IKOMA, NARA PREF. – Ikoma, a small city of about 120,000 people, lies just over the border from Osaka in northern Nara Prefecture. It’s known for its bamboo products, especially whisks used in the traditional tea ceremony. A cable car that travels up Mount Ikoma, opened in 1918, is said to be the oldest in Japan.
The population is a mixture of those who have lived and worked in the area for generations and more recent arrivals who commute to Osaka.
For the Oct. 22 Lower House election, Ikoma’s voters likely hold the key as to whether a veteran politician who joined Yuriko Koike’s Kibo no To (Party of Hope) can beat a candidate from the Liberal Democratic Party.
The district is also one of many around the nation where multiple candidates from the opposition are running separately, splitting anti-LDP votes and ending up aiding the ruling party candidate.
The four candidates running in the No. 1 district include veteran lawmaker Sumio Mabuchi, 57, the former Democratic Party of Japan representative who joined Kibo no To. His main rival is LDP-backed Shigeki Kobayashi, 53, a former Nara Prefectural Assembly member who ran successfully against Mabuchi twice before.
In addition, Tadao Yoshino, 58, is the Nippon Ishin no Kai candidate, while Yoshiko Inoue, 53, is supported by the Japanese Communist Party. Both candidates are considered longer shots than either Mabuchi or Kobayashi.
Politically, Ikoma gives mixed signals. The municipal assembly has shown a rebellious streak, passing nonbinding resolutions opposing legislation pushed by the LDP and Komeito ruling coalition on the national level. On the other hand, until this election, Ikoma was part of the old Nara No. 2 district and represented by former Minister of Internal Affairs Sanae Takaichi, a conservative, right-leaning politician who is close to Abe.
But with the number of Nara electoral districts reduced from four to three, the city of Ikoma is part of the new No. 1 district, which includes the bigger city of Nara. Takaichi, who won the 2014 Lower House district election by more than 57,000 votes — but only by 15,000 in Ikoma — has moved to the more rural, conservative new No. 2 district to the south.
With Kibo no To plummeting in media polls, Mabuchi has spent most of the campaign period emphasizing his long experience as a Diet member (he beat Takaichi in the 2003 election), barely mentioning party leader and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. Instead, he’s focused on the party’s promise to freeze the consumption tax, which is slated to rise in 2019.
“We have to ensure tax money is spent properly and take economic measures that have a real impact,” Mabuchi said at one appearance in Ikoma on Monday, saying he’s opposed to a 10 percent consumption tax and wants the current 8 percent rate reduced to 5 percent within a two-year period.
Kobayashi, meanwhile, while warning against the rise of Koike and Kibo no To, has focused on safe and stable policies from a safe and stable party for elderly and child care needs, as well as protection against North Korean missile launches.
“Guarding the lives, economic prosperity and the peace and security of people’s daily lives is the most important role of politics. To decide the course of a country based on some temporary fad is dangerous,” he said in announcing his campaign.
Such general national concerns rather than specific local ones which matter more to residents — such as efforts by Nara and Ikoma to eventually have a maglev train connection at Ikoma Station — were the main themes for all four candidates. A Nara Shimbun poll Tuesday showed Mabuchi and Kobayashi were running a tight race throughout the district. Local pundits predicted turnout among Ikoma’s nearly 100,000 voters who are unfamiliar with all of the candidates would be the key to victory.
Mabuchi is well established in the city of Nara and beat Kobayashi in 2014 by about 12,000 votes in the old No. 1 district. But as the campaign entered its final week, Kobayashi appeared to be drawing larger crowds around the city. Even some Mabuchi supporters expressed concern that his choice to go with Kibo no To and Koike rather than run as an independent may hurt him in the end.
“He may not have had a choice, but a lot of people who support Mabuchi don’t like Koike,” said Taichiro Tanaka, who came from Nara to attend Monday’s Ikoma rally.