SAITAMA – Yukio Edano was the face of Japan during the unprecedented nuclear crisis that hit Fukushima Prefecture in 2011, leading numerous news conferences as the government’s top spokesman.
Fast forward to 2017, and the “Jack Bauer of Japan,” as he was dubbed by overseas media for his tirelessness during the quake, tsunami and nuclear crises, is once again in the limelight — this time as head of what may soon become the nation’s biggest opposition party.
The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is riding high ahead of Sunday’s general election, buoyed by the underdog charm Edano displayed in founding a party he portrays as a fresh challenge to the juggernaut that is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition.
“It was amazing how he chose to do what he believed to be the right thing to do,” Hideyuki, a 48-year-old employee who only gave his first name, said, referring to the bold political steps Edano took to form the party.
“Prime Minister Abe’s ruling party has got out of hand a little bit lately, but there has been no real alternative. I hope Edano’s party will be a catalyst for change,” said Hideyuki, who lives in a Saitama neighborhood Edano represents.
Ever since its birth on Oct. 2, what initially seemed as a minor opposition party has developed an explosive following on Twitter, drawing far more followers than Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.
Opinion polls suggest the CDP has all but overshadowed Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s upstart Kibo no To (Party of Hope) as well, and is increasingly on track to emerge as the biggest opposition party after Sunday’s poll.
A survey conducted by Kyodo News between Sunday and Tuesday, for instance, projected the CDP would expand to about 50 seats — triple the 16 it held before campaigning started.
“Abenomics has made rich people richer over the past five years. But it has neglected most of the public, and widened the economic disparity as a result,” Edano, a backer of individual liberties, told a feverish crowd in front of JR Akihabara Station in Tokyo on Thursday night as the crowd enthusiastically chanted his name.
“Just encouraging competition under the name of a free economy only generates inequality and makes Japan a suffocating society,” he said.
In the No. 5 district of Saitama Prefecture, his constituency, voters say Edano has the courage of conviction. In him, they see a man who prioritized his principles over self-preservation by launching a one-man fight against the sweeping right-leaning forces personified by Abe and Koike.
Shortly before that, many of Edano’s fellow Democratic Party lawmakers accepted an abrupt deal jointly presented by their leader, Seiji Maehara, and Koike to shift their allegiance to the conservative Kibo no To and run under her banner in Sunday’s election.
Tempted by Koike’s populist rise, they wasted no time abandoning the DP’s sinking ship even though her party supports the divisive state-backed security laws the DP had blasted as unconstitutional.
Edano, however, stayed aboard, saying he and Koike differ fundamentally on policy and philosophy.
Even former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, an ultra-nationalist, lauded Edano for sticking to his principles.
“This election has witnessed many candidates stoop low — they ran away and became turncoats. But Edano remained true to what he believes in. He looks to me like a real man,” Ishihara tweeted earlier this week.
The heroism associated with Edano has put his rivals in a tough spot.
The campaign of LDP lawmaker Hideki Makihara, who is not expected to prevail in Edano’s No. 5 district, concedes his only realistic chance is to win a seat under the proportional representation system.
“We will continue to strive to revive our economy, protect employment and increase wages for those who haven’t felt the benefit (of Abenomics) yet,” Makihara told a crowd in front of JR Omiya Station on Wednesday.
The absence of a Japanese Communist Party candidate in the district, he said, means Edano is now also backed by the leftist party infamous for its radical policies, which include disbanding the Self-Defense Forces.
Campaigning for Makihara, LDP Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura reminded voters that the CDP, despite its fresh image, comprises the former Democratic Party of Japan old heavyweights, including Naoto Kan, Tetsuro Fukuyama and Edano himself.
“Take a moment to remember how horrible our economy was back then” when the DPJ was in power from 2009 to 2012, Nishimura said.
Yoshiharu Shimizu, who is in charge of Makihara’s campaign, cringes when he remembers the moment he felt victory slip away.
In the 2014 general election, Makihara, a father of three, put up a stiff fight, losing to Edano by a thin margin of 3,000 votes. With the DP in disarray and Edano widely perceived as a has-been, Shimizu thought Makihara’s time had finally come — until his opponent returned to the spotlight as head of the CDP.
“We’re at a significant disadvantage. Edano’s constant exposure to media means swing voters are likely to vote for him,” Shimizu said, despite Makihara’s claimed advantages linked to Abenomics and Abe’s hard-line attitude toward North Korea.
“The CDP enjoys a temporary boom that blinds voters to its flaws. For us, the real battle is not this election, but the one after. Assuming Edano wins this one, we will focus on closing the gap with him so Makihara’s re-election under proportional representation will be ensured,” he said.
Facing a tougher fight is political newbie Hidefumi Takagi from Kibo no To, which is often criticized for lacking an intraparty management system.
The Chiba Prefecture lawyer says he doesn’t even have his own campaign office.
“I had to do all sorts of things myself that would normally be handled by secretaries or the party you belong to. . . . My wife and parents help me out now,” Takagi told The Japan Times during a brief respite from campaigning.
“I know this is a tough battle . . . but I’m doing my best.”