Nagasaki Mayor
Iccho Ito who was gunned down on the campaign trail

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Murder, bankruptcy and nuclear waste
were all part of Japan’s local elections

By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

24 April 2007: Japan's first set of unified local polls have concluded with the second round elections held 22 April 2007. In what should have been a more low-key set of polls following the prefectural gubernatorial races held a fortnight ago, eyes were squarely on the Nagasaki mayoral vote held after the slaying of incumbent Iccho Ito, with two national by-elections also concentrating party efforts.

Japan's two main parties, the governing Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, both retained their respective seats in closely scrutinised upper house by-elections held in Fukushima and Okinawa this weekend. Coinciding with the by-elections were mayoral polls in 77 cities, including prefectural capitals Mito, Matsuyama, Nagasaki and Oita, 99 towns and villages and 13 Tokyo wards. City assembly races also took place across the country.

In the highly charged Nagasaki race, held just one week after its incumbent mayor Iccho Ito was gunned down on the campaign trail, former city bureaucrat Tomihisa Taue was elected over his principal opponent Makoto Yokoo, the son-in-law of the late mayor who declared his candidacy just one hour before the deadline for nominations passed. Taue's campaign charged that journalist Yokoo didn't even live in the city and voters shouldn't install a mayor just because of his family background. A mere 953 votes separated the candidates, with an unusually high number of spoiled votes protesting at the elections being held so close to Ito's death.

Elsewhere in Japan, other races of note included the city of Yubari on Hokkaido, now infamous for being the first municipality to declare bankruptcy in over a decade, where Hajime Fujikura, a retired tyre sales company president, won his first term in a seven-way poll. Fujikura pledged to use his business background to revive the city's fortunes and end dependency on national assistance.

In the small town of Toyocho in Kochi, challenger Yasutaro Sawayama beat incumbent mayor Yasuoki Tashima in a race dominated by the issue of constructing a nuclear waste facility in the municipality, which the former mayor claimed would attract billions of yen in subsidies. Following his victory in the Ikoma city assembly poll, the body's speaker Takashi Sakai was arrested on suspicion of engaging in illegal land deals.

Local election results boost
Japan’s governing coalition

9 April 2007: Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara was re-elected for a third term in the 8 April 2007 poll in a vote that will draw comfort for the national governing coalition, but showing the independent city chief on a much reduced tally of just 50 per cent. In a race lacking in verve from principal challenger Shiro Asano against the beleaguered incumbent, footage of Kouichi Toyama, a street entertainer running as an anarchist, from public television election broadcasts had unexpectedly become the most-played Japanese clip on YouTube on account of his confrontational speech-imploring voters to rise up against the "detestable nation".

Election officials in the capital had angered many with their order for YouTube to take the video down on the grounds of fairness to other candidates, incurring suspicion over their motives. Earlier critics had accused the Asahi TV channel of denying coverage to lesser-known candidates by hosting a debate solely between Ishihara, Asano and architect Kisho Kurokawa, ostensibly the more 'respectable' contenders. The turnout in the Tokyo race was 54.4 per cent, compared to 44.9 per cent in 2003, a rise attributed largely to the media circus around the stand-off between the two main parties and Ishihara's fail from grace compared to his commanding lead four years ago.

In the other gubernatorial races where the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had faced each other, the LDP took nine and the DPJ two, with no governorships changing hands. Commenting on its failure to take on the LDP in advance of this summer's parliamentary elections, a DPJ official remarked: "We have not developed real strength. The party's leadership has to think about how to take responsibility," However, its losses were mitigated by its retention of the Iwate prefectural governorship, DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa's own seat, taken by former Diet member Takuya Tasso, now Japan's youngest governor at 42.

Mayoral elections were held in Hamamatsu, Hiroshima  Sapporo and Shizuoka — four of Japan's 17 largest cities which, as designated cities, have similar authority to prefectural governments. In Hiroshima, incumbent Tadatoshi Akiba won a third four-year term.  In the Nagoya city assembly, the DPJ became the largest party.

In the second round of the nationwide local elections on 22 April, 262 mayoral elections and 779 municipal assembly polls will be held, and this month's local elections are seen as a prelude to the House of Councillors elections in July.

First unified local elections viewed with
anxiety by Japan’s two largest parties

26 March 2007: Campaigning is underway for Japan’s first ever set of unified local government elections. Previously election dates were scattered throughout the spring, leaving most races held on local issues rather than having all eyes on any national campaigning. The move towards unified local polls across Japan, as well as the rescinding of the ban on local election manifestos, was designed to reinvigorate the local democratic process by making such races more charged. While the two main parties have played their part and attempted to energise local races by giving timeserving governors and mayors their marching orders and banning pacts, neither party seems to have much to look forward to the elections on 8 April 2007, with a second round on 22 April.

The polls will be assessed for the outcomes of the two main parties' campaigns in advance of this summer's upper house elections in the Japanese National Diet. With the governing Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) leader Shinzo Abe looking beleaguered amid recent scandals over manipulation of government consultations and his weak leadership style against the party's old guard, observers are examining his chances of surviving a poor performance in the summer national poll. Similarly, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Ichiro Ozawa is suffering from ailing health and divisions within his own party, with voters left scratching their heads, making both polls wide open, analysts claim.

The elections, the first since he was elected LDP president and therefore Prime Minister, could not have come at a worse time for Shinzo Abe - suffering from opinion poll pressures over his betrayal of the 'Koizumi legacy' by readmitting Diet members who had stood against the LDP over postal privatisation at the last election. Remarks by his health minister, who referred to women as "baby-making machines", have also cost him public support. In the recent Aichi prefectural election, the party's candidate for governor was elected on a wafer-thin majority in a poll it would normally expect to obtain a clear margin of victory.

The first unified polls will see elections to 13 governorships, four designated (major) city mayors and an array of local assemblies. The celebrity entertainment factor is provided in Iwate prefecture, where professional wrestler the Great Sasuke will contest the governorship as an independent against both the LDP and the DPJ, despite being elected as a DPJ member of the prefectural assembly in 2003. The DPJ's problems are also compounded in a number of other prefectures, where it has failed to either find suitable candidates or enforce its national policy of not backing the same candidates as the LDP. In Nara, Oita, Saga Shimane, Tokushima and Tottori, prefectures it will not run a candidate for governor, while in Fukui and Mie local DPJ members are backing LDP candidates. In Fukuoka, Hokkaido, Iwate and Kanagawa prefectures, its members are standing for governor as independents, despite holding office on behalf of the DPJ in the past. Divisions between the national LDP and local chapters have seen the party withhold support for some candidates, with incumbents being supported unofficially in some races.

It has been claimed that the race for Tokyo governor could be seen as a convenient metaphor for Japanese politics at this moment in time. Neither main party was able to find a candidate, with both frontrunners declining their offers of support. Yet instead the race has become one between the two parties by proxy, with hardline incumbent Shintaro Ishihara receiving the unofficial support of the LDP, while his moderate reformist opponent and former Miyagi governor Shiro Asano has the tacit backing of the DPJ, some of whose assembly members backed Ishihara in his 2003 re-election bid. While Ishihara, who once commanded an unshakeable lead in the opinion polls, has been beset, like the government he once served in, by a series of expenses scandals and embarrassing gaffes against foreigners and women, his opponent Asano is regarded as something of an unknown quantity.

Despite Shiro Asano’s earnest inclusive rhetoric against Ishihara's denigration of foreigners, women and even bullied schoolchildren, commentators have asked what he achieved during his tenure in Miyazaki. There are of course no shortage of contenders lining up to take on the controversial Ishihara, 13 including a taxi-driver, a feng shui expert, an inventor and a renowned architect, but that could hardly be of comfort to his only serious challenger, who might have preferred a less crowded field. Like his former party and recent covert backer the LDP always seems to manage, in spite of it all, Ishihara will probably cling on again, somehow.

Of the designated city races in Hamamatsu, Hiroshima, Sapporo and Shizuoka, two are proving of interest.  In Hiroshima, two term mayor and peace activist Tadatoshi Akiba of the DPJ is facing three challengers including former Liberal Democratic Party upper house member Takeaki Kashimura.  Sapporo's reformist mayor Fumio Ueda, running of behalf of the DPJ and the Social Democrats, is seeking a second term in a three-way contest.

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