The Tokyo governor is often said to be the second most powerful figure in Japanese politics. Yet just two months before the city’s April 10 gubernatorial poll, only a single name is in the hat.
Akira Koike, an upper house Japanese Communist Party lawmaker, formally announced his candidacy Wednesday. But the majority of voters are unlikely to want their metropolis painted red, and will be weighing up various options from a colourful band of procrastinators.
Among the high-profile figures said to be mulling a run at the job are a restaurant magnate, a funnyman, a minor party leader, a former newscaster, and the current governor’s deputy. But they all seem to be waiting for the incumbent to make his move.
A polarizing figure, Shintaro Ishihara has been in the job for 12 years and is keeping his cards close to his chest on whether he will run for a fourth term.
His son Nobuteru, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party’s secretary general and tormentor-in-chief of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, backed his father’s bid Tuesday, saying, ‘Amid the chaotic political situation, it’s important to have a politician like him who comes out with sound arguments.’
But these ‘sound arguments’ can be hard on the ears. Ishihara senior has made remarks that have disparaged women, homosexuals and foreigners (he’s been dubbed Japan’s Le Pen for reasons such as questioning whether the Rape of Nanking occurred). Recently, however, he called for a relaxing of Japan’s draconian alien residency rules.
Ishihara has also presided over (expensive) failed Olympic bids and the disastrous launch of a bank that has been propped up with taxpayers’ money. Yet many see him as someone who articulates what others dare not say and a breath of fresh air compared with the feckless politicians that trot out the party line.
But none of the potential runners and riders can be accused of being identikit politicians. And with personality likely to trump policy in the upcoming poll, what do the alternatives to Ishihara have going for them? And how likely are they to run?
Koike, the communist candidate, is a physician specializing in gastroenterology. He also appears to hate the incumbent’s guts, using his candidacy speech to slam Ishihara for ‘throwing away jobs’ and his ‘misappropriation’ of taxpayers’ money. His election, however, is about as likely as Sarah Palin winning an economics debate with Karl Marx.
Miki Watanabe, head of the Watami restaurant group, is also reported to be considering making a run for the governorship if he gains the backing of the up-and-coming Your Party. A charismatic entrepreneur, Watanabe has come into the spotlight in recent years for his outspoken attacks on the current state of the education system and his frequent TV appearances. It’s unclear, though, whether he will go down as well with voters as the cheap drinks served in his izakaya pubs.
The joker in the pack is Hideo Higashikokubaru. Comedy apprentice to Takeshi Kitano, he put on a straight face in becoming governor of Miyazaki between 2007 using his fame to gain (over)exposure for the prefecture. Known to be extremely ambitious, media speculation to his future has been rife since ‘the housewives’ choice’ decided not to run for a second term. He has yet to rule out a bid for the top Tokyo job (perhaps on an LDP ticket if Ishihara decides not to run).
Yoichi Masuzoe, a popular politician who split from the LDP to head the minor conservative New Renaissance Party, is also touted as a potential runner. Another potential candidate is Ishihara’s deputy Naoki Inose. The writer and journalist was the first vice governor not to have served as a bureaucrat or lawmaker. He openly disagrees with Ishihara on a number of issues, but is known to share Ishihara’s advocacy of increased regional autonomy. Inose’s decision could well depend on that of his boss.
But in terms of her sheer popularity, a bid by Renho, minister for administrative reforms, could rival that of any of the other potential candidates. Her unyielding grilling of bureaucrats in budget screening sessions won her many plaudits and helped her to receive a record number of votes in her re-election to the upper house election last July. The former model and newsreader’s straightforward manner and looks don’t hurt her chances either. But while the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is rumoured to be considering backing Renho for the gubernatorial poll, does Kan really want to lose one of his biggest assets in the Cabinet?
All the mooted aspirants are playing a waiting game. No one seems willing to announce their candidacy too early and risk the public tiring of them. They also could be delaying their decisions until they know what Ishihara’s plans are. It won’t be until then that we’ll know as much about their plans for the metropolis as we do about their personalities.