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Nine people are currently running in the Yokohama mayoral election, which is set for Aug. 22. But that’s not why the media has found it more interesting than any other regional poll in recent memory.

Yokohama falls within the constituency of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and one candidate, Hachiro Okonogi, is a long-time ally whose career as a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is closely related to that of Suga, who entered politics as an aide to Okonogi’s father, Hikosaburo Okonogi.

Hachiro Okonogi speaks as chairman of the National Public Safety Commission to reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office in September of last year. | KYODO
Hachiro Okonogi speaks as chairman of the National Public Safety Commission to reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office in September of last year. | KYODO

However, Okonogi is running as an independent and has pledged that, if elected, he will cancel the city’s bid for an integrated resort (IR), something Suga supports. IRs are excuses to build casinos, which the LDP legalized in 2018, so Suga, as the party president, has to promote IRs, though not necessarily in his own backyard. Initially, the government will choose three regions in which to build IRs with the application process starting in October and ending on April 28 of next year. So far, only five localities — including Yokohama — have announced they will apply.

Yokohama’s bid has become the main issue in the election. Incumbent Fumiko Hayashi, who announced her intention to run again July 15, is in favor of the bid. According to Aera.dot, when she ran for re-election in 2017 she was vague on the IR matter after having originally supported it. Her seeming ambivalence was presumably prompted by public sentiment, which is mostly against casinos. In August 2019 she came back in favor of the bid, saying that it would bring economic advantages to the city. Many residents were angry and accused her of reneging on what they perceived as a campaign promise. Most of the other candidates are coming out against the bid, hoping to take advantage of voter resentment.

But with so many people competing for the anti-IR vote, they may end up dividing that vote into portions too small for any to win on their own, thus handing the election to the candidate who controls all the pro-IR voters, meaning Hayashi. According to the rules, a candidate has to get at least 25% of the votes cast in order to win, which is possible for Hayashi, but difficult for her opponents.

On the web news program Democracy Times, freelance journalist Hajime Yokota (he’s the guy who called International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach a liar at a recent Tokyo photo op) revealed that there is speculation among media people that Okonogi is secretly working for the LDP, whose Kanagawa Prefecture chapter he once headed, in order to split the anti-IR vote. Yokota says the main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), believes this as well.

If it’s true, Okonogi is making a huge sacrifice by giving up a cabinet position just to run a losing campaign for mayor. Another problem with this theory is that one of the most powerful businessmen in Yokohama, Yukio Fujiki, who controls the port, was a close friend of Okonogi’s father. An article in Gendai Business suggests that Okonogi changed his mind about the IR bid because of his loyalty to Fujiki, who is a staunch opponent.

But even Fujiki’s motives are hazy. He is endorsing Takeharu Yamanaka, also the choice of the CDP, because Yamanaka is against the bid. But Yamanaka has no political experience. He is a former professor at Yokohama City University whose main claim to fame is as a TV commentator hired to explain pandemic-related statistics, even though he is not an expert on infectious diseases. He calls himself a “data analyst,” but, as Yokota points out, it’s not clear if this is a skill that will help him as the mayor of a major city. He is also the favored candidate by groups opposed to the IR bid, including the one that collected more than 190,000 signatures for a referendum to cancel it.

If media exposure combined with IR opposition is your main criterion, then former Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka might be a better bet. Not only is he an experienced public servant, as a bestselling novelist and seasoned TV personality he knows how to talk in front of people in clear, complete sentences. But Tanaka has not picked up any significant endorsements.

That leaves former prosecutor and Carlos Ghosn attorney Nobuo Gohara as well as former Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa, who announced his candidacy on July 20, as the only other two anti-IR candidates with major media standing. Matsuzawa is an Upper House lawmaker and member of Nippon Ishin no Kai, but he is running as an independent, thus adding one more person to dilute the anti-IR vote.

But if Hayashi is elected, it would appear to go against the wishes of the majority of voters. On July 14, Kanagawa Shimbun published the results of three surveys conducted over the past two years. In the first, which took place in September 2019, 63.85% of Yokohama residents said they were opposed in some way to the IR bid. In 2020, that portion had increased to 66.43%, and the most recent survey, conducted July 10 and 11, found 70.67% are against it.

So the mayoral election itself is seen as a referendum on the IR bid, and while a majority of people might vote for candidates who oppose the bid, the winner may end up being the only viable candidate who favors it.

Of course, casinos are not the only matter being discussed. The Kanagawa Shimbun found that the most important issue to city residents is ending the pandemic, a matter that Yamanaka has prioritized in his campaign. But according to Takashi Kiso, a casino advocate interviewed by Aera.dot, though there are people opposed to casinos throughout Japan, nowhere is the opposition as concerted as it is in Yokohama. And with the pandemic, IRs seem less important than they once were. Many potential casino operators have dropped out and foreign tourism and convention business — both of which are essential to IR viability — have dried up. Does the LDP’s dream of a casino-fueled recovery make sense any more? The Yokohama mayoral election makes that question even more confusing.

Visit www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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