OSAKA — Kiyomi Tsujimoto likes to call herself the “wasabi of Japanese politics,” whose job is to add some zest to the blandness of debate.

But with less than two weeks until the July 11 House of Councilors election, it remains unclear whether voters want a second helping of the fiery populist, who resigned from the House of Representatives in disgrace in 2002 when reports surfaced that she had skimmed nearly 19 million yen in state-paid salaries for her in-name-only secretaries.

Tsujimoto, a former policy chief of the Social Democratic Party, was convicted of fraud earlier this year and handed a suspended sentence.

Ever since she declared her intention to throw her hat into the ring for the Upper House race as an independent candidate in the Osaka constituency in mid-June, local voters have been divided over the wisdom of her campaign.

“Before she resigned, she spent a lot of time criticizing the corruption within the Liberal Democratic Party. But it turned out that she, too, was corrupt,” said Yukari Nishii, who stopped briefly to listen to Tsujimoto at a rally last weekend in the city of Takatsuki, from where Tsujimoto hails.

“I think it’s going to be very hard for her to win back the trust of local voters, especially when she is still in the middle of a suspended sentence.”

Others suggested the time was not yet ripe for her to try to stage a comeback.

“She should wait until the next Lower House election and seriously think about joining an established party or starting a new one,” observed Katsuya Okamoto, who said he supported Tsujimoto in the past but does not plan to do so this time.

“She’s not going to get anything done in the Upper House as an independent, and (she) seems to be running more out of a sense of wounded pride than anything else.”

Tsujimoto herself is well aware of the criticism.

“A lot of people have questioned whether now was the right time to run, given the fact that I was convicted of fraud just a few months ago,” she admitted. “But the seriousness of the current political situation and the reckless way in which Japanese politics is moving on issues like the war in Iraq made me realize I could not wait.”

The 44-year-old former SDP policy chief has not been giving detailed explanations as to what, exactly, she wishes to do if elected.

Instead, she has spent a good part of her stumping time apologizing for defrauding the state and pleading for voters to give her a second chance.

“Tsujimoto may be forgetting that people in Osaka don’t like wasabi as much as Tokyoites,” Osaka-based freelance journalist Sadao Taguchi said. “They are questioning just how much she can really get done” as a Diet member.

Six other candidates are vying for the three seats up for grabs in the race. They are incumbents Eiichi Yamashita of New Komeito, Takeshi Miyamoto of the Japanese Communist Party and four newcomers — Issei Kitagawa of the LDP, Motoyuki Odachi of the Democratic Party of Japan, independent Yoshio Masuda and Toyokazu Okido of a minor political group.

Local media polls as of late June showed Kitagawa, a former prefectural assembly member, and Yamashita being favored to take two of the three seats, leaving the five other candidates to fight for the remaining seat.

Tsujimoto’s opponents have thus far refused to openly discuss whether her entry might affect their own chances.

“We can’t concern ourselves with how Tsujimoto might be doing. We have to think about our own campaigns,” Masuda said.

But Tsujimoto’s supporters argue that the tightness of the race for the last seat is exactly the reason she’ll probably win.

“None of the five other candidates has the charisma and name value that Tsujimoto has,” said Natsuko Umezawa, who said she would volunteer to help Tsujimoto’s campaign. “More importantly, in a Diet that is increasingly becoming filled with second-, third- and fourth-generation politicians, Tsujimoto remains very much in touch with the needs, concerns and values of ordinary voters.”

Many voters have not decided whom to vote for, but some say they still have respect for Tsujimoto.

“She remained true to her ideals and did what she thought was best, speaking out even when it might have been wise to be quiet. She’s very different from the other politicians in Japan,” office worker Atsuko Saito said.

The fraud conviction is not the only hurdle that Tsujimoto may have to overcome — she remains dogged by allegations of close links to the Japanese Red Army.

In 2002, conservative newspapers and magazines reported that her main backer was Akira Kitagawa, a former Red Army leader who was extradited from Europe in 1975 and later set up the publisher Daisansho.

In 1988, Tsujimoto reportedly joined Daisansho as a senior executive, but resigned in 1996 after she won a seat in the Lower House.

In addition, Mamoru Yoshida, who was convicted in 2001 of harboring ex-Japanese Red Army faction leader Fusako Shigenobu, despite knowing she was wanted as an international terrorist, told police he had once been a volunteer worker at Tsujimoto’s office.

Tsujimoto denied any personal links to the Japanese Red Army when the issue was broached by The Japan Times, but admitted past supporters were members or sympathized with the group.

“Reports that I’m connected to the Japanese Red Army have caused great pain, because they are not true,” she claimed.

Several Internet sites are devoted to bashing the “Red Army candidate,” although Tsujimoto’s political opponents have avoided direct accusations in their campaigns.

Nevertheless, freelance journalist Taguchi said he would not be surprised if some of Tsujimoto’s opponents try to exploit the issue behind the scenes in an attempt to frighten voters.

Yet the few Osaka voters who are aware of such allegations do not appear to be all that disturbed.

“I think Tsujimoto will be judged not by her rumored connections to the Japanese Red Army but by whether she has answered voters concerns about the fraud scandal and persuaded them that she would be an effective Upper House member,” Saito said.

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