National / Politics

In Akita, close Upper House race serves as symbol for fierce battle between ruling and opposition camps

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The campaign office of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Matsuji Nakaizumi, an incumbent running in Sunday’s Upper House election, features something rather unusual: Dozens of endorsement posters signed by top party heavyweights.

LDP bigwigs have also visited Akita and stumped for Nakaizumi at an unprecedented pace since the two-week campaign formally began July 4, from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to well-known Lower House lawmaker Shinjiro Koizumi.

“This is rather abnormal,” said Shuetsu Kamata, a former chairperson of the Akita Municipal Assembly who now heads Nakaizumi’s campaign headquarters. “The LDP wants to desperately defend this seat in Akita.”

And for good reason: The Akita election is regarded as a symbol of the fierce battle between the ruling and opposition camps for the July 21 election.

Akita is one of 32 single-seat constituencies and observers say those districts could determine whether Abe’s LDP and its allies can maintain its current “supermajority” in the 245-seat chamber.

The Akita constituency is one of the top battlegrounds of the 32 districts, as some media surveys have indicated that Shizuka Terata, an independent jointly backed by four opposition parties, is leading the race.

“(Akita) has emerged as a constituency that is drawing the most public attention all across the country,” political commentator Kenji Goto said during a TV news program last week.

The stakes are high for Abe, who has made no secret of his desire to revise the Constitution. To do so, two-thirds of the vote in both the upper and lower chambers of the Diet is required to initiate a national referendum.

Akita is a rural, mountainous area famous for sake and dotted with rice paddies — it produces more rice than all but two prefectures.

It’s also a longtime stronghold for the LDP.

If Nakaizumi loses, it could underscore the recent weakening of the party’s grip on rural communities and Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA), once one of the most powerful election machines for the LDP.

“The LDP’s relationship with JA has been normalized in many aspects recently. So the party is worried that those efforts could come to nothing again” if Nakaizumi loses on Sunday, Kamata said. That’s probably a key reason that the LDP has sent many of its top officials to Akita to help Nakaizumi’s campaign, he added.

Farmers in the Tohoku region have been deeply frustrated with Abe’s drive to open up more of Japan’s agricultural market through the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, along with reforms to weaken JA’s clout over local agricultural cooperatives. Thus the LDP has recently been trying to mend ties with JA, Kamata said.

Nakaizumi secured official endorsements from about 740 industry groups in the prefecture, including the Akita federation of JA. JA has decided to support Nakaizumi as their official candidate for the July 21 vote.

But the frustration felt by farmers in Akita appears to still run deep. According to Tamotsu Awaji, who is in charge of agricultural policy at the JA’s Akita federation, five of the 13 local cooperatives in the prefecture will “let members voluntarily decide” which candidate they will support.

“This doesn’t mean they are frustrated by Mr. Nakaizumi himself,” Awaji said. “I think this is because of a number of moves led by the Prime Minister’s Office, such as the JA reform and TPP. Some farmers can’t trust the government or the ruling parties that are pushing for such an agenda.”

At the same time, both Awaji and Kamata pointed out that recent backlash over the Defense Ministry’s plan to set up the Aegis Ashore anti-missile defense system in the coastal area of the city of Akita has also had a huge adverse impact on Nakaizumi.

Nakaizumi finds himself in a difficult situation, Awaji said.

Abe has pledged to purchase the Aegis Ashore system from the United States to defend against North Korea’s ballistic missiles and the government plans to set up a unit each in the city of Akita and Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture. The system is expected to cost upwards of hundreds of billions of yen.

But local residents are worried that electric waves emitted by the radar of the Aegis Ashore system could pose a health risk for residents. Furthermore, they fear that the city center — located a few kilometers from the planned site — could be targeted in the event of a military conflict.

Awaji said the concerns over the Aegis Ashore system “may carry more weight than agricultural issues” when voters head to the polls.

Terata says one of the key reasons behind her decision to run for office is her opposition to the Aegis Ashore plan. “The Aegis Ashore system might be installed in Akita. If I didn’t run this time, I could regret not doing my best for the children of future generations,” she wrote on her website.

Terata has married into a political family. Her husband is Lower House lawmaker Manabu Terata of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and her father-in-law and grandfather-in-law were both politicians in Akita.

For local branches of four opposition parties — the CDP, the Democratic Party for the People, the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party — the Akita election carries particular importance, said Hiroshi Ishida, a member of the Akita Prefectural Assembly and manager of Terata’s election campaign.

“This can be a model for election cooperation among opposition parties,” Ishida said.

The opposition camp has long been criticized for being fractured and at loggerheads with each other over a number of internal struggles and policy issues — which analysts say has helped Abe’s LDP-Komeito ruling coalition dominate national politics over the past six years.

But in Akita, the four parties have put aside any squabbles over policy and instead decided to jointly support a candidate that has the best shot at beating the LDP in the election.

Setting aside policy disagreements, the four parties have decided not to forge any policy coordination pact, which is usually a prerequisite when backing a joint candidate.

The four opposition parties also have adopted a campaign tactic that is opposite that of the LDP: No Tokyo-based party officials have come to Akita to campaign for Terata.

By adopting those tactics, Terata’s campaign team has sought to present her as an unaffiliated independent, rather than a candidate backed by a particular party organization.

Ishida, Terata’s campaign manager, emphasized the importance of attracting an ever-increasing number of swing voters who do not support any particular party.

“Cooperation among the opposition parties wouldn’t be enough. About half of potential voters won’t cast a ballot in Akita,” he said.

In fact, the voter turnout rate for the Akita Prefectural Assembly election in April was 52.87 percent, the lowest rate ever recorded in the prefecture.

Monthly polls by NHK show about 40 percent of voters nationwide say that they “do not support any particular party.”

Swing voters, called mutōha, have been a key factor in recent elections as the public has become increasingly individualistic and has shown less loyalty to specific political parties.

According to a July 15-16 survey by the daily Asahi Shimbun, Terata has a slight lead over Nakaizumi, largely due to a support rate of about 70 percent of mutōha voters. Nakaizumi is favored by 70 percent of LDP supporters, the Asahi Shimbun reported.

“What we fear most are the behaviors of mutōha voters, who usually do not engage in any political activities,” said Kamata of Nakaizumi’s campaign office.

“What we can do is cement the support of members of the LDP and other friendly parties. That’s the only option available for us now,” he said.

Meanwhile a July 13-14 survey by Asahi suggested most swing voters nationwide have yet to decide which party they would vote for in Sunday’s election.

According to the poll, about 34 percent of respondents said they support the LDP, followed by the CDP at 6 percent. But 45 percent are considered mutōha, as they didn’t choose any particular party when asked which party they support now. Decisions to be made by those still-fluid swing voters are likely to be a key factor when polls close Sunday.

Also in the Akita constituency, Ryuji Ishioka from Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, is running on the ticket of a party named NHK Kara Kokumin wo Mamoru Kai, which roughly translates to “the party that protects people from public broadcaster NHK.”

The party has argued NHK services should be encrypted and viewing fees should be collected only from those who want to watch NHK. Polls by media, however, have suggested Ishioka is facing an uphill battle and the Akita election is likely to be a two-way race between Terata and Nakaizumi.

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