashi official said.

Although the idea of merging the cities has been around for a long time, talk of the merger that is finally happening really kicked off in 1993 when Hoya defeated a JCP-affiliated incumbent mayor who was opposed to the plan.

The merger negotiation was aggressively pushed by both city halls, and the nearly collapsing financial situations of both Tanashi and Hoya has helped speed things along.

As of the end of September, outstanding municipal bonds stand at 17.9 billion yen for Hoya and 14.5 billion yen for Tanashi, whereas the fiscal 1999 general budget was 29.7 billion yen for the former and 26.2 billion yen for the latter.

Officials tout the economic merit of the merger, saying they could save up to 3 billion yen annually by streamlining the redundant functions of Tanashi’s and Hoya’s municipal government facilities.

“The merger is the ultimate administrative reform,” a Tanashi official said.

The central government has offered financial incentives to promote the mergers of municipalities with the aim of saving tax money. For Nishi-Tokyo, it has promised to underwrite about 16 billion yen of the 24.1 billion yen necessary for a new city-planning project.

As much as the people of the two cities may have been united by the idea of a merger, they are now largely divided over the mayoral contest.

In interviews, citizens of each city expressed support for their own respective mayors. However, the support seems to arise not out of loyalty or respect, but out of fear that the other guy will favor his old constituency.

“As a Hoya citizen, I want Hoya to be mayor of the new city. Otherwise, I think those in Tanashi will benefit more,” said one 64-year-old woman.

Likewise, a 68-year-old housewife in Tanashi said she would vote for the Tanashi mayor: “It’s natural. I think Tanashi will be paid less attention if the Hoya mayor is elected.”

Sueki said he worried such a divide would result. “The schism between the residents in the two cities will be made wider if we fight in the mayoral poll,” he said.

Meanwhile, both sides are worried that a third candidate from the JCP might try to fish in the troubled waters, throwing the whole situation into confusion.

“That’s the last thing we want,” a Tanashi official said. “In order for the merger to proceed smoothly, we need one of (the incumbents) to be the mayor.”

The JCP has been opposing the merger, saying it will lead to layoffs of city employees. JCP officials also say they now have a bigger chance of regaining the mayoral seat by attracting voters who have become disillusioned by the fighting incumbents.

Shozo Nagata, a lecturer of public administration at Musashino Women’s College, whose campus straddles both cities, indicated that the failure to determine succession was something of a bungle.

“(The negotiation of) which mayor will keep the post is usually part of merger talks. It is rare that such a dispute takes place after the merger talks are completed,” he said.

Nagata forecasts that the votes will be evenly split between the two cities, reflecting the division of the citizens. He also said both sides have good reasons for their preference.

“Of the two, Tanashi is more prosperous, and there is a fear among Tanashi residents that Hoya will be a drain on the city’s funds,” he said.

“On the other hand, for Hoya citizens, there is concern that their city will be annexed to Tanashi rather merged on equal footing.”

While the candidacies of both incumbents will stir anxiety among residents on both sides and perhaps create an obstacle to unity if either wins, it is the price to be paid to ensure a healthy democracy.

As the Hoya mayor said on reflection, “It’s better to let the voters decide than to make a behind-the-door deal among party bosses.”