National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Can celebs cut mustard in rough-and-tumble politics?

TAs the July 11 Upper House election draws near, the parties add more candidates to their slates and, predictably, many turn out to be athletes and showbiz personalities with no political experience. Celebrity candidates have been a fixture of Japanese elections as long as there have been Japanese elections, but it seems only recently that the media has pointed out how cynical that is.

The Upper House is the place where celebrities go to die, which makes sense given how the voting works. Candidates for the Diet are split between contituencies and proportional blocks. In Lower House proportional elections, the voters select parties, while in Upper House proportional elections they can cast ballots for either a party or a specific candidate. The votes for candidates are added to the votes cast for their respective parties, which means that a candidate with higher name value can pull lesser known candidates in the same party along on his or her coattails.

The more famous the candidate, the more likely that person’s party will do well.

The Democratic Party of Japan’s celebrity coup so far is Olympic judo medalist Ryoko Tani, who was introduced as a candidate two weeks ago by the party’s big cheese, Ichiro Ozawa. In typical wet blanket style, Ozawa opened the press conference by warning reporters not to ask stupid questions. Presumably, he meant questions about politics. If that sounds self-defeating for a political press conference, understand that nobody really cares about Tani’s views on the issues of the day, if, in fact, she has any.

Ozawa said that when Tani agreed to run for the DPJ it was “as if we’d suddenly gained millions of allies.” What Tani promises to bring to the Diet, Ozawa said, will be a certain “spirit that seems to have weakened in Japan,” citing her “hard training” to realize her Olympic ambitions while raising her children herself. Tani reiterated her determination to participate in the London Olympics, which sounds like a foregone conclusion, and didn’t seem particularly cognizant of the DPJ’s dipping fortunes.

The backlash was fierce. Though some commentators said they always expected Tani to run for office eventually, they had assumed she would at least wait until after she retired. Internet chat rooms, not to mention a few weekly magazines, carried insults and rumors about her relatives.

Conversely, when Olympic marathon medalist Naoko Takahashi turned down a request from the DPJ to run she received exuberant praise in the media. “Just like Kyu-chan!” the sports dailies cried approvingly, using her nickname. Takahashi said that only “professional” politicians should run, thus giving rise to speculation she was dissing Tani. She probably wasn’t, but it’s the sort of implied throwdown that tabloids and wide shows find irresistible.

But no one believes these cranky comments will have any effect on the election itself. Insofar as the Upper House — basically a rubber-stamp outfit — matters at all, it’s just a means for a party to fortify whatever power it has. The silent majority will vote for Tani because they know who she is. Similarly, the success of other celebrity candidates will probably depend on how long people’s memories are. Here are a few.

* Yuki Okazaki (56; DPJ): Star of legendary 1970 TV drama “Oku-sama wa 18-sai!” (“The Wife is 18!”) about a high school girl who marries her teacher in secret; was actually 17 at the time, thus compounding the show’s subtext of jailbait fun; later famous for marrying and quickly divorcing son of Sony founder Akio Morita; does charity work for animals, children and old folks, so should appeal to all three, though only two of those demographics can ever vote.

* Daijiro Harada (66; DPJ): Familiar actor from 1980s and ’90s best remembered for regular appearances on comedian Beat Takeshi’s variety shows, where he was the butt of practical jokes; plans to run in constituent election in former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Yamaguchi district; should appeal to middle aged men with persecution complexes.

* Junko Mihara (45; LDP): Famous as a student in the first season of the long-running classroom series “3-nen B-gumi Kimpachi Sensei” (“Mr. Kimpachi’s Third Year Class B”); had brief success as idol singer in the dark, sexually suggestive style of Momoe Yamaguchi; remained in tabloid eye by marrying and divorcing several times; cancer survivor and owner-operator of nursing-care facility, though at press conference all she talked about was a letter of support from Tetsuya Takeda, who played her teacher in “Kimpachi”; should appeal to middle-aged women whose husbands have persecution complexes.

* Akira Maeda (51; Kokumin Shinto): Naturalized zainichi (Korean resident of Japan) ex-professional wrestler; political brief dominated by vehement opposition to suffrage for permanent resident foreigners, a position that takes on a thuggish cast given former vocation; should appeal to nationalists who think Prime Minister Hatoyama is a sissy.

-Mayo Shono (55; DPJ): Singer with one hit in 1978 called “Tonde Istanbul” (Flying Istanbul) followed by singles that tried to tap the same exotic vibe to continually lesser effect; should appeal to nostalgic pseudo-hipsters.

* Daizo Sugimura (30; Tachiagare): Not an athlete or showbiz person, but famous for having been swept into the Diet in the 2005 Koizumi landslide as a proportional candidate on the LDP ticket, which he signed up for as a fluke; quickly became poster boy for LDP’s new crop of callow opportunists, an image he fortified with a series of verbal gaffes; eventually dumped by LDP; hopes to be same kind of poster boy for new rightwing old-boy party Tachiagare; should appeal to no one.

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