A storm of controversy is raging over Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s Feb. 7 proposal to impose a tax on major banks operating in the metropolis. Despite strong objections raised by central government officials and bankers, Ishihara said he was determined to implement the proposal, which he said was carefully crafted to rescue the Tokyo metropolitan government from a financial crisis.

In Mie Prefecture, Gov. Masayasu Kitagawa on Feb. 22 withdrew support for Chubu Electric Co.’s plan to build a nuclear power plant in the prefecture. Chubu Electric later abandoned the plan.

The proposed Tokyo tax is expected to be approved by the metropolitan assembly next month, with the support of both the ruling and opposition forces.

Ishihara took a hardline approach, defying protests and actively pushing his proposal. Kitagawa, however, took a softer stance, weighing the pros and cons of the nuclear power plant project. When Kitagawa announced the withdrawal of support for the project, his voice reportedly trembled.

The differences between Ishihara and Kitagawa are hardly surprising. Ishihara won a landslide victory in the 1999 Tokyo gubernatorial election, riding a wave of popular support. Running as an independent, he overwhelmed the official candidate of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a number of other candidates. Ishihara has always criticized the central government for showing no interest in local autonomy. He had little trouble winning support for his proposal, since he invoked a local government’s power to impose an independent tax as part of local autonomy. He was also backed by a rising tide of public opinion against banks, which are perceived to benefit from excessive government protection.

Kitagawa has not always taken a soft stance. An advocate of political reform, he bolted the LDP while a Diet member and joined the opposition camp. Now the second-term governor of Mie Prefecture, he is a vocal supporter of local autonomy. He took a soft approach this time, considering hostilities between the pro- and antinuclear residents.

Ishihara, who puts on a showy political performance as the head of Japan’s top local government, can be compared to a fastballer in baseball. Kitagawa, who has had a checkered career in national and local politics, and in the ruling party and opposition camp as well, excels in the change-up.

The crucial task for the ordinary Diet session is to debate the fiscal 2000 government budget. Last month, the session was thrown into turmoil when the ruling coalition of the LDP, the Liberal Party and New Komeito rammed through a bill that cut the number of Lower House seats. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, Japan Communist Party and Social Democratic Party boycotted all proceedings in protest. The Diet returned to normal this month, but feelings of indifference continue to pervade the Diet.

The proposed tax on banks in Tokyo and the abandonment of the nuclear power plant project in Mie Prefecture exposed contradictions between the central government’s monopoly of power and claims that local autonomy is an important issue in Japanese politics.

In the 1910s, Vladimir Lenin and Takashi Hara were often called the leaders in the East and the West, respectively. Lenin, the Russian leader of the communist revolution, established a dictatorship in the Soviet Union, while Hara led a strong and stable government in Japan as a “commoner” prime minister.

In imitation of that comparison, Ishihara and Kitagawa could be called leaders of local autonomy in the East and the West.

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