National / Politics

Veteran activist, sour on electoral system, keeps fight for local rights alive over half a century

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

Shogo Miyazaki, a defiant activist who led an unsuccessful movement to oppose the construction of a freight line through a quiet residential area of Yokohama in the 1960s and 70s, is still unconvinced about the utility of Japan’s electoral system.

The now defunct Japanese National Railways stressed the new line was needed to promote freight transport amid Japan’s economic boom and to alleviate commuter traffic in the metropolitan area. The Yokohama Municipal Government, led by liberal Mayor Ichio Asukata — who advocated democracy through “citizens’ participation” — also supported the project.

The residents along the proposed route, for their part, argued that noise from the freight line would ruin their quiet communities, but their claim was labeled “local egoism” — the pursuit of self-centered interests while ignoring the public interest.

Miyazaki, then a small business owner, argued that residents could not accept what would adversely affect their lives and was determined to derail the project — even as he was criticized for selfish behavior.

“JNR officials told us their plan was approved by a democratically elected transport minister and that we, the opponents, could get our own candidate democratically elected in order to reflect our voices,” said Miyazaki, now 81.

“They had a valid point in a way, but we adopted a so-what attitude, saying, ‘What’s wrong with local egoism?’ ” he recalled of the campaign, which involved residents including conservative members of the business community, land owners and proponents of reform parties.

“We didn’t buy their excuse that the project was instituted democratically,” said Miyazaki, who has contributed articles about his experience to magazines to help support other protest movements around the country.

Opponents of the project tried unsuccessfully to field their own mayoral candidate to “threaten” the popular Asukata, who was the symbol of progressive local government in those days, but the move was scuttled by Asukata’s strategists and support from labor unions.

The campaign, which even included a last-ditch effort to formally secede from Yokohama, ended in failure, and the freight line was laid as planned in 1979.

Nevertheless, the decade-long struggle presented a teachable moment for Miyazaki: Representative democracy does not guarantee the principle that sovereignty rests with the people.

“The construction plan was imposed on us as it was free from legal defects, and it has left me doubting the electoral system itself,” said Miyazaki, who studied political science at the prestigious Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

His doubts have kept him away from the polls.

It was a democratically elected government that approved the construction of Narita airport around the same time — with an aim of expanding the capacity of air transportation — drawing the ire of local farmers who wanted to protect their land.

In more recent standoffs with local communities, the government has refused to ease its grip on nuclear power despite the triple core meltdown in Fukushima in 2011 and maintains unpopular military bases in Okinawa, saying electricity shortages and issues of national security cannot be left unattended.

It is precisely such policies that fuel Miyazaki’s skepticism.

“These moves, promoted under the justification of the common good, have led to the interests of local communities being ignored or discarded, just as we experienced in Yokohama.”

Calls for phasing out atomic power have grown, particularly since the triple meltdown, while protests against moving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma continue at Henoko, the planned relocation site, in Okinawa.

Several opposition candidates pledged to address these issues during campaigning for the Oct. 22 general election. But for Miyazaki, the election still seemed to be merely a “game” between those trying to keep power and those wishing to seize it.

While it is said that exercising one’s right to vote is the best tool for maintaining a democratic society, Miyazaki sees a system that favors political elites while precluding those without money and clout from running for office.

“Aside from the right to vote, we are also legally guaranteed the eligibility to run in elections, but it is almost impossible for those without endorsements from major political parties to gain parliamentary seats,” he said. “We are required to set aside the deposit for candidacy, which means only those with money can exercise their right to hold office. We cannot uphold the principle of popular sovereignty only with the right to vote.”

Miyazaki now lives in the city of Ueda, a rural area of Nagano Prefecture, where he continues to address environmental issues at the local level. He is also trying to introduce community currency in pursuit of local autonomy.

“I think we should introduce a direct democratic system by allowing people in each community to make decisions on their own issues, rather than depending on representative democracy, so we can govern ourselves in small units,” he said, echoing his fight against the freight line almost half a century ago.