National / Politics

Scandal-hit Aichi candidate Shiori Yamao still in the race on the strength of popular support

JIJI

Before allegations of an extramarital affair surfaced less than two months ago, Shiori Yamao had been a rising star expected by many of her colleagues to reinvigorate the Democratic Party, then the main opposition force.

An independent candidate in Sunday’s House of Representatives election after leaving the DP in September, Yamao, 43, is fighting a close one-on-one battle against a contender from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in a single-seat constituency.

Prosecutor-turned-lawmaker Yamao shot to prominence in February last year when she grilled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Diet over the lack of day care facilities. A working mother herself, Yamao quoted an anonymous blog post by a mother saying: “Failed to get a slot in nursery. Drop dead, Japan.”

The following month, she was appointed the party’s policy chief, an unusual promotion for a lawmaker only in her second term in the powerful Lower House.

DP President Seiji Maehara, who was elected to the post last month, had originally planned to pick her as the party’s secretary-general when a magazine reported about the affair. Maehara eventually changed his nomination and Yamao left the DP, dealing a heavy blow to a party that was struggling to maintain unity.

The party disarray triggered by Yamao’s scandal has been cited as a factor behind the prime minister’s decision to dissolve the Lower House for the snap election on Sunday.

After deciding to run in the No. 7 constituency of Aichi Prefecture with no backing from a political party, Yamao was ready to face voter criticism as she delivered speeches on the street and attended meetings.

“Please use me as a medium to carry your voice to Prime Minister Abe,” Yamao said at dusk in front of a supermarket parking lot in the Aichi city of Seto, her voice already hoarse. She was wearing a sash bearing the message, “I’ll take it on the chin.”

Yamao has created a YouTube account where she posts daily videos articulating policy positions, including her stance on child care and the Constitution. She has also been working with citizens’ groups, including Mothers against War.

No longer with organizational backing, Yamao said she is at the end of her rope in the contest with Junji Suzuki, a 59-year-old LDP candidate. The two raced neck-and-neck in the past three Lower House elections.

On the alleged extramarital affair, Yamao has stuck to the position that she has “nothing to feel guilty about” but has not elaborated.

She has been able to fight against challenges thanks to her steadfast supporters.

Yamao faces jeers in street speeches, but her support group staff pay little heed to what hecklers say. One staffer said, “(One’s) private life has nothing to do with (the election),” while another praised her as “an outstanding talent who can take on the government.”

Yamao lost the endorsement of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, known as Rengo, the umbrella body for labor unions in Japan and a key supporter of the DP, but has gained the backing of some individual labor unions under the confederation.

The Japanese Communist Party, which received about 20,000 votes in the previous Lower House election, held in 2014, in Yamao’s constituency, stopped short of fielding a candidate in the district this time, in an effective show of support for Yamao.

For the LDP’s Suzuki, Yamao setback was initially welcome news, but her unabated popularity even as an independent candidate has alarmed him.

“This is by no means an easy election,” Suzuki said. “I can’t do anything eye-catching. I’ll make simple and honest efforts.”

He aims to solidify the backing of organizational supporters while steering clear of criticizing Yamao.