National | ELECTION 2009

Hepatitis champion in 'bear hunt' for Kyuma

by Daisuke Yamamoto

Kyodo News

ISAHAYA, Nagasaki Pref. (Kyodo) Like many of his friends in rural Nagasaki Prefecture, Shigeyuki Nakao has always voted for Fumio Kyuma, the Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who has served as the nation’s defense chief several times.

But now, Nakao, 67, a pensioner in the town of Togitsu, is not certain whether he should cast his ballot to help send the 68-year-old Kyuma to the Diet for his 10th straight term.

The reason will seem familiar to many of the people disappointed with the long-governing LDP.

Under its rule, Japan has failed to recover from years of stagnation and the social security system has been left in tatters.

“The LDP has been in power too long,” Nakao said. “It should be replaced.”

Sensing the growing discontent and a chance to oust the LDP, the Democratic Party of Japan has sent to Kyuma’s turf a rival force 40 years younger: Eriko Fukuda.

Neither political blue blood nor pop star, Fukuda would not normally be a force to be reckoned with, but the 28-year-old Nagasaki native has a background that few people her age can match — she is a heroine in the legal battle between hepatitis C patients and the government.

As one of only a few plaintiffs who disclosed their names in the drawn-out litigation, Fukuda condemned bureaucrats in interviews and news conferences for allowing tainted blood products to be used on her and hundreds of others.

By the time the Diet enacted a compensation law last year that led to court settlements, Fukuda had become a poster child for the battle against all things wrong with the government and bureaucracy.

In September, then DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa, a seasoned election strategist, tapped her as a viable challenger for representing Nagasaki’s No. 2 district in the Lower House.

The contest has since been dubbed “Eri’s bear hunt” — a play on the name Kyuma, which can also be pronounced “kuma” (bear) — and has become one of the nation’s hottest electoral battlegrounds.

Fukuda’s bid could not come at a worse time for Kyuma, who is still reeling from a verbal gaffe he made in 2007 that forced him to resign as defense minister.

In a speech that June, Kyuma said, “I understand that the bombing brought the war to its end. I think it was something that couldn’t be helped.”

The remark, which suggested the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified, upset many in Kyuma’s district, which mostly lies outside the city of Nagasaki.

In an Upper House election soon afterward, an LDP candidate supported by Kyuma was beaten by a DPJ member Kyuma had defeated two years earlier.

As concerns mounted over his re-election bid, Kyuma began returning to his district almost every weekend — something he had not done for more than 10 years.

Late last month at a pep rally in Isahaya, the largest city in his district, Kyuma reiterated his wariness about the upcoming campaign.

“While it may have resulted from my lack of virtue, I have found myself in an extremely tough election,” Kyuma told a packed audience.

He pleaded with them to help him serve another four years, saying, “Please let me provide my last service to reflect the voices of your communities.”

Meanwhile, the petite Fukuda — who stands 1.5 meters tall — appears to be riding on the DPJ’s tail wind. Several people interviewed at the rally who were among Kyuma’s longtime supporters said they now favored her party and its platform.

Nakao, the pensioner, said he finds the DPJ’s stand on pension problems more attractive, along with its proposed ban on “amakudari,” the practice in which retiring bureaucrats land jobs related to the sectors they formerly supervised. This has led to widespread corruption, often costly to taxpayers when bid-rigging for public projects occurs.

“My family also thinks highly of the party,” he said.

But Fukuda’s campaign workers shrug off any suggestion she can coast to an easy victory.

“She’s a challenger with a blank slate, so she must work the hardest on everything,” said Hatsumi Yamaguchi, a DPJ member in the Nagasaki Prefectural Assembly and an executive on Fukuda’s campaign staff.

For one thing, her team says, she has no strong support base except for labor unions because she had lived outside the district until recently.

Fukuda must also learn about the needs of the communities in her district, which she has been studying under the guidance of her supporters in local assemblies.

Indeed, Kyuma and his supporters have recently ratcheted up their criticism of Fukuda for not taking stands on local issues, such as the planned extension of regional bullet train lines and the contentious Isahaya Bay fill project.

“She’s only a young woman with no experience,” Katsutoshi Kobayashi, an LDP member of the prefectural assembly, told last month’s rally in Isahaya.

Fukuda has been crisscrossing the district since last fall, attending small gatherings and meeting with people on the streets, in shops and elsewhere to broaden her support at the grassroots level.

Earlier this month, Fukuda, who has kept her liver problems under control through immunotherapy, was talking to customers in a modestly crowded convenience store in Isahaya.

“I’m Eriko Fukuda, nice to meet you,” she said as she handed her name card to a customer and shook hands with him.

After introducing herself to a few dozen people, she bought a plateful of bread as a token of gratitude for the store owner who had made his shop available for her 20-minute stop.

“It’s not easy to turn upside down an election that (Kyuma) has kept winning for 30 years,” Fukuda told reporters at the restaurant where she stopped for lunch.

“I can’t win only on the DPJ’s coattails,” she said.