Japan: New political alignment emerges in Tokyo election

The campaign for the February 9 election for Tokyo governor has exposed a deep-seated alienation from the political establishment—the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and opposition Democratic Party of Japan as well as the myriad political parties. None of the 16 candidates is standing under a party banner. All preferred to run as “independents,” receiving “support” or “endorsement” from various political parties.

The election was called after the previous governor, Naoki Inose, was forced to step down last month over a political funding scandal, after barely a year in office. Inose, previously the vice governor, was hand-picked by Shintaro Ishihara, who quit as Tokyo governor in November 2012 to co-lead the right-wing nationalist Japan Restoration Party (JRP) in the December 2012 general election.

The Tokyo poll is being held amid growing public opposition to the right-wing, pro-business policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s LDP government. The latest Kyodo poll found 74.8 percent of respondents favoured recalling the highly unpopular state secrecy law and 73 percent felt Abe’s economic program was not producing results. More than 60 percent rejected the government’s plans to restart some 50 nuclear reactors shut down after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and 53.8 percent opposed moves toward so-called “collective self-defense” that would permit Japan’s involvement in US-led wars of aggression.

The election campaign has produced a new political alignment aimed at exploiting this dissatisfaction, while confining it within the framework of parliamentary politics. Former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa has become a focal point for opposition to the country’s nuclear program, which was deeply discredited by the Fukushima disaster. Hosokawa’s backers not only include opposition parties, but former LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Hosokawa, the aristocratic head of the Kumamoto-based Hosokawa clan, was an LDP parliamentarian for decades. He quit the party in 1992 amid its internal upheavals provoked by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Japan’s share and property bubbles in 1989–90. He became prime minister as head of a short-lived coalition government that included various LDP breakaway parties—the first non-LDP administration in four decades.

Hosokawa was forced to resign amid allegations of bribery in 1994. After changing between several minor parties that eventually merged into the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 1998, Hosokawa retired from politics. However, he remained close to the LDP, especially to Koizumi, serving as his personal envoy to China in 2001–2006.

Koizumi has been an outspoken supporter of Hosokawa in this election, in which the latter reportedly only decided to stand after strong urging by Koizumi. The duo is placing strong emphasis on the single issue of nuclear power. “It will be a battle between camps that believe Japan can develop without nuclear power and that believe Japan cannot do without it,” Koizumi stated.

Hosokawa has also criticised Abe’s “pugnacious diplomacy.” In a telling statement last week, he declared: “I am alarmed by the direction Japan is heading and the manner it is proceeding on issues such as the Constitution, national security and relations with neighbouring countries.” Abe has dramatically intensified tensions with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea and provoked angry reactions from China and South Korea by visiting the notorious Yasukuni Shrine—a symbol of Japanese militarism. He has also moved to scrap the so-called pacifist clause in the constitution that formally bars offensive military activities.

While Hosokawa has publicly distanced himself from political parties, he is supported “of their own volition” by the DPJ, the People’s Life Party of Ichiro Ozawa, who split from the DPJ, the Unity Party and by some members of Ishihara’s right-wing JRP, which is allowing individual members to vote freely.

Hosokawa’s main opponent is Yoichi Masuzoe, who was minister of health, welfare and labour between 2007 and 2009. Masuzoe was a leading LDP member, spearheading efforts to amend the constitution to end restrictions on Japan’s military. After the LDP lost office in 2009, he broke away and formed the New Renaissance Party (NRP) in 2010. Masuzoe also calls for the phasing out of nuclear power, but only as an indefinite “mid- to long-term strategy.” He has the support of the ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito, and has committed himself to resign from the NRP to form a “policy pact” with LDP. The Tokyo chapter of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) also stands behind Masuzoe. The DPJ initially backed him before Hosokawa announced his candidacy.

A distant third in the polls behind the two leading candidates is Kenji Utsunomiya, a lawyer and former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. He finished a poor second behind Inose at the last gubernatorial election in December 2012. Utsunomiya also calls for abandoning nuclear power, and has proposed organising a “cities of peace” meeting in Tokyo with the mayors of Beijing and Seoul.

While the Japanese Communist Party is backing Utsunomiya, describing him as a “pacifist lawyer,” it could gravitate toward the emerging Hosokawa-Koizumi alignment following the election. Last October, when Koizumi suddenly announced that he was in favour of no nuclear plants, JCP chairman Kazuo Shii hinted that his party could form an alliance with this right-wing bourgeois politician on the issue. “We will cooperate with people with any [political] stance as long as we agree on zero nuclear plants,” Shii said.

The most right-wing nationalist candidate is Toshio Tamogami. He was the Air Self-Defense Force chief of staff until 2008, when attention was drawn to his essay defending Japanese militarism. He claimed that Japan was not an aggressor in World War II and brought prosperity to occupied areas in Asia. Tamogami was allowed to retire, awarded a 60 million yen annual allowance and has continued to vocally express his far-right, war-mongering views. In a book published in 2011, he called for Japan to obtain nuclear weapons and aggressive military capabilities, including aircraft carriers and nuclear-armed submarines.

Tamogami has the backing of Ishihara, who promoted his underdog campaign as a “suicide attack”—a World War II expression glorifying the military’s commitment to die for the emperor. Tamogami is campaigning on law-and-order rhetoric, claiming his military background would be helpful in case an earthquake struck the metropolis. He is openly pushing for nuclear power, and calling for the “proper teaching” of “true history”—in other words, the whitewashing of Japanese militarism in the 1930s and 1940s.

Whoever wins the election, the campaign itself is an indication of the on-going fragmentation of Japanese politics in response to the disgust and popular hostility toward the political establishment amid a deepening social divide and rising dangers of war.