National / Politics | Regional Voices: Hokkaido

In Hokkaido, Japan's youngest governor seen as 'safe driver,' but critics want him to go off script

Hokkaido Shimbun

When 38-year-old Naomichi Suzuki was elected governor of Hokkaido in April, he simultaneously achieved another feat: becoming the youngest serving prefectural leader in the nation.

Although some initially counted on the young Suzuki to be communicative, or even outspoken, he has so far trodden carefully, prompting criticism that he has stuck to scripts prepared by bureaucrats rather than using his own words to get the message across. That has led to him being a nicknamed a “safe driver.”

One of his self-proclaimed strengths lies in his ties with the central government, and he has already used this to his advantage in reshuffling personnel in his own administration.

But that hasn’t stopped some in Hokkaido’s local government circles, or in the prefectural assembly, from taking a cynical view. Skeptics say he is a “young man with an old head” who is no different from his predecessor, and that he has largely maintained a hesitant approach.

As he addressed a June plenary session of the Hokkaido assembly, Suzuki made an uncharacteristically decisive remark on the subject of Hokkaido’s potential to seek the development of integrated resorts that include casinos. When pressed by opposition lawmakers for his views on whether to accept such a comprehensive entertainment facility, Suzuki said he would “take into account a wide range of opinions through a survey.”

The reason his answer was seen as rather unusual was because opinion polls of Hokkaido residents have often shown that those opposing casinos are in the majority. The fact that Suzuki indicated a willingness to consult such a poll was taken as a sign that he was leaning toward rejecting the project, which on the national level has been billed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration as part of Japan’s growth strategy.

Whether to introduce casino resorts is one of Hokkaido’s biggest policy priorities, with Suzuki repeatedly saying on the campaign trail that he would finalize his decision “from the perspective of Hokkaido people.”

But what had been seen as a bold remark in the June assembly session has since turned out to be anything but. Suzuki was, in fact, just reading from a memo slipped to him by one of his aides.

By “survey,” officials had merely meant something along the lines of a questionnaire they had conducted of about 200 residents in the past — nothing too comprehensive, according to sources. But Suzuki’s answer quickly triggered widespread speculation. In response, the Hokkaido government eventually explained to the assembly that it would conduct an online survey after all. That, too, was met with criticism by some local assembly members, who said an internet-based poll would risk alienating the elderly by targeting a tech-savvy demographic potentially interested in the resorts.

The backlash has forced the government to rethink the survey’s methodology. And in the midst of it all, Suzuki has remained silent.

Questions have also arisen over the “Hokkaido Cheerleaders” initiative — one of his pet projects — that essentially seeks to collect donations from influential business leaders with ties to Hokkaido.

When Suzuki visited the town of Yoichi last month, a local official told him the initiative lacks detail, echoing skeptical comments by members of the Hokkaido assembly.

“There are things I still cannot say, but we would like to help boost the activity of each municipal office,” Suzuki said in response.

Nonetheless, there are signs of change, too.

Under the leadership of his predecessor, Harumi Takahashi, only a limited number of the highest-ranking officials were granted access to the governor’s chamber. After Suzuki assumed office, however, more and more lower-ranking officials close to rank-and-file status have been frequenting the room, prompting some to welcome improved transparency.

“Gov. Suzuki listens attentively to what we have to say in a very calm manner, although he doesn’t reveal too much of what he really thinks or wants to do,” said a senior Hokkaido government official.

So far, Suzuki’s successes include submitting a bill to the prefectural assembly to slash 30 percent of his own salary, and having the ordinance enacted.

The move was widely seen as a bid to draw on his previous experience as mayor of the Hokkaido city of Yubari — which declared in 2007 that it had gone effectively bankrupt — and to prove his capabilities in handling administrative and fiscal reforms.

“Becoming governor made me realize how dire Hokkaido’s fiscal situation really is,” an aide quoted him as saying.

There is also the view, however, that Suzuki’s latest legislative push is more of a political performance, given that some believe the prefecture to be much more fiscally sound than it once was.

Suzuki is also growing increasingly active in coordinating with the central government.

Before his inauguration, he had secretly dined with Shigeaki Okamoto, a top Finance Ministry official, in Sapporo, according to sources. He has also been asking Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, with whom he is close, for central ministries’ cooperation in reshuffling personnel of the Hokkaido government, according to sources.

As a result, four bureaucrats from the central government have been tapped for Hokkaido government posts. A secretary of the deputy chief Cabinet secretary, for example, was appointed as deputy director general of the Department of Policy Planning and Coordination in Hokkaido last month.

On June 29, Suga made the long journey to Sapporo to join the campaign trail with candidates running in the July Upper House election.

Suzuki seized the opportunity to negotiate directly with Suga over the need to boost the number of flight slots at New Chitose Airport — which he said was essential to achieving Hokkaido’s goal of attracting 5 million tourists annually by 2020.

It was an issue that has long been left unaddressed but, on hearing Suzuki’s plea, Suga immediately made the necessary arrangements, with the result that the number of per-hour flight slots each day is now set to be increased from the current 42 to 50.

The development certainly illustrates Suzuki’s strong connection with Suga, although perhaps does little to assuage long-held concerns that he is rather obedient, as some have claimed, to the central government.

This section features topics and issues from Hokkaido covered by the Hokkaido Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published on July 25.

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