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Kyoto gubernatorial race puts focus on demographic and economic challenges to come

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Faced with a rapidly aging society and a growing socioeconomic gap between its prosperous capital and the rest of the prefecture, Kyoto voters go to the polls April 8 to choose a new governor who will be either a well-connected insider or a complete outsider.

After four terms, incumbent Keiji Yamada decided to step down rather than seek re-election. His handpicked successor is Takatoshi Nishiwaki, 62, a former Reconstruction Agency vice minister and transport ministry official who has deep ties with the central government and is backed by the Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Democratic Party of Japan and Kibo no To (Party of Hope).

Nishiwaki, the clear front-runner, has emphasized he will continue most of Yamada’s policies, especially in terms of support for large public works projects in areas of the prefecture demanding better roads, bridges and other facilities.

“Without infrastructure, local communities can’t be competitive,” Nishiwaki told supporters in the port city of Maizuru last week.

His opponent is Kazuhito Fukuyama, 57, a lawyer who is running with the support of the Japanese Communist Party and is attempting to build an independent progressive local movement. Fukuyama is emphasizing support for small and midsize enterprises, which account for about 99 percent of the prefectural economy. His platform includes dealing with poverty issues, increased support for child-raising and opposition to the restart of nuclear power plants in neighboring Fukui Prefecture.

Like most prefectures, Kyoto faces a looming demographic crunch. Estimates of future population changes by the central and prefectural governments show its population of roughly 2.5 million (as of 2012) will shrink to somewhere between 2.1 million and 2.4 million by 2040, and 1.35 million and 2.2 million by 2080, depending on the birthrate.

These predictions have Kyoto politicians of all stripes wondering how to best respond to the dual needs of health care spending for elderly voters and ways to attract and keep younger, tax-paying voters with families who may otherwise migrate to a major city like Tokyo or Osaka, or even from their suburbs to the city of Kyoto.

But Kyoto also has some unique challenges to meet. The unprecedented tourism boom of the past five or six years has been concentrated within its capital city, especially downtown or near the famous tourist spots. It’s had less of an economic effect on other parts of the prefecture, and many smaller unrelated businesses both inside and outside the capital have suffered.

“Between 2015 and 2017, nearly 700 Kyoto prefectural small and midsize firms went bankrupt,” Fukuyama said earlier this month.

At the same time, prefectural data show that monthly wages fell from an average of ¥380,000 in 1997 to about ¥290,000 in 2015, he added.

“Younger people, particularly those between the ages of 25 and 29, are facing economic hardships. As governor, I will not prioritize large public works projects at the expense of assisting smaller businesses and will work for a minimum hourly wage of ¥1,500,” Fukuyama said.

While acknowledging the importance of economic relief for younger workers, Nishiwaki is pushing his ties with the central government and the established parties as the key to funding issues important to elderly voters in rural areas, such as increased medical services and projects aimed at helping them live more active lives after retirement.

“One in 4 Kyoto prefectural residents are now over the age of 65 and one in 5 this age and older live alone. But even though we call them ‘aged’, the image should not be the past public image of elderly as inactive, but people who are healthy and contributing to society,” Nishiwaki said in a debate with Fukuyama last week.

In terms of disaster-response policies, though, Nishiwaki and Fukuyama have clear differences on what the largest threat to prefectural security might be. For Fukuyama, it’s the possibility of an accident at one of the nuclear power plants in neighboring Fukui, including the Oi plant’s No. 3 reactor, which was restarted March 14, and the No. 4 reactor, which is scheduled to go back online in May.

“It goes without saying that the biggest concern is the Fukui reactors. In the event of an accident, the water of Lake Biwa, which provides water to the city of Kyoto, would be contaminated, while Maizuru lies within 30 km of many of the reactors and might have to be evacuated. This is why I oppose the restart of reactors and support their decommissioning,” Fukuyama said.

Nishiwaki has not voiced opposition to nuclear power in principle, and said that it was important that the central government guarantee the safety and security of the plants. During the debate with Fukuyama, he was more focused on prioritizing the prefectural response to natural disasters.

“Floods are a major problem for many residents and rainfall is much more intense than it used to be. A policy to deal more effectively with damage related to heavy rainfall is needed,” he said.

Yamada won re-election in 2014 by well over a quarter-million votes, and as his designated successor, Nishiwaki appeared strong as campaigning kicked off. But the 2014 election also had a voter turnout rate of 34.45 percent, the lowest ever recorded, raising questions about whether Nishiwaki or Fukuyama is likely to benefit if more voters cast ballots this time.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.