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In a local race with national implications, next month’s Yokohama mayoral campaign has suddenly become a major challenge to Prime Minister Yoshide Suga on his own turf and a threat to the ruling coalition’s backing of a controversial casino resort plan.

Last month, Hachiro Okonogi, 56, a Liberal Democratic Party Lower House member, announced he would enter the race as an opponent of the plan, which Suga supports. That move means the anti-resort vote could be further split, as Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan-backed Takeharu Yamanaka, 48, and former Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka, 65, are also running against the project.

Suga, still dealing with the failure of the LDP and Komeito to secure a majority in Sunday’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, now faces the prospect of seeing Okonogi, an old ally and son of the prime minister’s political mentor, become mayor and scuttle the Yokohama casino plan.

Meanwhile, incumbent Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, 75, who backs the casino resort, is seeking re-election.

The Aug. 22 poll centers around plans for a so-called integrated resort (IR), which would also incorporate hotels as well as conference centers and shopping facilities, in the city’s Minato Mirai waterfront business district. Hayashi and local Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito politicians and rank-and-file members support building a resort, but the idea has long faced stiff opposition from voters.

In January, the Yokohama Municipal Assembly rejected a proposal for a referendum on the issue, with the LDP and Komeito members voting against it. This was despite the fact that about 190,000 signatures, more than three times the legal number required to move forward with a vote, had been gathered in support of a plebiscite.

Hachiro Okonogi, a Lower House member and key ally of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, announces his candidacy for Yokohama mayor in Yokohama on June 25. | KYODO
Hachiro Okonogi, a Lower House member and key ally of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, announces his candidacy for Yokohama mayor in Yokohama on June 25. | KYODO

With Hayashi’s term ending in August, whether to go ahead with the casino resort plan or scrap it quickly became the campaign’s dominant issue. Adding to the mix is the fact that Suga, who represents a district in Yokohama, strongly supports IRs as a way to revive local economies and draw foreign tourists.

Yokohama and sites in Osaka, Wakayama and Nagasaki prefectures are the front-runner candidates for a maximum of three locations that the central government will choose for Japan’s first casino resorts. Interested parties are supposed to submit their IR development plans for approval by April 2022.

It was initially predicted that the Yokohama race would pit Hayashi, as the ruling-party backed, pro-casino resort candidate, against an opposition party-backed candidate representing the anti-casino camp, but Okonogi’s entrance into the campaign suddenly threw the race wide open.

Okonogi, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, surprised many when he announced late last month that he would resign his Cabinet-level position just weeks before the start of the Tokyo Olympics to run for mayor. Surprise turned to shock among some when he further pledged that he would scrap the current casino plan if elected.

“I’m running for mayor in order to stop the casino bid effort,” Okonogi said at a June 25 news conference to announce his entry. “Many people oppose the plan, and the environment in Yokohama is not right for it now.”

The move was seen as something of a betrayal of Suga in particular, to whom Okonogi’s connections run deep. Both represent districts that include Yokohama, and Okonogi’s late father was a former trade minister and construction minister in the 1980s to whom Suga served as an aide, with the elder Okonogi becoming a key political mentor.

Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Monday. | KYODO
Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Monday. | KYODO

Okonogi is not against an IR per se, having voted for national legislation to support them. Joji Kokuryo, managing director of Tokyo-based Bay City Ventures and a casino expert, notes that other locations have been mentioned in the past.

“There had always been talk of other IR sites, most publicly in the Honmoku area south of downtown Yokohama and also the Mizuho Pier (aka Yokohama North Dock), which recently had additional land returned by the U.S. military,” he said. “However, discussion on both sites had been quite preliminary, as the city always had its eyes set on the current Yamashita Pier site.”

Okonogi’s declaration of his opposition to the plan and his past support for casinos has drawn criticism from candidates who oppose all IRs.

“We have a candidate (Okonogi) who until recently was an incumbent cabinet minister who promoted casino resorts, but is now saying the opposite, that he is against casinos, the environment is not yet ready. So will he support a casino when the environment is ready? I don’t trust him at all,” said Kenji Eda, a Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan executive who represents a district in Yokohama, at the news conference announcing Yamanaka’s candidacy in late June.

Yamanaka, who has received support from the citizens group behind the petition drive, said that his policy would be to prioritize battling the coronavirus over attempts at getting a casino resort.

“Data shows that many people in Yokohama are opposed to a casino,” Yamanaka said at the news conference. “The city is exhausted by the coronavirus disaster. The economy is in pretty bad shape, and is not providing enough services to its citizens.

“Under such circumstances, it is difficult to understand why casinos are needed now.”

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan-backed candidate Takeharu Yamanaka announces his entry into the race for Yokohama mayor in Yokohama on June 29. | KYODO
Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan-backed candidate Takeharu Yamanaka announces his entry into the race for Yokohama mayor in Yokohama on June 29. | KYODO

For Hayashi and her supporters, Okonogi’s entrance into the race presents an immediate problem. While she is expected to garner much of the pro-casino vote, it, too, could end up being split between her and those who hope that Okonogi will eventually back a casino resort project somewhere in the city, despite his remarks.

Yet with at least three candidates saying they are opposed to the resort plan, the end result could split the anti-casino resort vote and deny them all a victory.

“The last election in 2017 ended with the 2nd and 3rd place candidates having both run on similar anti-casino platforms, ultimately splitting the non-Hayashi votes down the middle,” said Bay City Ventures’ Kokuryo. Taking the wider view, he added, “the IR initiative is still alive for now, but it is definitely leaning toward the wrong side of (a 50/50 chance of success) for those in favor of IR development.”

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