• SHARE

In the hotly contested Nagano gubernatorial election held in October 2000, uncommitted voters gave a smashing victory to Mr. Yasuo Tanaka, a popular writer who is vehemently opposed to dam construction. On Friday, in a politically and emotionally charged climax to the running dispute between the governor and pro-dam legislators, the prefectural assembly overwhelmingly passed a no-confidence motion against him.

The dispute has been exacerbated by bad blood between the maverick governor and the assembly’s majority groups affiliated with the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Japan and New Komeito. These conservative factions are openly critical of what they see as Mr. Tanaka’s unconventional ways of running the prefectural administration and his off-color publicity campaign. The motion, supported by 44 members of the 60-seat legislature, accused Mr. Tanaka of “causing confusion in local politics with his self-righteous and crude” methods of governing.

Mr. Tanaka, who had been elected on a platform of open government and environmental protection, is best known for his “no more dams” declaration — a bombshell statement that has shocked not only the central government but also local governments throughout the nation. His environmentally friendly policy has prompted a national review of state-subsidized civil engineering projects, including dam construction.

Just half a year after Mr. Tanaka debuted, vowing to “change Nagano,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took office, pledging to “change Japan.” Dedicated to reform, the two men share a number of things in common. Both defy convention. Both dislike time-consuming spadework. So they tend to think and act on their own, often upsetting people around them. But, as leadership goes, the similarities end there.

Mr. Tanaka has been criticized for speaking or behaving in ways unbecoming of a top local administrator. He has raised eyebrows even among his staunch supporters. For instance, he appeared in a photo weekly drinking champagne and posing with a female TV personality on his knees during an after-hours interview in his office. He described the event as “part of the prefecture’s PR activities.” In a dialogue session with prefectural hall employees he made a mockery of his critics, saying he would prefer they go to North Korea.

Thus the feuding between Mr. Tanaka and his opponents runs deeper than the dam issue. Under the circumstances there appears to be something inherently incompatible between the reformist governor and the clubby legislature, which for four decades has worked hand in hand with a conservative administration headed by a succession of former deputy governors. Hardest hit by the mudslinging are Nagano residents themselves.

This is not the first time that anti-Tanaka legislators have tried to oust him. They have attacked him in various ways before, including a censure motion. In the process, the question that matters most — whether to build more dams — has apparently been relegated to the background. Tanaka wants to halt two projects; he says he will take alternative steps to develop rivers and tributaries. The pro-dam factions say, however, that he is putting his “ideals” before the interests of residents.

It is a pity that this question has degenerated into an emotional confrontation. The legislature should have devoted more time to sorting out the issue before passing a no-confidence motion. Another important question that has received less attention than it should have is what the Tanaka administration has achieved overall. It is not just the dam controversy that Tanaka has ignited in this traditionally conservative prefecture.

The basic aim of an administration is to improve the lives of residents and maintain law and order. This plain truth, which has often been overlooked in the heat of political bickering, must be reaffirmed if the Tanaka episode is not to end up as a tempest in a teacup. Mr. Tanaka himself reportedly wants to seek re-election. If so, he needs to explain his beliefs and policies in more convincing ways.

The assembly, meanwhile, should dissolve itself under its own initiative to seek a new mandate. That is a fair step because its members have never sought popular judgment since Mr. Tanaka was elected. They, too, should explain their positions more clearly — on dams and other issues — in a legislative election. Surely, that must be what Nagano’s voters are looking for.

Mr. Tanaka will have a few things going for him if he runs again. For example, he has aroused residents’ interest in prefectural affairs and created a more open administration. He has also helped to invigorate debates in the assembly. He must not forget, however, that many voters also have their doubts about his administrative skill and political style.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW