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Outspoken Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is one of the most talked-about politicians in Japan today, often mentioned by the media as a possible future prime minister.

With the April gubernatorial election nearing, speculation is rife over whether he will seek a second term or attempt a long-rumored comeback to national politics.

Looking back at what he has done for the capital in his first four-year term, some watchers say Ishihara’s initiatives have tended to favor large-scale development projects, while welfare spending has been pared.

Ishihara has not made it clear whether he will seek re-election in April.

“Needless to say, I will announce my plans when the time is right,” he told a metropolitan assembly session last month.

He did, however, hint at a possible run for a second term, saying: “I have planted policy seedlings. While some of them bore fruit, others will take more time. It is my responsibility to see the results of these policies.”

Regardless of whether he runs again, the metropolitan government — bound by increasingly tight fiscal constraints — faces some important decisions on social welfare services.

“If Tokyo is to maintain large public works projects as a sacred cow, it will naturally have to scale down its welfare and medical services to rebuild its fiscal health,” said Hideki Takei, a lecturer at Senshu University and an expert on local-level administration and labor issues. “But I believe social welfare services are a local government lifeline to the public.”

Takei was speaking at a recent symposium scrutinizing Ishihara’s policies.

Many critics agree that Ishihara demonstrates strong leadership, unlike his predecessor, Yukio Aoshima.

They give high marks to Ishihara for limits on diesel vehicles not equipped with clean-air devices. The measure, the first of its kind by a prefectural government, will take full effect in October, targeting large diesel-powered trucks and buses already in use.

But they also argue that while Ishihara has helped to reform the metropolitan bureaucracy and reduce its budget deficits, the end result has not always benefited citizens.

“He launches new policies as if he was setting off fireworks, but I doubt that he carefully weighs their pros and cons beforehand,” said researcher Tetsuo Takahashi of the semi-governmental Research Institute for Local Government. “For example, he has played a big role in improving Tokyo’s financial status. But it sometimes hurts the quality of government service for the citizens.”

During four years under Ishihara, the metropolitan government has reduced a serious budget deficit.

In fiscal 2001, which ended last March, the balance of revenues and expenditures was 10 billion yen in the red — down sharply from the previous year’s 67.8 billion yen and from 106.8 billion yen in fiscal 1998, one year before Ishihara took office.

Nevertheless, it is estimated that outstanding bonds issued by the metropolitan government will reach about 7 trillion yen at the end of March, and bond redemption is expected to hit 679.7 billion yen in fiscal 2003 alone.

What’s more, the prospects for tax revenues remain cloudy amid the prolonged economic slump.

The inflow from taxes in the current fiscal year to March is expected to fall 356 billion yen from the previous year to 4.03 trillion yen.

The projection includes about 100 billion yen from a controversial local bank tax, whose future is uncertain due to a Tokyo District Court ruling last March declaring the tax invalid. Ishihara has appealed the ruling, and the Tokyo High Court is scheduled to hand down a decision later this month.

Amid the fiscal uncertainties, Ishihara has already cut back on spending for welfare, medical care and education, said Takei of Senshu University, estimating that Tokyo’s welfare spending has been reduced by 43.7 billion yen over the four Ishihara years.

While abolishing or scrapping several elaborate welfare programs for the elderly, the disabled and children, Ishihara has encouraged greater participation by the private sector in the day-care market and reviewed the operation of metropolitan-run hospitals in a bid to reduce the fiscal burden.

His critics say the capital should instead review its waterfront development projects as well as construction of various thoroughfares, including the three beltways that Ishihara said would sharply improve transportation and solve traffic jams in Tokyo. The metropolitan government is covering part of the cost for two of the three beltways.

Under the project to develop the Rinkai waterfront area, which constitutes a major part of a grand design for Tokyo that was released in 2000, interest payments on the debts incurred from the development of the overall 139-hectare site exceed rental income by 30 billion yen a year, as development plans for half of the space have yet to be completed, Takei said.

Sadatsugu Tsujimura, a director at Construction Policy Institute, a private research body for construction and public works, said construction of the thoroughfares will not ease tieups, but instead will trigger further concentrations of people and vehicles, damaging the environment and accelerating the “heat island” urban warming phenomenon.

Projects to develop the waterfront as well as efforts to invite private developers to downtown districts, including Roppongi and Shiodome, could fuel further deflation, he said.

He said the expected supply of office space in these areas will cause an outflow of companies from more expensive parts of the metropolis, resulting in a further slide in real estate prices.

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