First in a series of articles focusing on young politicians with the potential to change Japan. These articles will appear every other Thursday.
Staff writer

Yokohama Mayor Hiroshi Nakada is hoping to use the city, which has a population of some 3.5 million people, as a platform from which to shake up the domestic political scene.

The former House of Representatives member is one of a growing band of politicians who have stepped down from the Diet and later found themselves at the helm of a local government. Others include Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Mie Gov. Masayasu Kitagawa.

“I want to change Japan from Yokohama,” Nakada said in a recent interview.

He said his political goals are to change Japan’s bureaucracy-dominated political structure, as well as its general culture of dependence on the government.

“What I have been repeatedly telling city officials since I took office is that I am not an administrative leader as such. I am here as a politician,” said the 38-year-old Nakada, who took office last March.

He stressed that, while administrators focus on continuity and punctual implementation of policies, politicians base their decisions on a wider perspective.

“It is a political decision on whether to take necessary measures beyond the law,” Nakada said in a recent lecture in Tokyo.

Nakada’s approach came as a shock to most Yokohama officials, who had served two former bureaucrats over the previous 24 years.

“Most city officials had regarded the mayor as one of us,” said one official who asked not to be named, reflecting widespread bureaucratic anxiety over Nakada’s apparent unpredictability.

Nakada’s predecessor, Hidenobu Takahide, served three terms, before which he served as vice construction minister. Michikazu Saigo, the mayor before Takahide, had been vice minister of home affairs.

Yokohama officials were most perturbed, however, by Nakada’s announcement Aug. 2 regarding a nationwide registry network system that was scheduled to start three days later.

Citing the network’s security shortcomings, the young mayor said the city would not automatically join up. Instead, each Yokohama resident was sent a letter in which they were asked if they wanted their personal data to be included in the nationwide network.

Launched Aug. 5, the resident registry network links basic residency registries across Japan by encoding personal information, such as an individual’s name, address, date of birth and sex, under an 11-digit identification number.

As a result, some 840,000 people, 24 percent of the municipality’s residents, decided against joining the network. Data on the other 2.61 million residents are expected to be sent to the network by Aug. 25, according to the officials.

In another bold reform tack, Nakada granted Yokohama residents a role in community planning, setting up a body with which citizens can air their concerns regarding local development projects.

In response to mounting public disquiet over unwanted facilities such as large condominium complexes that block out sunlight, officials and experts serving the new body are dispensing advice to local residents and involving them in the decision-making process.

With the body currently handling 100 cases, this new process could lead to the creation of an ordinance aimed at protecting the local environment.

“What I wanted to say was that being indifferent and simply relying on the government will do no good,” Nakada said.

To promote decentralization, Yokohama decided to let each ward submit its own requests for the city’s fiscal 2003 budget.

The city approved projects worth 431 million yen submitted by 15 wards, including construction of new bicycle parking lots.

It rejected requests from three wards.

“There should be unfairness in a good way,” Nakada said, adding that he simply approved projects that were deemed necessary.

Although he seems settled in his post now, his victory last March over Takahide, who was backed by both the ruling and opposition parties as well as industry groups, was far from easy.

When Nakada officially declared his intention last Feb. 28 to run as an independent, just four weeks before the election, Takahide was considered the favorite.

Shigefumi Matsuzawa, a former colleague of Nakada’s and a Lower House member of the Democratic Party of Japan, said, “Frankly speaking, I didn’t think he had a chance.”

As a member of Nakada’s campaign team, Matsuzawa came up with a unique tactic aimed at winning over the electorate in a short time. Takahide was sent a letter challenging him to a public debate the next day.

When Takahide failed to show, Nakada blasted him in front of TV cameras for “running away.”

Despite criticism of his campaign strategy, Nakada won a close race, garnering 447,998 votes to Takahide’s 426,833.

“I was spurred by what Nakada has done,” Matsuzawa said, acknowledging that this success influenced his decision to run in April’s gubernatorial race in Kanagawa. He added, however, that Nakada should be careful to avoid being seen as impertinent.

A graduate of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, also known as Matsushita Seikei Juku, Nakada was first elected to the Lower House as a member of the now-defunct Japan New Party in 1993 from the Kanagawa No. 8 district.

Renowned for making speeches in his constituency almost every day during his Diet stint, he joined Shinshinto in 1994. When that party dissolved in late 1997 following a bout of infighting over policy, Nakada became an independent in 1998.

“At first, I had no choice but to be independent, since the party I belonged to was dissolved,” he recalled. “But after that, I voluntarily chose to be an independent.”

His belief in being independent appears to have much wider implications.

He is one of a group of people aiming to field reform-minded independent candidates in the nationwide local elections scheduled for April.

Headed by Zenko Oda, who is also a graduate of the Matsushita Institute, the Japan Frontier Group will select independent candidates who pledge to promote decentralization efforts and not rely on support from a particular party or industry group.

The group will announce later this month which candidates it is backing.

Nakada said that belonging to a political party prevents a politician from acting freely on policy matters.

In his eyes, a party has too much influence over its members through the support provided by the body itself and by interest groups.

“To change Japanese politics, we must first change political parties,” Nakada said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.