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Saitama has its Obama moment

By C.B. Liddell

According to political pundits, sometime soon — either in July or August, and certainly before Sept 6 — we are going to be treated to the spectacle of a Japanese general election.

As most people know, the Japanese parliamentary system is divided into two houses — the House of Representatives, the more powerful lower chamber, and the House of Councilors, an upper chamber, similar to Britain’s House of Lords. While half the members of the House of Councilors stand for reelection every three years, the House of Representatives has to stand en masse within four years of the previous election. Here in Saitama, where I live, I was lucky enough to have a preview of the Japanese democratic process in action with the May mayoral elections for Saitama City.

Since it was founded by the merger in 2001 of Urawa, Omiya, and Yono cities, Saitama had been headed by the former mayor of Urawa, Soichi Aikawa. Despite his long tenure in office and voters’ (over) familiarity with him, the incumbent decided to spruce up his reelection bid with a snazzy if somewhat mystifying English slogan: “Let’s Begin Together!” Seeing as Aikawa spent eight years at the top in Saitama and 10 years previously as chief of Urawa, this sounded more like a sorry admission of long-term administrative inaction than the start of a new political dawn.

Another key point about the election was that almost every candidate — with the notable exception of the Communist Party’s — had some type of connection with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s dominant faction in the postwar period. Aikawa was sponsored by the LDP, but even his main challenger, Hayato Shimizu of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), had once been a member of the party. This is a complete mirror image of the top leadership of the DPJ, several of whom are defectors from the LDP.

While Shimizu was merely an LDP old boy, some of the other candidates opposing the LDP-backed Aikawa also had strong connections with the party, as well as its tacit support. These included Fukuyo Nakamori, the only female in the contest and already an LDP Diet member. Because of this ideological interchangeability, Nakamori ran a sexist, isn’t-it-time-we-had-a-woman campaign that was devoid of significant issues or policy differences. Another LDP-backed candidate was apparently a disgruntled former Aikawa underling, who had got tired of waiting for the boss to step down and let him have a crack at the top job.

Yet another candidate, who may or may not have had connections with the LDP, mainly campaigned on the fact that he was a doctor and therefore licensed to take the pulse of voters in a medical as well as a political sense. Dr Sakabe drove home this salient point by prowling the hustings attired in a white coat and dangling his stethoscope, which made me wonder when the other “men in white coats” were going to come and take him away.

So, what did the voters make of this political circus? It’s hard to say, but I have a feeling that the example of my wife is pretty typical. When election Sunday came around, I gently reminded her that it was time to go and do her democratic duty.

“Mmmh? Is it today?” she asked, and promptly popped out to vote with all the sense of occasion of a visit to the nearest vending machine.

When she returned half an hour later, I asked her whether she had cast her all-important ballot.

“Umm… yes,” she answered, somewhat absent-mindedly, as she busied herself with preparing lunch.

“So, who did you vote for?”

“Well… I don’t really remember.”

“What party was it?” I pressed.

“I don’t think it said.”

“What about the candidate’s name?”

“Mmm… I forget, because I don’t know him.”

Later, by a sort of Twenty Questions process that included quizzes on gender, age, amount of hair, and whether or not the candidate was wearing a doctor’s uniform, we worked out that she had in fact successfully voted for Hayato Shimizu, the winning candidate. With the LDP vote split by gender politics and internal squabbles, the DPJ newcomer, an ex-LDP man himself, with a not-dissimilar political outlook, had come through the middle to win.

“So why did you vote for him?” I finally queried.

“Someone said he was the same age as Obama,” she replied vaguely. “So I thought he might do something instead of that old guy.”

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

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Great article, classic personalisation of the vague Japanese electorate.

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I also enjoyed this article. well written, funny and sadly true

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thia article has nothing to do with Obama. cheap way to get people to read the stories.

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thia article has nothing to do with Obama. cheap way to get people to read the stories.

don't get upset I live in Saitama too

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I've given up nudging my wife to vote - when she does the candidate she votes for is very arbitary like Mr Liddell's wife

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Reading this very good article made me sad, and also despair for this country yet again. They havent a clue. The young dont care about anything other than the next beer or sexdate or pachinko date. The older people just vote for the LDP Fascists no matter what they do, becuase that is how they have been brainwashed into voting. Hence there is never any political change in this country. The immaturity and ignorance is distressing.

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Interesting article, the reporter most likely can't vote being a foreigner but seems to know more about the ins and outs of Japanese politics. I wish Japanese people would put more effort into voting, it is most certainly a circus.

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Strangely, in 8 years in Japan I've never once heard politics mentioned in the office I work in. You wouldn't know it existed.

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Very entertaining article. It's good to read about some of the ridiculous stuff going on in politics. With the voter disconnect here there must be a huge opportunity for a new party with, you know, some actual ideas and personality to come on the stage, corruptive influences of the ruling class not permitting of course.

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Nice! Can perm residents vote yet?

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Saitama, and one day Canada.

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Nice article.

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