The Aichi Triennale 2019 arts festival appears to live on in infamy. When it opened in Nagoya, it was immediately blasted for a section entitled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?,’” which duplicated a 2015 Tokyo art exhibit featuring works that were previously removed from public display after being castigated by right-wing elements, mainly for their depictions of historical matters. The section was eventually shut down over security concerns, an act that resonated for months in the national and international press, which questioned Japan’s approach to freedom of expression.
The controversy re-entered the news cycle last year when a petition was launched to recall Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura, head of the triennale committee, for allowing the exhibit, which the petition authors claimed hurt the feelings of his constituents. The campaign ended abruptly in November, well short of its goal, when rumors circulated that many of the names collected so far had been forged. On Feb. 16, two regional newspapers — the Chunichi Shimbun and Nishinippon Shimbun — published a story about the organization behind the alleged fraud, one day after the Aichi prefectural election administration committee filed a criminal complaint with the police claiming that more than 80% of the 435,000 names were faked.
The head of the recall effort is plastic surgeon and reactionary firebrand Katsuya Takasu. Major media, which benefit from Takasu’s copious advertising purchases to publicize his clinic, tend to treat him gingerly.
The story published by the two newspapers is being called a scoop, but, as summarized by the media criticism website Litera, the recall campaign’s problems were never far from the surface. The newspapers say that a subsidiary of a Nagoya advertising company used an employment agency to hire part-timers, who were ensconced in a rented conference room in Saga Prefecture in October. These workers were paid an hourly wage plus transportation costs to copy in longhand lists of names from documents that had the Aichi election commission’s name on it into petition forms emblazoned with photos of Takasu and Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, who supported the recall drive.
When the petitions were submitted, the Aichi election committee noticed that the penmanship was alarmingly uniform over dozens of forms, spurring them to investigate the matter. When contacted, some people whose names appeared on the petitions said they never wrote on them.
The campaign’s secretariat, Takahiro Tanaka, who is planning to run for a Diet seat in the next election under the umbrella of the Nippon Ishin no Kai party, said he knew nothing about the forgeries even though Kyodo News found a document in which the secretariat authorized the solicitation of part-timers for undesignated work.
Takasu himself held a news conference in which he expressed outrage at the forgery claims, saying he had first heard about it when it was reported in the news. Previously, Takasu tweeted that the forgeries were being carried out by enemies of the recall in order to discredit its efforts, a theory that emerged as early as Nov. 5, when a member of the Toyokawa Assembly who worked for the campaign tweeted that the handwriting on some of the petitions looked similar. This person assumed that the petitions would be disqualified when checked, although his implication was that the suspicious handwriting was the work of saboteurs.
On Feb. 22, the Chunichi Shimbun reported that Kawamura admitted he had offered the campaign a list of about 34,000 “petitioners” he had on file from a previous recall campaign in 2011, when he wanted to dismiss the entire Nagoya Assembly. The Omura recall campaign could tap the same petitioners, meaning people who would go out and solicit signatures for the new recall.
Kawamura was one of Omura’s most passionate detractors during the original fight over the triennale, but when they were both national Diet members, they were allies in the Liberal Democratic Party, and, like Kawamura, Omura is considered to be a conservative. The two fell out after returning to local politics and Kawamura took as his pet project the rebuilding of Nagoya Castle, which Omura didn’t support, so while the ostensible reason for Kawamura’s antipathy was supposedly nationalistic fervor over the triennale’s perceived anti-Japanese slant, many interpreted it as a grudge against Omura.
The Chunichi and Nishinippon newspapers exposed the mechanics behind the alleged forgeries, but the recall campaign had already developed an image as a mismanaged fiasco hastily drawn up out of partisan enmity. Early in February, before the criminal suit was filed, the internet talk show No Hate TV took up the matter on an online debate that included Daisuke Tsuda, a journalist who curated the disputed exhibit, and psychiatrist Rika Kayama, a long-standing Takasu critic.
One of the issues they discussed was how the campaign thought it could collect enough signatures in the time allowed. The law sets a two-month deadline, and at least 860,000 signatures are needed to force a recall.
Reportedly, only about 3,000 of Kawamura’s 34,000 petitioners responded to letters sent out in September for support, and the Twitter account for the recall campaign has only about 40,000 followers. Kayama doubted there was enough support. Tsuda pointed out that petition drives are grass-roots efforts, which means you need an exceptional organization and the campaign didn’t have one. Moreover, since those involved used Twitter for communicating, everybody could see what they were doing.
The fact that Takasu stopped the campaign before the deadline, ostensibly due to health issues (he has previously received treatment for cancer), may indicate he already knew it was in trouble and decided to get out while he could still save face, according to Tsuda. Now Takasu is saying that the whole idea for the recall was Kawamura’s in the first place, so the story isn’t finished yet, even if the campaign is.
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