National / Politics

Unified elections help diversify representation in Tokyo

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writers

The second and final wave of unified local elections Sunday brought mixed results to candidates trumpeting minority issues, while highlighting systemic shortcomings in reflecting the diverse opinions of the nation’s voters.

Rie Saito, a 31-year-old deaf mother of two who ran for Tokyo’s Kita Ward Assembly as a Nippon wo Genki ni Suru Kai (Party to Revitalize Japan) candidate, won with 6,630 votes, the most received by any of the 50 candidates.

Saito, who lost her hearing at age 1, is known for having worked as a hitsudan hostess, using writing to communicate with her customers.

“I still cannot fully believe (my victory), but I’m appreciative of everyone’s support,” she told The Japan Times by email Monday.

Her campaign, however, was riddled with difficulties. Because the Public Offices Election Law prohibits candidates from distributing fliers or showing placards during campaigns, all Saito could do, apart from blogging her thoughts daily, was approach voters on the streets and appeal for support by shaking their hands and making physical gestures.

“The ban on fliers means people with speech and hearing impediments are excluded right from the very beginning,” she said. “We must come up with new ways to hold elections.”

Another deaf candidate, Atsuko Yanetani, 55, won a seat Sunday in the Akashi Municipal Assembly in Hyogo Prefecture. With 2,994 votes, Yanetani placed 18th among the 37 candidates vying for the assembly’s 30 seats.

Meanwhile, Komaki Lee, a 54-year-old naturalized Japanese who was born in China, lost his bid to enter the Shinjuku Ward Assembly, attracting a mere 1,018 votes. He ranked 45th out of the 52 candidates who ran for the assembly’s 38 open seats.

Lee, who made a name for himself as a nightlife guide in the Kabukicho entertainment district, said his campaign was a sour reminder of the long way Japan has to go in embracing diversity.

“(While campaigning), I came across some people who yelled, ‘Go home,’ at me,” Lee said. “It made me realize Japan is still closed (even to naturalized citizens).”

Lee also attributed his loss to the fact that a large chunk of his supporters were foreigners, who don’t have the right to vote, and young people, many of whom don’t go to the polls.

He also said his chances to appeal to a broad portion of his electorate were limited.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which backed him, allowed him to campaign only in a section of the ward close to Koreatown in the Shin-Okubo district. This was done apparently to prevent competition with other DPJ-backed candidates, he said.

Lee pledged, however, that he would continue to be active in politics.

“I believe the fact I received over 1,000 votes shows that (at least) some young people voted,” he said, adding that they are more open to the idea that the voices of non-Japanese residents should be reflected in politics.

In Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, which in March adopted the nation’s first ordinance to recognize same-sex unions, Ken Hasebe won the mayoral race on a pro-diversity platform.

Hasebe, 43, who submitted the same-sex union bill to the assembly while serving as an assembly member, had no official party support but had been named by outgoing Mayor Toshitake Kuwahara as his heir apparent.

Hasebe won 25,326 votes, beating runner-up Hajime Yabe, 64, an independent who was backed by the DPJ and other opposition parties, by about 2,500 votes.