Tokyo (Japan) 2014

Gubernatorial elections were held in Tokyo (Japan) on February 9, 2014. Tokyo Prefecture (officially designated as the Tokyo Metropolis) has a population of over 13.1 million, spread out over the 23 ‘special wards’ of the former core city of Tokyo, 26 suburban cities, one rural district and four sub-prefectures including outlying islands in the Pacific (the Izu and Ogasawara Islands). The Tokyo Metropolitan area includes only part of the Greater Tokyo metropolis, which has a population of over 35 million people spread out over many prefectures, making it the largest metropolitan area in the world.

Tokyo is a prefecture with special powers. Unlike all other prefectures in Japan, Tokyo is administered by single-tier unitary government which combines the powers of Japanese prefectures with powers traditionally devolved to municipal governments. For example, in the 23 special wards, the metro government exercises traditionally municipal powers (waste management, water, fire prevention). Like in other prefectures, the government is built as a presidential system with a directly-elected Governor and directly-elected legislature. The Governor of Tokyo is elected to a four-year term by FPTP, although a new election takes place if the incumbent governor resigns or is forced from office: this gubernatorial election, like the last one in 2013, is a special election. The Governor is the head of the executive branch, which includes government departments and autonomous commissions. The Metropolitan Assembly is made up of 127 members elected to four-year terms, separately from the Governor, by SNTV (the last election was in 2013). The Assembly prepares and votes on legislation and decrees (the governor may also initiate legislation), sets the budget and confirms and oversees gubernatorial appointments. The Assembly, with a three-fourths majority and two-thirds quorum, may vote a motion of no confidence in the governor; in which case the governor then has ten days to dissolve the assembly or he will automatically be removed from office. If a newly-elected assembly after a gubernatorial dissolution again votes a motion of no confidence, the governor is removed from office. One third of registered voters may also initiate a recall vote against the governor, assembly (to dissolve it) and prefectural councillors, they may also initiate a popular initiative to pass or repeal an ordinance. Because of the special powers and expanded autonomy of the metro government, the Governor of Tokyo is considered as one of the most powerful politicians in Japan.

National Context

Japan’s natural governing party, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by Shinzō Abe, returned to power in December 2012 with a supermajority only three years after suffering a historic defeat at the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). After years of a revolving-door prime ministership (six PMs came and went between 2006 and 2012, after LDP Prime Minister Jun’ichirō Koizumi – who had held the office since 2001 – resigned in 2006), politicians’ promises invariably amounting to little and a low-growth deflationary economy, Shinzō Abe’s government has been proving to be quite a change. Although Shinzō Abe’s first term as Prime Minister (2006-2007) is widely regarded as a failure, because he preferred to engage in nationalist sabre-rattling with China, since taking office in 2012, he has been surprising observers and proving uncannily popular.

Abe came out with a bold economic agenda – “Abenomics” – to finally turn Japan’s sluggish economy around. The first two ‘arrows’ of his Abenomics policy included a fiscal stimulus (¥10.3 trillion stimulus package, mostly on infrastructure and public works, to please the LDP’s powerful vested interests in construction) and a shift in monetary policy. In April 2013, the Bank of Japan set a 2% inflation target and launched a program of quantitative easing to reach it. The initial response was quite positive, both from voters and business: consumer and investor confidence is high, the Nikkei stock exchange reached its highest level since 2008, consumer prices increased, the yen depreciated (boosting exports) and economic growth reached impressive levels of 3-4% in the first two quarters of 2013. In July 2013, the LDP (and its traditional ally, the conservative Buddhist New Komeito Party, NKP) won the upper house elections, regaining an absolute majority in the House of Councillors and winning, along with the NKP, 49% of the vote overall. The DPJ, which has been in a state of decrepitude since getting trounced in December 2012, won only 13% of the vote.

After the upper house elections, there was major anticipation for the third ‘arrow’ of Abenomics: structural reforms. The Japanese economy has been bogged down by an aging population requiring ever-higher spending on social security and pensions; protected and uncompetitive economic sectors (agriculture, pharmaceuticals etc); and a tightly regulated labour market (with chaffing rules on staff dismissal, a very high corporate tax). The reforms announced by Abe in June 2013 fell short of expectations, proposing to create deregulated and low-tax zones, allowing the sale of drugs online and creating a third category of contract workers. However, in March 2013, Japan entered negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact which would require Japan to slash its high import tariffs on farm produce and opening up other protected industries. Although there has been significant opposition within the LDP and from its vested interests in agricultural cooperatives to the TPP, the party has been moving along with it and Japanese negotiators have said that they would consider lowering tariffs. The government wishes to check the power of powerful agricultural cooperatives which kept out new farmers, reviewing an old policy on rice cultivation (the gentan policy from 1969, which limits the number of acres devoted to rice, so domestic prices are kept high to benefit farmers and cooperatives; scrapping the policy would make prices fall and compete more effectively at home) and extending the length of part-time contracts. But there has been significant resistance or reluctance to move forward with the reforms: the health ministry and pharmacists blocked the government’s promise to lift the ban on online sales of over-the-counter medicines. In cabinet, several ministers are resistant to change and others disagree among one another over the next steps of Abenomics.

Economic growth slowed to 1.9% (annualized) in the third quarter of 2013 and was low in the fourth quarter as well (1%). Small businesses have been less optimistic than big businesses about Abenomics, and inflation appears to have risen because the depreciated yen makes fuel imports more expensive. To his credit, Abe gathered up the political willpower to move ahead with a planned increase in the consumption tax (loathed in Japan), from 5% to 8% (with plans to raise it to 10% in October 2015). The consumption tax hike, which is seen by the IMF and OECD to be necessary, was decided by Abe’s predecessor, the DPJ’s Yoshihiko Noda in December 2012 right before snap elections took place (at the time, the LDP backed the tax hike in return for a snap election); however, there was some skepticism about whether the LDP would actually do so because Abe had been sending conflicting signals. The last time Japan’s unpopular consumption tax was increased, in 1997, the economy floundered into recession (although the Asian financial crisis in 1997 was as much to blame) and LDP Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was soon ousted. The issue of increasing the consumption tax, floated by Abe’s two DPJ predecessors, badly hurt the DPJ’s popularity and led to several splits in the party. In October, Abe announced that the tax hike would go ahead, mitigated by a temporary stimulus of ¥6 trillion to offset the tax increase. However, Abe’s calls on businesses to increase employee wages to support consumption fell on deaf hears.

Abe’s plans to turn Japan’s economy around have gone hand-in-hand with a nationalist foreign policy, seeking to reassert Japanese power in the region and challenge China’s rising might (China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010). Abe has made a number of controversial statements about Japan’s past: his government includes many nationalists critical of Japan’s “apology diplomacy”; in April 2013, Abe questioned whether Japan’s wars in China and Asia from 1931 to 1945 could be defined as “aggression”; in May, a LDP boss said that Abe rejected the verdict of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. In late December 2013, Abe became the first Prime Minister since Koizumi in 2006 to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the spirits of 14 convicted war criminals are enshrined alongside other Japanese war dead. As was to be expected, China and South Korea strongly condemned the visit and the US expressed ‘disappointment’. The LDP wants to amend the constitution’s Article 9, which outlaws war, to allow for collective self-defense; for the time being, however, the LDP seemingly lacks the parliamentary two-thirds supermajorities in both houses to amend the constitution (which would then be put to a referendum). The LDP’s junior partner, the pacifist NKP, is thought to oppose amending Article 9. Indeed, the NKP’s leader criticized Abe for visiting Yasukuni Shrine, and relations between the NKP and LDP have been pretty bad.

Abe’s government ran into its first major challenge in November 2013, when the Diet passed an unpopular secrecy law which increases penalties for leaking widely defined ‘state secrets’ (presented by the LDP as necessary to strengthen national security, just as China declared a new air-defense zone in the East China Sea overlapping with Japan’s own zone). Under the new law, leaking state secrets will be punishable with ten years in jail, up from one year imprisonment. The LDP’s unpopular legislation sparked protests (orderly and very tame, in Japanese style) against the bill and a coalition of opponents including conservative groups (doctors, dentists), academics and filmmakers. LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba added to the controversy when he compared the protesters to ‘terrorists’, leading the opposition to believe that the LDP will use broadly-defined ‘terrorism’ and ‘state secrets’ to crack down on anti-nuclear protesters opposing the LDP’s plans to reopen nuclear power plants closed down after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. After the secrecy bill controversy, Abe’s approval ratings fell below 50% (to 49%) for the first time since taking office and his disapproval ratings have increased to 30-35%. Nevertheless, these are still excellent approval ratings and the LDP’s hold on power is still unchallenged.

The Tokyo governorship

Tokyo’s governorship has attracted colourful personalities. Between 1947 and 1967, the office was held by conservative politicians backed by the LDP. However, in 1967, in the wake of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (and issues related to that) and local corruption scandals, Ryokichi Minobe, backed by the Socialist Party (JSP) and Communist Party (JCP), won the governorship from the LDP-backed candidate. Serving until 1979, Minobe’s administration was interventionist, providing free medical care to the elderly and implementing anti-pollution and pro-pedestrian policies. Upon his retirement, he was succeeded by former Vice Governor Shunichi Suzuki, the candidate backed by the LDP. Suzuki held the office until 1995. In 1991, however, Suzuki was reelected as an independent after the national LDP, led by secretary-general Ichirō Ozawa, refused to endorse Suzuki’s bid for reelection. Suzuki was able to win reelection with the backing of local LDP leaders and the construction industry, which liked Suzuki’s lavish and wasteful spending on large infrastructure (one of the main issues was the construction of a huge new building for the administration in Shinjuku at the cost of over a billion dollars). When he retired, in 1995, he was succeeded by another independent, Yukio Aoshima (a former actor, novelist, screenwriter, songwriter and film director), who ran a low-key populist campaign against a candidate backed the LDP, NKP and JSP. Aoshima won in the context of great political dissatisfaction following the political scandals of the 1980s, the bad economy bred by the collapse of the speculative bubble in 1989 and the LDP’s brief fall from power in 1993. Since then, urban voters, particularly in Tokyo, have become extraordinarily fickle in their vote choice, with no loyalty for any major party and often preferring local independent candidates.

Aoshima, worn down by a poor economic situation in Tokyo and controversies surrounding his handling of homeless persons, retired in 1999. In a very open race, Shintarō Ishihara, a right-wing novelist and former LDP parliamentarian, was elected governor as an independent with 30.5% of the votes. Ishihara defeated Kunio Hatoyama, the grandson of the LDP’s founder and the brother of future DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who was backed by the DPJ; Yōichi Masuzoe, an academic and TV personality running as an independent (refusing LDP support); and LDP-NKP candidate Yasushi Akashi. Ishihara held the office until his resignation in October 2012 – he was reelected in 2001 (with LDP support, winning 70%), 2007 (with LDP-NKP support, winning 51% against 30.8% for former Miyagi Prefecture governor Shirō Asano, backed the DPJ) and 2011 (with LDP-NKP support, winning 43% against 28% for former Miyazaki Prefecture governor Hideo Higashikokubaru and the rest for DPJ and JCP candidates). Ishihara, a nationalist known for his inflammatory rhetoric, remained relatively popular as governor and his policies were rather pragmatic. He cut spending and cancelled projects in his first term, but he also created a new 3% local tax on banks’ gross (rather than net) profits, supported Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics (the latter of which was successful) and implemented a groundbreaking cap-and-trade scheme in 2010. But Ishihara mostly drew attention to himself for his nationalist positions and controversial statements. Ishihara opposes Article 9 and has a history of being aggressively anti-Chinese and Korean. In the early 2000s, he drew controversy by talking of ‘foreigners’ being responsible for crimes in Tokyo and using the derogatory term sangokujin in his speech. He visited Yasukuni Shrine on the emblematic date of August 15 several times. In 2011, he said that the tsunami/earthquake which hit Japan that year was ‘divine punishment’ for Japanese people’s ‘greed’. In 2012, Ishihara sought to buy the disputed Senkaku Islands (claimed by China) from their private owners, before the DPJ government did so itself in September 2012. At one point, Ishihara controversially said that women who live after they have lost their reproductive function are “useless” and “committing a sin”. Ishihara resigned as governor in October 2012 to enter national politics as the co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), a marriage of convenience between Ishihara and his nationalist colleague, Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto. The JRP became the third largest party in the House of Representatives in the December 2012, winning over 20% of the vote in Japan and Tokyo. In 2013, however, the JRP performed very poorly in the Tokyo prefectural elections (8% and 2 seats) and poorly in the upper house elections in July (12% and 8 seats).

A gubernatorial election was held in December 2012 alongside the general election. Vice Governor Naoki Inose, an author and a former adviser to Koizumi known for his economically liberal and reformist views, ran with the backing of outgoing governor Ishihara and the JRP, the LDP, the NKP and the liberal Your Party (YP). Inose promised continuity with Ishihara’s record, focusing on energy (as Vice Governor, he had led the charge to reduce electricity prices by making the metro government the main shareholder in embattled TEPCO) and social projects (proposing to build nursing homes for the elderly). Facing weak opposition, Inose was elected governor with 67.4% against 15% for his main opponent, the president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations Kenji Utsunomiya, backed the Social Democratic Party (SDPJ), the JCP, small left-wing and anti-nuclear parties. Inose’s main achievement was being in office when Tokyo was selected as the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics in September 2013. But in November 2013, Inose was put in the hot seat with accusations that he had received an illegal (undeclared) loan (interest and collateral-free) in cash from a hospital group during his 2012 campaign. Under pressure from the Metropolitan Assembly, Ishihara and Prime Minister Abe, Inose resigned on December 19.

The frontrunner and consistent favourite in this election was Yōichi Masuzoe. Masuzoe, who is 65, began his career as a prominent and acclaimed academic, expert and later popular TV personality. Masuzoe speaks seven languages (Japanese, English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Russian). In 1998, Masuzoe wrote a book about how he cared for his sick mother for several years, criticizing Japan’s system of social security and senior care. The book turned him into a go-to reference on issues of social security, welfare and social assistance – very important in a rapidly aging society like Japan. He ran for governor of Tokyo as an independent in 1999, placing third with 15.3%. With the backing of the LDP’s reformist leader Jun’ichirō Koizumi, he was elected to the upper house (the House of Councillors) in 2001, with LDP support. Like Koizumi, Masuzoe was (is?) something of a maverick, known as an honest and competent expert. He was a strong critic of Prime Minister Abe in his first (disastrous) term, but when Abe was forced to open his cabinet to his rivals in August 2007, Masuzoe became Minister of Health and Welfare. His nomination came on the heels of the LDP’s defeat in the 2007 upper house election, which owed a lot to the health ministry’s admission that it had lost pensioners’ records. His handling of the aftermath of the scandal was hardly a success, given that his ministry failed to match millions of records with their owners, leading the DPJ to demand his resignation.

Masuzoe nevertheless remained one of Japan’s most popular politicians, and in 2010 his name topped the polls on best alternative Prime Ministers. At the time, the LDP was still reeling from its 2009 defeat and had trouble adapting itself to the new job of opposition rather than governing party. In April 2010, Masuzoe left the LDP to join and take the leadership of the New Renaissance Party (NRP), a right-wing party with neoliberal and reformist positions on economic issues. The NRP and its ideological twin (YP)’s aim to become a possible centre-right counterweight to the LDP fell through; in the July 2010 upper house elections, the NRP won only one seat. Following the NRP’s defeat, Masuzoe dropped off the political radar, trying out various alliances.

Masuzoe was approached by both the LDP and DPJ as a potential candidate for the gubernatorial election. Some in the LDP were critical of Masuzoe, not having totally digested Masuzoe’s 2010 defection from the LDP. But the LDP, always looking for a winner, did see in him an electable candidate with both experience and name recognition (the requirements of the local and national LDP respectively), and ultimately supported him in return for Masuzoe resigning from the NRP. He was also backed by the NKP, some individuals in the DPJ and the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (RENGO), Japan’s largest trade union confederation and a traditional supporter of the DPJ. Masuzoe’s campaign focused on local social welfare issues and hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics (like the LDP, he is an avid supporter of the Olympics).

Some of Masuzoe’s old comments were exhumed during the campaign. In 1989, he told a magazine that women were unfit for politics because they menstruate and lacked the physical strength to work 24 hours a day (because obviously male politicians do work 24 hours a day!). Tokyo women on Twitter called for a ‘sex strike’ against men voting for Masuzoe.

Kenji Utsunomiya, an attorney and distant runnerup in the 2012 gubernatorial election, supported by left-wing parties – the Communist Party (JCP), the Social Democratic Party (SDPJ) as well as the smaller Greens Japan and the New Socialist Party. Utsunomiya had run in the 2012 election, on a left-wing platform very critical of Ishihara’s record (particularly on poverty and social issues, but also in his strong support for the Olympics and his attempt to buy the Senkaku Islands). He won only 14.6%, a very distant second place behind conservative candidate Naoki Inose. In this election, Utsunomiya took a strongly anti-Abe stance (he’s notably critical of Abe on the Article 9/militarization issue). His campaign focused on local issues as well, particularly the growing wealth gap, the lack of affordable earthquake and earthquake safety. He remained critical of the 2020 Olympics, opposing the projects to expand the National Olympic Stadium, which had served for the 1964 Olympics. Utsunomiya is strongly anti-nuclear, wishing to decommission all nuclear power plants, but he did not actually make it the core focus of his campaign.

The surprise of the campaign was the candidacy of Morihiro Hosokawa, a 76-year old former Prime Minister. Hosokawa was one of several LDP MPs who defected from the embattled LDP in the early 1990s to form small rival opposition parties (in his case, the small Japan New Party). After the July 1993 election, in which the LDP lost its absolute majority in the lower house for the first time ever, Hosokawa became Prime Minister of a seven-party (anti-LDP) coalition government with his party, other LDP dissidents, the Socialists and the Komeito. Hosokawa’s coalition government had little ideas or visions besides shared opposition to the LDP, as evidenced by a squabble over a discussion of an increase in the consumption tax. It had accomplished little when Hosokawa was forced to resign in April 1994 after it came to light that he had accepted a 100 million yen loan from a trucking company tied to organized crime. Afterwards, Hosokawa faded from the political spotlight and retired in 1998 to take up pottery. He was approached by the DPJ to run in the gubernatorial election, and his candidacy was backed by the DPJ, the sulfurous Ichirō Ozawa’s personality cult (the People’s Life Party) and Kenji Eda’s Unity Party (born in 2013 from a split in the YP).

Above all, Hosokawa’s candidacy drew attention because he was endorsed by another political retiree, former LDP Prime Minister Jun’ichirō Koizumi, who made his political comeback to support Hosokawa and opposed his successor Shinzō Abe’s pro-nuclear stance. Koizumi, since the Fukushima disaster, has adopted anti-nuclear positions (which do appear genuine) but is also said to hold resentment from Abe’s reintegration into the LDP of LDP rebels who had opposed Koizumi’s big postal privatization drive in 2005. Hosokawa’s campaign had a heavy focus on the nuclear issue. Masuzoe’s position on the nuclear issue seems vague (although he was clearly pro-nuclear prior to 2011); outright pro-nuclear positions are fairly rare in Japan these days, although the Abe government supports reopening a nuclear reactor or two (suspended since Fukushima). Hosokawa’s candidacy, perceived as being strong because of DPJ and Koizumi support, led to pressures from the DPJ on Utsunomiya to withdraw from the resign so as to not split the anti-nuclear vote. Utsunomiya declined and faulted Hosokawa’s campaign for obscuring local issues such as poverty.

The fourth major candidate was Toshio Tamogami, the former Chief of Staff of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force between March 2007 and October 2008. He was fired from his military command in 2008 after authoring an essay in which he said that Japan had been drawn into World War II by Franklin D. Roosevelt (manipulated by the communists) and Chiang Kai-Shek. In the same essay, he also asserted that the war brought prosperity to China and Korea and implied that Japanese war crimes were fabricated or at least not such a big deal. After his dismissal, he told a British journalist that, had had he been general in a nuclear-capable Japan in 1945, he would have considered using nuclear weapons against the US. Since 2008, Tamogami has been involved in far-right nationalist groups which advocate that Japan should have the right to collective self-defense and should acquire nuclear weapons. During the campaign, one of Tamogami’s supporters, Naoki Hyakuta, a member of the board of the public broadcaster NHK, declared that the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 never happened (a fairly widespread view in far-right circles). Tamogami was endorsed by the obscure far-right Ishin Seito Shimpu but also benefited from the support of former governor Ishihara (who also ‘doubts’ the Nanjing Massacre occurred) – although the JRP did not officially support Tamogami.

Turnout was low, at 46.1%, due to a snow storm on February 9. It was 16.5% lower than the 2012 election (held alongside the general election, though) and down from the 58% turnout in the 2011 race (which was held on its own).

Yōichi Masuzoe (Independent/LDP-NKP) 42.86%
Kenji Utsunomiya (Independent/JCP-SDPJ-Greens-NSP) 19.93%
Morihiro Hosokawa (Independent/DPJ-PLP-UP) 19.39%
Toshio Tamogami (Independent) 12.39%
Kazuma Ieiri (Independent) 1.8%
Yoshiro Nakamatsu (Independent) 1.31%
Mac Akasaka (Smile Party) 0.31%
Others 0.78%

Ultimately, nobody proved strong enough to challenge and defeat Masuzoe, the early frontrunner whose candidacy benefited from the support of the popular central government and crossover support from some opposition DPJ supporters. Much ado about nothing for the candidacy of Morihiro Hosokawa, despite the heavyweight backing of Koizumi. Hosokawa’s old age, his little contact with Tokyo and his nuclear/national-focused campaign all hurt him in an election which was ultimately mostly fought and decided on local issues. The anti-nuclear vote is quite strong in Tokyo, but it is not an issue which can mobilize a winning crowd in a local election.

Masuzoe’s term, which runs until 2018, will be heavily focused on the preparations for the 2020 Olympics. The LDP government will be able to count on an avid supporter of its lavish and grandiose plans for the Olympics in the metro government. Nationally, while the race was again mostly local, the victory is nevertheless another sign that popular support for the LDP and Abe is holding up fairly well over one year in. For the time being, no party is even close to challenging the LDP’s renewed monopoly on power in Japan. This election saw Koizumi’s return to the forefront of national politics with an anti-nuclear campaign which is also targeted against Abe. It is worth watching what Koizumi intends to do to pursue his anti-nuclear battle further.

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Posted on February 20, 2014, in Japan, Regional and local elections. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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