FUKUOKA - No one is admitting it yet, but there is a definite sense of crisis looming in Taku Yamasaki’s district office that a sex scandal may cause the Liberal Democratic Party veteran to lose the seat he has held for more than three decades.
Yamasaki, 66, has held many key posts in the LDP, including secretary general, and is currently vice president, the No. 2 post under leader Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister and a close friend. He has also been construction minister and director general of the Defense Agency.
Ordinarily, such a notable career would all but guarantee easy re-election for an 11th term in the Nov. 9 election for the House of Representatives. In the history of the LDP, only one vice president has lost his seat in a general election: Eiichi Nishimura, who was acting LDP vice president in 1980.
Yamasaki, however, may well be facing an uphill battle. He has already had close calls in the Fukuoka No. 2 district in the last two elections after the single-seat system was introduced in 1996 to replace the multiseat arrangement, where more than one candidate was elected from one constituency.
In head-to-head competition with the LDP, opposition forces put up a good fight against Yamasaki on those occasions, and as one of Yamasaki’s secretaries, Toshitaka Nishimura, said, “Conventional LDP election strategies never work here.”
Yamasaki’s district is the most urbanized commercial and business area in Kyushu, where nearly 40 percent of the electorate has been replaced since the last election, as many people move in and out of the region for work.
This is a peculiar demographic feature that is not usually seen in rural constituencies characterized by more static populations — areas the LDP has relied on for the votes that have kept it in power since 1955.
For the Nov. 9 poll, the Democratic Party of Japan has fielded Junichiro Koga, 45, as its candidate. DPJ chief Naoto Kan chose this constituency to visit Tuesday — the first day of official campaigning — to stump for the opposition party’s candidate, who is seeking a Diet seat for the first time.
In the last election, the DPJ candidate was only 14,000 votes behind Yamasaki, who received a little more than 93,000 votes.
Yamasaki, however, perhaps faces his biggest danger from female voters in a possible backlash over the sex scandal he is embroiled in.
In April, Kanako Yamada, speaking to more than 100 reporters from both the Japanese and foreign media in Tokyo, claimed to have been “Yamasaki’s mistress for a decade,” calling him “a politician who never regards women as human beings.”
Before her appearance, Yamasaki filed a defamation suit against her and magazine publisher Bungei Shunju Ltd., which published her story five days before her news conference. He also brought other suits against the publisher for articles on his alleged sexual harassment.
But a court rejected one of these lawsuits last month, judging that the story had a basis of truth to it. Yamasaki has appealed the ruling.
During the past few weeks, numerous photocopies of these magazine articles have been put in mail boxes in the district, Nishimura said.
Yamasaki took the discovery philosophically, telling local reporters, “I had to expect that.” But the scandal could prove his Achilles heel, especially given what one academic calls Japan’s new “theater politics.”
“Japan has descended into theater politics,” said Yutaka Oishi, a professor at Keio University. “This means not only that people have become an audience watching politics through the media, but that politics is undergoing changes with instant reactions from the media and people.
“In theater politics,” Oishi said, “candidates need to deliver images that can win favorable attention from women, because female perspectives now carry great weight” since more women are participating in politics.
The scandal has also prompted Yamasaki to take an unusual countermeasure — less media exposure.
On one Sunday in October, his staff refused to allow the press to photograph Yamasaki as he was paying courtesy calls on supporters. That is just the sort of typical scene that candidates usually want reported in order to appeal to voters ahead of an election.
“The truth is,” one member of Yamasaki’s staff said on condition of anonymity, “Yamasaki seems to think that the more often he appears on television or in the newspapers, the more adversely it will affect him.”
To boost his chances of victory, Yamasaki would need the support of the district’s 30,000 members of Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization, which is the power base of New Komeito — one of the LDP’s two junior coalition partners. But one official of the group said, “Our female members are showing a distaste for his sex scandal.”
The ruling parties are cooperating in fielding a single candidate in districts across the nation, and New Komeito has so far expressed its intent to endorse 73 official LDP candidates, which basically means Soka Gakkai, a powerful vote-gathering machine, will help them. But it has yet to decide whether Yamasaki will be the 74th.
Given all these problems, Yamasaki has also decided to get on the LDP list of candidates for the proportional representation segment, where seats are distributed to parties on the basis of their portion of the overall vote. This is a tactic often adopted by politicians to protect themselves against a potential loss in their single-seat district.
His supporters may soon be hoping this will be enough to guarantee Yamasaki will be there when the Lower House assembles again.