Tokyo Notes

Machimura Career on Line

A veteran Japanese politician risks political suicide by choosing to contest Hokkaido’s No. 5 Constituency.

It’s not often you see a politician giving up the security of his or her current seat to stand in a by-election. And it’s especially rare when the person risking potential political suicide is a former foreign minister and party heavyweight.

But that’s what Nobutaka Machimura has done to contest Hokkaido’s No. 5 Constituency.

The by-election is set to be an intriguing tussle between the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party of which Machimura is the largest faction leader. It will be an early test for the latest cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan after his recent reelection as leader. It will also be an indicator of progress made by a resurgent LDP, following its success in July’s upper house election. The by-election campaign, which started Tuesday with the poll scheduled for October 24, is not short on plots and subplots.

A quick look at the background of the by-election suggests Machimura, whose father was governor of Hokkaido, may not be taking that much of a risk at all. He is contesting, after all, his old constituency. He was the Diet member there for 13 years before last year’s dramatic election victory by the DPJ. All he has to do is win back his supporters after their feverish defection to the DPJ last August.

Machimura’s ‘politics and money’ campaign script has also been kindly written for him by the DPJ itself. This by-election resulted from the resignation of the DPJ’s Chiyomi Kobayashi over an illegal 16 million yen political donation. With the DPJ’s Ichiro Ozawa now facing indictment over a funding scandal involving his political organization, surely all Machimura has to do is to play the clean up politics card and he’ll be back in his old familiar seat and the LDP will have another election victory to bait Kan with.

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But not so fast. According to Zakzak, the website of the Yukan Fuji evening tabloid, Machimura has only the slightest of leads over his DPJ opponent. According to Zakzak, Machimura’s perceived failure to appear in the constituency while he was the Diet representative continues to count against him. Apparently you had to ‘set his backside on fire’ to get him there, according to one colourful comment from a member of the Sapporo City Assembly.

As for the DPJ, in putting up a new 38-year-old candidate, Shigeyuki Nakamae, it is focusing on a ‘generational change,’ with 66-year-old veteran Machimura playing the role of political establishment dinosaur. The fact that Machimura is having to dig in and campaign out on the streets, rather than rely on his illustrious CV, shows that the contest is indeed a little closer than he might have liked.

So just how damaging will a loss be to either party? For the DPJ, the losing of a lower house seat it won with a 30,000 majority will again show how the tide of public opinion has swung away from it after its unsteady year in power. But in having such a party heavyweight contend against a rookie, it strikes me that it’s actually the LDP that stands to lose more than the DPJ from failure to win this seat.

All the same, respect is due for Machimura. He’s spurned the comfort of three years of remaining tenure to win back his reputation in his former constituency. And there aren’t so many politicians around with the character or audacity to do that.