YOKOHAMA — The last-minute candidacy of Yoko Tajima, a former House of Councilors lawmaker and celebrated feminist scholar, in the April 13 Kanagawa gubernatorial election has added a new wrinkle into an already crowded field.
Seven candidates are vying to fill the shoes of Gov. Hiroshi Okazaki, who is retiring after filling out his second term.
They are Tajima, Ichiro Asukata, Ryoichi Takarada, Shigefumi Matsuzawa, Seiko Yoshimura, Kenjiro Endo and Setsuko Yamamoto.
The fact that all seven are running as independents may cause some head-scratching by voters who are used to seeing at least some form of party representation.
“We are not placing that much stress on being an independent candidate” under these circumstances, said Masashi Saito, who is running Tajima’s election campaign. He stressed that the candidate’s campaign office is a volunteer effort.
Although Tajima was elected to the Upper House in 2001 on the Social Democratic Party ticket, she left the party last fall.
Saito was critical of what he described as “pseudo-independent” candidates — those who claim to be independents but in reality are relying on backdoor support from political parties and related organizations.
The Kanagawa race has its share of these.
In recent years, candidates in both local and national elections have increasingly eschewed party affiliations amid a rise in the number of unaffiliated voters, especially in urban areas.
In Kanagawa, campaign strategists have been unusually sensitive to this trend following the March 2002 victory of Hiroshi Nakada in the Yokohama mayoral race.
Nakada, running as an independent, beat an incumbent who was jointly backed by the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — the ruling coalition at the national level — as well as the SDP.
Most of the prefecture’s roughly 6.96 million eligible voters are urbanites. Voters in Yokohama and Kawasaki — Kanagawa’s two biggest cities — account for 55 percent of the total.
In view of these statistics, Ichiro Asukata turned down all offers for official support or recommendations from parties, instead targeting unaffiliated voters, according to Tokuro Kambayashi, a spokesman for Asukata’s campaign office.
Asukata is the nephew of the late Ichio Asukata, a former chairman of what is now the Social Democratic Party and former Yokohama mayor.
Shigefumi Matsuzawa, a former House of Representatives lawmaker of the Democratic Party of Japan, is taking a more pragmatic approach. He is not shunning support from members of political parties as long as this backing is imparted on an individual basis.
“We welcome the fact that members of political parties support (Matsuzawa) of their own will as individuals,” said Matahiko Imaoka, a spokesman for Matsuzawa’s campaign office.
“‘We are actually asking for such support.”
Imaoka added that Matsuzawa’s camp also wants to bring in vote-generating machines, such as industry groups that have traditionally supported the LDP.
In terms of why candidates want to distance themselves from parties, Imaoka said receiving official support would only tie their hands should they become governor and restrict their policy options.
The proliferation of independent candidates, however, could split the unaffiliated vote, effectively helping those who rely more on vote-generating bodies.
“Our basic strategy is to collect organized votes,” acknowledged Toyohiko Shinbori, secretary general of Ryoichi Takarada’s campaign office, referring to various industrial and commercial groups.
Takarada, a company president, has secured recommendations from the ruling parties and is expecting support from organizations close to them.
Because Tajima’s candidacy is expected to split the swing vote further, this is not at all bad news for Takarada, Shinbori said.
“I won’t say it’s good (for us),” he said. “But it’s not bad.”
With seven people in the race, however, candidates are finding it difficult to propose policies that both attract voters and differ significantly from those of their rivals.
Matsuzawa has called for creation of a coalition of prefectural governments in the Kanto region to pursue common key issues, including policies on road construction and more effective use of Tokyo’s Haneda airport.
Imaoka admitted this idea may not win over voters who are more interested in issues closer to their daily lives, including health and welfare.
No one in the field of candidates has been able to offer viable ways to cure Kanagawa’s chronic fiscal problems.
Although Kanagawa managed to report a surplus of 32.6 billion yen in fiscal 2001 via various cost-cutting measures, including salary cuts for prefectural employees, it is still in dire fiscal straits as the stagnant economy eats away at tax revenues.
“We will discuss concrete solutions after being elected,” said Shinbori, a former prefectural assembly member and local political veteran working for Takarada.
Seiko Yoshimura, an independent endorsed by the Japanese Communist Party, is underlining her opposition to the war in Iraq.
“Many voters say they are not very interested in prefectural-level politics,” said Katsuya Takahashi, secretary general of Yoshimura’s campaign office. “Therefore, we think it’s important to bring the context of national politics into this election.”
Although other camps do not view the war in Iraq as a hot Kanagawa election issue, some campaign strategists said they fear the extensive media coverage of the war will divert voter attention from the race.
This could dampen turnout and thus hurt independent candidates hoping to capture the swing vote.
“If the media continues to focus on the war, voter interest in the election might be diluted. We want voter turnout to be high,” Imaoka said.