OSAKA — It was an unusually warm day in late October when a small crowd gathered around a candidate speaking outside Izumigaoka Station near Kansai airport.

Shingo Nishimura, a fiery ultraconservative who in 1999 was forced to resign as vice minister of the Defense Agency for suggesting that Japan should have nuclear weapons, is campaigning to retain his House of Representatives seat in Sunday’s general election, running on the Democratic Party of Japan ticket.

To do so, he is following the path of many other candidates in both the ruling and opposition parties who are telling voters they have expressed concerns about the abduction of Japanese nationals to North Korea.

“A lot of politicians are jumping on the bandwagon, expressing support for the abductees and their families,” Nishimura told the crowd at the Senboku Rapid Railway station. “But I was one of the first politicians in Japan to take up the abduction issue, over 10 years ago. I was with (relatives of the missing) when nobody in the Japanese government would listen.”

The bandwagon, as Nishimura noted, is filling up. First-time candidates and political veterans nationwide are voicing support for the five known surviving abductees and their relatives, as well as for the scores of other Japanese believed spirited away to the North — some Pyongyang has acknowledged taking and claimed are dead — and their relatives and supporters.

Naoto Sakaguchi, a DPJ candidate in the No. 17 constituency in Kanagawa Prefecture, has declared he supports efforts by the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped to North Korea (NARKN) to have the government launch an official investigation of former Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and other senior Foreign Ministry officials.

NARKN is a nongovernmental organization supporting relatives of people believed abducted.

The group has long alleged that Kono, who is running against Sakaguchi, and the ministry covered up the truth about the abductions and purposely avoided confronting North Korea over the issue.

In Fukui Prefecture’s No. 3 district, Liberal Democratic Party candidate Tsuyoshi Takagi tells voters that he attended meetings of the relatives and their supporters, and visited the Obama, Fukui Prefecture, home of Yasushi Chimura long before Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Sept. 17, 2002, summit in Pyongyang.

Chimura is one of only five known surviving abductees who last year were allowed to return to Japan. Their offspring and the American husband of one of the five are still in North Korea.

Takagi’s rival, Kazuo Tamamura of the DPJ, meanwhile boasts of his close ties with members of NARKN’s Fukui branch.

The DPJ is attempting to show it is behind the families and their supporters. On Friday, the party announced it would include in its campaign a promise to submit legislation to crack down on remittances to North Korea through Japanese banks. NARKN and some Diet members from across the political spectrum who have worked on behalf of the abduction victims have long advocated such a move.

But despite candidates’ claims of affiliation, NARKN officials say they are officially neutral in the Lower House campaigning.

“Neither the families nor NARKN are offering official endorsement of any candidate or party, and we have turned down such requests by candidates,” senior NARKN official Ryutaro Hirata said. “NARKN supporters who work on behalf of any candidate are doing so as individuals.”

He said many candidates have not sought official backing from NARKN or the relatives due to sharp differences within parties over the abduction issue.

“We leave it to each candidate as to whether they wish to make a statement on the issue,” Hirata said. “While some local chapters might say they welcome such remarks, they also know the candidates might get in trouble with party leaders if they receive too much support from NARKN.”

Some involved with the issue are trying to force candidates to discuss it publicly.

A group in Ehime Prefecture that is allied with, but not officially part of, NARKN has sent a questionnaire on the abduction issue to all candidates campaigning in the prefecture. The results, according to group spokesman Minzaburo Nakaya, will be made public before the election.

NARKN on Monday released its poll of more than 1,000 candidates nationwide on their views on the abductions and Japan’s relations with North Korea.

There have already been problems with politics and NARKN on the local level.

Tadashi Aruga, mayor of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, stepped down from his position within NARKN’s Nagano chapter earlier this year when it was revealed that he had asked members of his re-election campaign team to help with NARKN’s signature-gathering activities.

In the 2001 election for the House of Councilors, NARKN issued guidelines to members stipulating that they should not use family members to endorse a particular political party or candidate and to refuse any request by the abductees’ relatives to endorse an individual candidate. Members were also asked to be careful when getting involved with any particular group.

But this does not mean the relatives are staying quiet. Some are not only speaking out on the abductions but also voicing their support for other causes. In May, Hatsue Hasuike, whose son, Kaoru, is another of the five Japanese who returned last year, addressed a public hearing in Kanazawa Prefecture sponsored by a Lower House committee studying a revision of the Constitution.

Hasuike spoke of her frustration with the government over the abductions. The Constitution cannot protect Japanese people from such kidnappings, she said.

Her other son, Toru, has spoken at a symposium organized by rightwing groups seeking to rewrite school history textbooks, especially to tone down their depiction of Japan’s actions in Asia during the war.

Some candidates, like Nishimura, are meanwhile using the abduction issue, and the public attention it has received, to drum up support for causes that are unrelated to North Korea.

“Crimes by foreigners in Japan are on the rise,” he told the crowd at Izumigaoka Station. “We have to make Japan safe again, and make it a strong country where our citizens will not be kidnapped.”

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