Independent candidate Teruaki Masumoto, 48, hoped to keep a fire alive as he tried to get the attention of passersby outside Tokyo’s Iidabashi Station on June 24, the day campaigning for July 11 House of Councilors election kicked off.
He fears that public apathy, coupled with government disinterest, will douse the flame he has kept since his sister, Rumiko, was spirited away by North Korean agents in 1978. He, like others whose kin were abducted to Pyongyang, have held out hope, even when confronted with the North’s admission that their loved ones are dead, including his sister.
“After Sept. 17 (2002), some government officials wanted to normalize diplomatic relations with North Korea and (thus) tried to draw the curtain on the abductions,” Masumoto said, referring to the date of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s historic Pyongyang summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
At the summit, Kim admitted for the first time that North Korean agents had abducted 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, and he claimed that eight of them had died. Japan is demanding a thorough investigation into the fate of the eight and two others whom Pyongyang claims never entered the country. Dozens of other missing Japanese are also believed to have been kidnapped.
“What the Japanese government should do is to tell North Korea that it will not normalize relations until the North returns all the abductees,” Masumoto said. “I need to be (a member of) the Diet to make this happen.”
Many relatives of other abductees showed up at the station in Bunkyo Ward to rally support for Masumoto, who is expected to face a tough electoral battle against candidates from the main parties, including the Liberal Democratic Party, which apparently decided not to place him on its ticket because it didn’t want to capitalize on the abduction issue.
In April, LDP members, including Secretary General Shinzo Abe, offered Masumoto, a native of Kagoshima Prefecture, a chance to to run on the party’s proportional representation ticket. Abe maintains a tough stance against North Korea and has long worked on the abduction issue.
Masumoto was waiting for the party’s final approval when it opted not to back him, said Katsumi Sato, head of a group working on behalf of relatives of abductees. “The party backed down at the last minute, saying it did not want voters to think the LDP is trying to use the abduction issue for its election campaign.”
Sato believes former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori may have pressured party executives to take back the offer to Masumoto. Mori is known for having a conciliatory approach toward the North in order to improve relations.
Some of Masumoto’s friends and supporters also opposed his candidacy, feeling an election run would have more negative than positive effects.
“Even if Masumoto is elected, there is almost nothing an independent first-year politician in the Upper House can do,” said one supporter, who asked not to be named. “There is little chance he can actually ask questions in the legislature,” as the length of time for questions is determined according to a party’s Diet strength.
If he is defeated, the outcome may throw cold water on any momentum to resolve the issue, he said.
However, Kazuhiro Araki, head of Masumoto’s campaign office, noted that one of the main purposes of the campaign is to further public understanding of the abductions.
Masumoto decided to run in the Tokyo constituency — the nation’s largest, population-wise — to attract the most attention, Araki said.
With 11 candidates vying for four seats, the constituency is expected to be a tough contest for Masumoto, despite his high public exposure over his longtime activities. One hope he has is that Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara will rally behind him.
Former Vice Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa is running on the LDP ticket, while the Democratic Party of Japan is fielding two candidates: a well-known TV newscaster, Renho, and Toshio Ogawa, a lawyer-turned-politician.
The LDP’s junior coalition partner, New Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party are each fielding a candidate. Former House of Representatives member Tetsu Ueda and former Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima are also running as independents.
An Ota Ward assemblyman supporting Masumoto predicts the LDP, New Komeito and one of the DPJ candidates will each win a seat.
“Masumoto and the others will probably have to fight for the remaining seat,” he said.
When the popular Gov. Ishihara, a strong advocate of resolving the abduction issue, expressed during a regular news conference on June 4 his intention to back Masumoto, it created a stir within the LDP’s campaign office. Ishihara, a former LDP member, had been expected to back the party’s candidate.
To demonstrate the LDP’s ties with Ishihara, its candidate, Nakagawa, visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office and had a photo taken of him shaking hands with the governor. It is now displayed in his campaign office.
But Masumoto’s election staff claim Ishihara’s words of support will be a great help to their campaign, and they are trying to get the governor to stump for their man.
Masumoto is determined to gain a Diet seat so he can keep up the pressure on the government to resolve the abduction issue as soon as possible.
“I grew sick and tired of the government’s soft stance on North Korea,” Masumoto said in a recent gathering. “It is as if (officials) are waiting for the abduction issue to fade with time.”
If elected, Masumoto said he intends to gather further information on other missing Japanese to prove Pyongyang abducted more people than the 15 officially recognized by the government.
“After all the victims return to Japan, I want to make sure that those who ignored the issue for more than 20 years are held accountable,” he said.