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As Makiko Tanaka and Koichi Kato try to stage their political comebacks, voters in their districts appear to have dismissed the money scandals that forced them out of the Diet and instead believe they can change politics for the better.

People in the Niigata No. 5 electoral district have faith that the outspoken Tanaka, 59, can bring politics closer to them, while voters in the Yamagata No. 3 are eager to see Kato, 64, help revive the ailing local economy.

Tanaka, a former foreign minister and daughter of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, officially cut her ties with the Liberal Democratic Party last week and is running as an independent, vowing to seek a political realignment with other independents.

“Your worries over the economy, unemployment, social security, medical services, the pension system and juvenile delinquency — I take them as my own,” Tanaka said Tuesday as she kicked off her campaign in front of a packed audience outside Nagaoka Station, the center of her home district.

Buoyant, but her voice cracking at times with emotion, Tanaka said she had time to think and talk with her family, friends and supporters over the past year. “I have come to realize that the road I should take is to work for you again and bring strength and kindness to politics.”

It was Tanaka’s first appearance before the general public since she quit the Diet in August 2002 amid allegations that she had misappropriated the state-paid salaries of her secretaries. Prosecutors dropped the case last month, concluding she did nothing wrong.

“We’ve been waiting for her to come back,” said Shizue Sasaki, 71, who listened to Tanaka’s speech. “I like her because she is a straight talker, and we need someone like her in the Diet.”

For Sasaki and many others, the salary scandal is a nonissue. “She was just trampled by her political enemies. There was no case against her. It’s over,” Sasaki said.

Tomomi Murayama, 34, believes Tanaka speaks for women and wants her to change the nation’s male-dominated society. “I feel good when she says the right things against male politicians. I want her to represent us and cut into the men’s world.”

Tanaka’s high-profile battle with elite male bureaucrats in the Foreign Ministry ultimately led Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to sack her. Tanaka won public applause when she said in the Diet that Koizumi was “stepping on her skirt” to block her efforts to reform the corruption-tainted ministry.

Tanaka’s unique personality is one factor behind her solid popularity; the popularity of her father is another big reason for her strength.

Kakuei Tanaka, despite his national fall from grace in the Lockheed bribery scandal of the 1970s, is still a local hero. He is credited with leading Nagaoka from the ruins of war into the second-biggest city in Niigata, complete with a bullet train stop and expressway interchange. One of Kakuei’s main goals as prime minister was the development of rural economies.

“It was all thanks to Kakuei that Nagaoka has grown this much,” said Susumu Sakai, 66, who proudly states his uncle was Kakuei’s comrade during the war. “It doesn’t matter whether Makiko is in the LDP or an independent. I am voting for the ‘Tanaka party,’ ” he said.

Koichi Honma, head of Makiko’s campaign team and formerly a longtime secretary to her father, stressed that Makiko has inherited Kakuei’s political ambitions.

“Just like Kakuei brought prosperity to Japan after the war, Makiko is now trying to create a new Japan.”

The new Japan that Tanaka claims to seek is blurry, as she has spoken little in terms of policy specifics.

She says she “took the risk of becoming an independent in order to seek a political realignment” with other independent forces. One of her few vague promises is to “shed light on the weak.”

While avoiding explicit attacks on the LDP and Koizumi before the voters, Tanaka voiced deep distrust of the party at a news conference before the campaign began. She was also critical of Koizumi, saying he has accomplished no reforms because he has been “swamped by factional politics and bureaucrats.”

At the same time, however, she ruled out joining hands with the Democratic Party of Japan.

Candidates running against Tanaka in the same district include Yukio Hoshino of the LDP, who held the seat before the dissolution, and Katsuhiko Shirakawa, an independent with support from the DPJ’s Niigata chapter. Both hope to collect votes from loyal party supporters.

“It’s true that Makiko has fans, but what is she if she is neither in the LDP nor the DPJ?” asked Masahide Moroi of Hoshino’s campaign team. “We can expect votes from LDP supporters because we have the strong pipeline to the central government.”

However, only a few people stopped Tuesday to listen to Hoshino’s campaign speech on a street in Nagaoka, in sharp contrast to the hundreds who showed up for Tanaka’s speech.

Some people who know Tanaka well, however, say her public image is an illusion.

Hidetsugu Hokari, who was Tanaka’s government-paid aide from September 2001 to July 2002, said the issue over salaries for secretaries who worked on loan from Echigo Kotsu Co., a bus and taxi firm run by Tanaka’s family, was often not clearly settled at her office.

“The problem is she thinks the company’s money and her secretaries’ money are all hers,” Hokari said. “But the public doesn’t seem to care about the money scandal, as long as she remains bent on shaking up the political establishment.”

An Echigo Kotsu cab driver said employees in the company feel disconnected from Tanaka’s campaign. “We are not backing her campaign as an organization like we used to,” he said. “Many of us don’t believe she is clean anymore.”

Compared with Tanaka, who mostly kept a distance from the public after quitting the Diet in August last year, Koichi Kato attended more than 700 small gatherings of his supporters in what he called “an apology tour” since leaving the Diet in April 2002.

He resigned to take responsibility for a tax evasion case involving a former aide and over allegations that he had misappropriated political funds.

Kato, a former LDP secretary general once considered a leading prime minister candidate, is also running as an independent “to start again from scratch,” he said. Many people, however, expect him to rejoin the LDP if he makes it back into the Diet.

“I asked myself whether I have the right to try again after losing the people’s faith in me,” Kato said at one of his meetings with supporters this week. “But I want to get back into national politics, above all, to create jobs for young people.”

In Kato’s district, as in most rural areas, a depressed economy and high unemployment are the main concerns of voters.

“Young people have no jobs here because sewing factories and machinery parts makers have all gone to China,” said Junichi Hoshikawa, a member of the Yamagata Prefectural Assembly helping out on Kato’s campaign.

“We want Kato to make a comeback to national politics to bring in new businesses here,” Hoshikawa said.

Ko Miura, a shoe shop owner in Kato’s hometown of Tsuruoka, said locals are counting on Kato to lighten the gloomy mood. “Tsuruoka has been left behind. There are no bullet trains, no expressways, no jobs.”

Miura believes Kato has already atoned for the scandal by resigning, and thus has no need to feel shame.

But voters in Sakata, the hometown of Jun Saito, the 34-year-old DPJ candidate who is running against Kato, have a different view. Saito won the October 2002 by-election to fill the vacancy left by Kato’s departure.

“I want Saito to win because I don’t have a good impression of Kato after the money scandal,” said Haruko Saito (no relation), who works at a local supermarket. “I am sick of seeing lawmakers promising something just to get elected.”

Wakako Yamauchi, a 21-year-old student at Tohoku Koeki University in Sakata, said she is using her first chance to vote in a national election to express her generation’s opinions.

“We have more faith in the young Saito than in Kato, because LDP politics are too dirty and old,” she said.

Kato’s supporters are confident that he will beat Saito, given the still strong support from conservative voters, but they worry that his victory may not be as overwhelming as in the past.

“Many supporters have left Kato,” said Emiko Sato of Kato’s support organization. “Many of the (formerly) most enthusiastic supporters feel betrayed, since they had backed Kato for years because he was so close to becoming prime minister.”

Kato and Tanaka were not the only Diet members hit by financial scandals last year. Muneo Suzuki, who is currently on trial on bribery and other charges, is not running this time, citing surgery for stomach cancer. But he vowed to seek a return to politics in the next election.

It is not uncommon for lawmakers accused of crimes to seek — and win — re-election and retain their seats until, or in some cases even after, they are convicted.

After his arrest in the Lockheed scandal in 1976, Kakuei Tanaka continued to be re-elected from his Niigata constituency even after he was found guilty by the Tokyo District Court and the Tokyo High Court of taking bribes. He retired in 1990 and died in 1993, without seeing a Supreme Court ruling on the case.

“In Japan’s political culture, financial scandals are easily forgotten,” said Kaoru Okano, a professor emeritus at Meiji University. “For candidates, winning the election means everything. And once the election is over, they think they are forgiven by the public.”

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