National / Politics

Muneo Suzuki rebounds from cancer, 2010 bribes conviction to win seat in Upper House

Kyodo, Staff Report

Muneo Suzuki, a veteran politician with close ties to Russia, won a seat in Sunday’s House of Councilors election, returning to the Diet for the first time since being forced out by a conviction in 2010.

The leader of New Party Daichi, a political group active mainly in Hokkaido, vowed at his office in Sapporo to work on resolving the prolonged dispute over the Russian-held isles off Hokkaido claimed by Japan.

He is still seen as influential in Japanese-Russian affairs, often meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss the territorial dispute, which stems from the war.

“My heart is too full for words,” Suzuki, 71, said. “During campaigning, I felt people were counting on me to resolve the territorial issue.”

“I will break a sweat to resolve the issue as early as possible,” he said as he celebrated in tears with his daughter and Lower House member Takako Suzuki of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Suzuki ran on the proportional representation list of Nippon Ishin no Kai, an Osaka-based group that is trying to expand its base beyond the Kansai region. He ran despite having surgery for esophagus cancer in May.

On July 14, he posted on Twitter a photo of himself campaigning in Tokyo with American action movie star Steven Seagal.

Suzuki, who used to wield considerable power in the territorial talks, lost his Lower House seat in September 2010 his conviction for bribery and other offenses was finalized. His right to run or vote in elections was suspended until April 2017.

He ran in the Lower House election on New Party Daichi’s ticket in October 2017 but failed to win a seat.

After entering the House of Representatives on the LDP’s ticket in 1983, Suzuki was tapped as chief of the Hokkaido Development Agency and Okinawa Development Agency in 1997, attaining his first Cabinet post.

He served as deputy chief Cabinet secretary from 1998 to 1999 and was elected to the Lower House eight times.

In the meantime, former deputy land minister Ichiro Tsukada, who was effectively fired earlier this year for suggesting he had tacitly done a favor for the prime minister involving a road project, lost to newcomer Sakura Uchikoshi, who was uniformly backed by the opposition parties.

Running on the LDP’s ticket, Tsukada, 55, failed to keep his seat in Niigata’s single-seat constituency despite Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso all rallying support for him during the campaign.

Tsukada quit as vice land and infrastructure minister in April after drawing a barrage of criticism for saying he had performed sontaku by making a special decision to restart a road project to link Abe’s constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture with Aso’s in Fukuoka because he thought Abe wanted him to do so but was ethically restrained from saying it.

The comments, made while campaigning for the Fukuoka gubernatorial election, were viewed as typical of patronage-driven politics and raised doubts about fairness in public works projects.

Other candidates who attracted attention but failed to win a seat include Rie Saito, a deaf single mother and former nightclub hostess, and Sayaka Ichii, a former member of all-girl J-pop group Morning Musume.

Saito, 35, fielded as a proportional representation candidate by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, campaigned on the idea of creating a “kind” society inclusive of minorities and supportive of women and people with disabilities.

Saito, who lost her hearing when she was 1, was once a top hostess in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district, communicating with customers by writing. She recounted her experience in her 2009 book “Hitsudan Hostess” (“The Hostess Who Communicates by Writing”), and became a best-selling author.

The Aomori native was a member of Tokyo’s Kita Ward Assembly from May 2015 to April 2019.

Ichii, a 35-year-old mother of four, was making her first bid for the Diet. Running on the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan’s ticket, she campaigned for an adequate supply of nursery teachers and increase in financial assistance to families with small children.

She also called for more support for couples undergoing fertility treatment.

Ichii joined Morning Musume when she was 14 and spent two years with the group during the time it released the million-seller hits “Love Machine” in 1999 and “Koi no Dance Site” in 2000. She was also part of spinoff group Petitmoni.

The former singer initially worried about balancing politics with parenthood but sympathized with the party’s stance on diversity.

“As a mother, I’d like to talk about what we can do for the future for our children,” she said at a news conference in June.

In her campaign, Ichii said she ran for election because there are “not many people in politics who are involved in child rearing.”