KOCHI – Campaigning is at fever pitch ahead of Sunday’s Upper House election, with candidates pounding the pavement, holding rallies and calling out their names and slogans for hours on end via loudspeakers.
Not so in Kochi Prefecture, where things are quiet this year thanks to a redrawing of the electoral map that has led candidates to ignore the area.
A major rally was held at Kochi University on Sunday evening for So Onishi, an independent jointly backed by the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party.
But Onishi did not show up and instead attendees watched a video of a speech recorded elsewhere. He will be out of Kochi throughout this last week of campaigning.
Onishi’s main rival, Yusuke Nakanishi of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is also skipping the prefecture throughout the same week. Instead his wife, Saki, is attending rallies in Kochi, accompanied by local LDP assembly members who deliver speeches on Nakanishi’s behalf.
Their decisions stem partly from reforms enacted last year to reduce the disparity in the value of one vote in densely populated urban areas and sparsely populated rural districts, campaign staff said.
For the first time in history, single-seat rural constituencies in Kochi Prefecture and neighboring Tokushima Prefecture have been combined into one, creating a vast constituency that stretches over 300 km and is to be represented by only one Upper House member.
Moreover, both Onishi and Nakanishi are from Tokushima Prefecture, which is why they are concentrating their campaigning there in the homestretch before voting day.
Adding insult to injury in Kochi, the other candidate, Masatoshi Fukuyama of the Happiness Realization Party, is also from Tokushima Prefecture, leaving no native for Kochi residents to vote for.
Voters in Kochi interviewed by The Japan Times said they are frustrated by the situation and are less interested in this Upper House election as a result.
Polls have suggested the voter turnout in Kochi may sink below 50 percent for the first time, a record low.
“I’m not really interested in the election this time because we have no candidates from Kochi. That’s the biggest reason,” said Hajime Imoto, 80, who runs a dry fish shop in the city of Kochi.
Imoto has been a traditional supporter of the LDP. But this time, he said he is “in trouble” because he doesn’t know who he should vote for.
“There’s not much to go on. If a candidate was from our local area, I could learn something about him or her,” he said.
A female Kochi resident in her 60s who identified herself as Kadota said: “I’m not very familiar with Tokushima. Kochi is definitely different from Tokushima.”
She added: “I want to vote after looking into the personalities of candidates, but this time I don’t know who the candidates are at all.”
A June 22 to 23 poll by the daily Asahi Shimbun found that 75 percent of respondents in Kochi and 76 percent in Tokushima opposed the integration of the two prefectural constituencies.
Most voters The Japan Times spoke to in the city of Kochi said they want an Upper House member from their own prefecture.
But given the huge disparity between the vote-values of urban and nonurban areas like Kochi, a reduction in the number of lawmakers in rural areas seems inevitable.
As young people migrate to urban areas seeking jobs, the population in rural areas like Kochi, Tokushima, Tottori and Shimane prefectures have been shrinking. Koichi’s population shrank from 839,784 in 1985 to 722,750 as of June this year.
By contrast, the city of Yokohama has 3,732,029 residents as of May this year, about 2.5 times as many as the combined population of Kochi and Tokushima prefectures. Tokyo, the nation’s largest urban area, has more than 13.6 million residents.
In the 2015 electoral reform, the constituencies in Shimane and Tottori prefectures and those in Kochi and Tokushima were combined to create two Upper House constituencies. Meanwhile, two additional seats were allocated each to Hokkaido and Tokyo, and Aichi, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures, and two seats were reduced each from Miyagi, Niigata and Nagano prefectures.
As a result, the widest vote-value disparity among prefectural constituencies was reduced to 2.97-to-1 from 4.77-to-1, based on figures from the 2010 national census.
But the population shift to urban areas has continued unabated in the meantime, and the largest disparity widened again to 3.08-to-1 as of June.
Experts say the Supreme Court may declare that a gap of more than 3 times the value of one vote elsewhere is “in a state of unconstitutionality,” as it did in a 2014 ruling.
Both Onishi and Nakanishi have called for further electoral reform to separate Kochi and Tokushima. Nakanishi has campaigned with it as his No. 1 policy pledge.
Ryugo Kuwana, secretary general of the LDP’s Kochi chapter and a key election campaign organizer for Nakanishi, said Nakanishi’s pledge reflects strong frustration among Kochi voters with last year’s change.
Kuwana said rural prefectures rely on their local lawmakers to secure financial support from the central government.
“In Osaka or Tokyo a subway and roads may be built with or without voices of politicians. But it’s a different story in the countryside, such as in Kochi,” he said. “A rural area won’t be given any budget unless local politicians vocally call for it.”
It is difficult for a lawmaker in the vast Kochi-Tokushima constituency to maintain daily contact with voters, he said, adding that he fears political apathy will grow in Kochi.
All three candidates have called for Tokushima and Kochi to revert to separate constituencies, but they are divided over other issues, especially those involving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to revise the pacifist Constitution.
In common with the election strategy of the Democratic Party and the JCP, Onishi has slammed the security legislation enacted last year to expand the legal scope of overseas missions of the Self-Defense Forces.
The legislation violates the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, Onishi says.
“This would allow the SDF to engage in a war anywhere in the world. This shouldn’t be acceptable under the Constitution,” Onishi claimed in the video message aired during Sunday’s rally in Kochi. “I’m opposed to the constitutional revision” advocated by the LDP and Abe, he said.
But Onishi appears to be lagging Nakanishi in the polls. Voters in Kochi, as elsewhere, seem to be more interested in economic and welfare issues than the security and the constitutional revision advocated by Abe’s LDP.
According to a June 22 and 23 poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, social welfare is the top issue for voters in Kochi, with 38 percent of respondents calling it the greatest factor in their choice of vote.
Employment and economic issues came second with 21 percent, followed by issues involving constitutional revision with 9 percent.
Onishi maintained that Abe’s economic policies, dubbed Abenomics, have only widened the wealth gap between the rich and the poor and has left more people with lower wages and the status of nonregular workers.
“Abenomics has failed,” Onishi said.
Nakanishi has argued otherwise, saying Abenomics has helped the local economy and has considerably improved employment conditions in Kochi as well.
Indeed, the job-to-applicant ratio in Kochi exceeded 1 in November last year for the first time since 1963, when comparable data became available. That means there was at least one job offer for each applicant in Kochi, which has few major companies and has long suffered from a shrinking economy.
“It’s true that achieving the job-to-applicant ratio of more than 1 had been a long-cherished wish for Kochi people,” said Yoshiharu Tateda, head of the research department of Shigin Chiiki Keizai Kenkyusho, a think tank affiliated with Kochi-based Shikoku Bank. “Prime Minister Abe says one of the big achievements of Abenomics was to push up the job ratio over 1 in Kochi. But Abenomics is not the sole factor.”
Tateda said other factors include successful economic promotion programs led by prefectural Gov. Masanao Ozaki and continuing shrinkage of the labor force.
According to the welfare and labor ministry, job offers in Kochi have been increasing for 12 straight months compared with the same month the previous year. But at the same time, the number of job seekers in the prefecture has been shrinking for 14 straight months, another reason for the elevated job-to-applicant ratio.
Tateda attributed the latter to the overall population shrinkage of the prefecture.
“The biggest problem Kochi is facing now is the ongoing population shrinkage, which we have been unable to stop. That’s the big headache for us,” he said.