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Rampant bribery in Tokushima sheds light on rise on Japan’s uncontested elections

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Common sense might tell you that, as small towns and villages in Japan face aging and declining populations, they would do whatever they could to encourage their remaining residents to run for a seat on the council when election time comes.

But in the town of Kamiyama, Tokushima Prefecture, with a population just under 5,400, four of the 10 council members have been arrested on suspicion of bribing a former member to not run again.

The head of the council, Shigetomi Hosoi, has admitted giving former member Mitsuyoshi Yamamoto ¥500,000 in cash but denies allegations the money was intended to persuade Yamamoto not to run.

All 10 seats went uncontested, automatically returning the incumbents. With 40 percent of their elected representatives now under arrest, the town council faces an unclear future. While it does have the minimum five members needed to call meetings in September, when the next session is scheduled, a minimum of eight votes will be needed to dissolve the council and hold emergency elections.

“For the moment, all we can really do is observe the situation,” said Kamiyama council member Tetsuo Nishisaki, one of those who brought charges against Hosoi and the others, at a July 2 news conference following their arrests.

Last year, village of Okawa, Kochi Prefecture, also in Shikoku, made national headlines when the mayor suggested it might have to introduce direct democracy due to a lack of willing candidates among its 400 residents, many of whom were old or very old.

The thought of citizens governing themselves panicked bureaucrats in Tokyo, who immediately looked into the problem by establishing a panel to study it. The committee later proposed easing restrictions on running for office and raising salaries to attract more people, while Kochi Prefecture has said it will work more closely with the council members. So Okawa will keep its town council, for now.

In the 2015 round of nationwide local elections, 21.8 percent of the candidates for town or village assemblies ran unopposed. Explanations from political pundits and academic researchers, foreign and Japanese, tend to focus on detailed statistics and data related to changing demographics, which are offered as reasons for the rise in uncontested seats.

They are not wrong to do so as a basic approach. But as the situation in Kamiyama suggests, sometimes a simpler explanation for the unopposed contests at the local level is just old-fashioned greed.