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Nagano Prefecture, whose assembly early this month passed a no-confidence motion against Gov. Yasuo Tanaka, is bracing for the election of a new governor. The key candidate will be Mr. Tanaka himself, who on Monday automatically lost his job but vowed to seek a fresh mandate. The key question for voters is whether Mr. Tanaka is fit to serve as governor again.

In October 2000, Mr. Tanaka, a novelist with a passion for reform, debuted with a pledge to break tradition. In particular, he was, and still is, opposed to building dams — traditional public works projects in this mountainous prefecture. The bruising battle between him and a predominantly conservative assembly has attracted national attention, in part because it resembles, in essence, the ongoing face-off between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and antireform forces.

Koizumi’s “structural reform” initiative is now in danger of losing momentum as it comes under mounting pressure from the old guard of his Liberal Democratic Party as well as a bureaucracy beholden to the status quo. Japan today, torn between two opposing forces, has yet to draw a reliable road map for the future. In this sense, Nagano is Japan in microcosm.

Seen from this perspective, the no-confidence vote raises a question of propriety. This is not to deny the right of a legislative assembly to present a no-confidence motion against an administrative chief. Given its responsibility of monitoring an administration, the assembly is correct to express disapproval of the top administrator if there is something seriously amiss with him or her.

This did not seem to be the case in Nagano. The trouble with the anti-Tanaka vote is that there are no convincing reasons for it. One explanation is that Mr. Tanaka’s “no more dams” statement had created a policy rift with conservative hardliners in the assembly. Another theory has more to do with emotion than reason: the former governor’s “dogmatic and tactless” (words used in the no-confidence motion) way of doing things.

Admittedly, his antidam policy lacks specifics; it sounds more like a statement of intent than a plan of action. While Mr. Tanaka should have explained it in detail, prodam legislators should have examined it closely and come up with a reasonable rebuttal, instead of brushing it aside from the start. An open policy debate would have been a far better way of settling the complicated dam dispute.

The second explanation is far less convincing. It implies that Mr. Tanaka’s foes may have used the motion as a device to end their emotional standoff with him. If the relationship between the two sides had become any more mean-spirited and petty, it is said, Tanaka’s opponents would have started protesting the design of his tie. It would appear that his adversaries were playing a “grudge match” against an unconventional governor.

Thus it remains disturbingly unclear what really prompted a no-confidence vote against Tanaka. The reason must, first of all, be made clear to voters in Nagano. Then, and only then, can they participate in a meaningful debate on the dam issue. Only through such debate can they cast their ballots with conviction. The issue boils down to this: What can be done to wean the prefecture away from dam projects?

Dam construction is a symbol of mammoth civil engineering projects that weigh heavily on local and national finances. What to do with them is a question that concerns not only deficit reduction and environmental protection but also the structural reform of Japanese politics. These and other public works projects have generated economic growth, but they have also fostered the politics of pork and spread corruption in the process. The string of scandals that has been brought to light so far this year is only the tip of the iceberg.

From this point of view, the coming gubernatorial poll in Nagano is also a matter of national importance. Yet established parties, including the LDP, appear to be watching from the sidelines. That may have to do with the fact that they supported an anti-Tanaka candidate in the previous race. But feigning indifference at such a critical moment — if that is what they are doing — is difficult to understand. They need to clarify which side they stand on: that of dam supporters or dam opponents.

It has been nearly a decade since the LDP lost its long monopoly on power. With the political world fragmented, with no solid center of power, it is not rare that an independent candidate is elected governor with the backing of politically unaffiliated voters. Mr. Tanaka’s debut was a dramatic example of such voter power. How Nagano voters will behave this time around is, therefore, a question of paramount interest.

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