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Sunday, April 19, 2009

MEDIA MIX

Chiba's governor may soon be whisked away to his home planet


In the latest installment of Suntory's series of TV commericals for Boss canned coffee, the extraterrestrial Tommy Lee Jones, who has been sent to Earth to study the human race, runs for governor of an unnamed prefecture and wins by a landslide. The excitement is short-lived, though, as his inappropriate response to questions in the prefectural assembly results in a steep drop in his support rate. He is forced to resign and later reports to his superiors, "Popularity on Earth is brief."

Actually, that scenario sounds more like the one we've seen lately for prime ministers. Some current governors are enjoying solid support. Osaka's Toru Hashimoto has impressed the people he represents by standing up to imperious bureaucrats. Two weeks ago, he slammed the central government for sending Osaka a bill for construction projects without any detailed breakdown, comparing the ministry's procedures to those of a bar that serves a customer a drink and later charges him an extortionate sum.

Hashimoto is admired nationwide as an exceptionally bold leader, but he really has no choice. Osaka is on the verge of bankruptcy, as are many other prefectures. The media can always be counted on to cover people like Hashimoto, Miyazaki's Hideo Higashikokubaru, and former Nagano Governor Yasuo Tanaka because they were TV celebrities before they were politicians. Now, though, they're also paying close attention to the noncelebrity governors of Shiga and Niigata, who are working hard to solve their prefectures' money problems.

Kensaku Morita, who won the governorship of Chiba on March 29 by a wide margin, used to be a popular actor, as well as a Diet member. Morita's outgoing personality and background guarantee he'll be noticed, but since the election, he's come under scrutiny for something different.

Though Morita was a staunch member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party during his stint in national politics from 1992 to 2004 and ran under the party banner with his unsuccessful bid for the Chiba governorship in 2005, this time he chose to run as a "completely unaffiliated" candidate to promote his independent stance. However, it has been discovered that Morita is still the head of a Tokyo-based LDP election committee, and a citizens group has filed a lawsuit saying he violated election rules by not declaring this position when he submitted his application to run. The reason no one noticed is that the position is registered under Morita's real name, Eiji Suzuki. Kensaku Morita is his geimei (stage name). Moreover, ¥100 million was transferred from this committee to Morita's account without being reported to election authorities. Some of this money came from discount chain Don Quijote, whose foreign ownership exceeded the 50 percent maximum allowed by law for donations at the time they were made.

These accusations are at least as serious as those leveled against Japan Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, but all legal questions aside, Morita's vision for Chiba is pretty fuzzy. The prefecture is just as financially strapped as others, but he didn't say much about that during the campaign. He promoted flashy, implausible ideas, like building a Maglev train between Narita and Haneda airports, or promising to reduce the toll on the Aqua Line bridge-and-tunnel route linking Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures to ¥800 at all times, which sounds nice but doesn't significantly affect most Chiba residents.

Otherwise, Morita doesn't seem interested in the fiscal challenges that other prefectural governors are actively struggling with. He is a values man. His manifesto is filled with pledges to make children "stronger and more beautiful" and "educate parents" so that they can "rebuild Japan's family power." These have always been Morita's pet themes, even when he was an actor. He is best known for the early 1970s TV series, "Ore wa Otoko da" ("I Am a Man"), in which he played a high-school kendo enthusiast whose moral rectitude and love of yamato-damashii (the spirit of Japan) was so intense as to be comical. As a politician, he has made traditional values his platform. He supports testable "moral education" classes in schools and is against sex education and the so-called gender-free curricula.

These sorts of goals are difficult to realize as a member of an assembly, which is why Morita left his Diet seat to pursue the Chiba governorship. Like his hero, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, he wants to change Japan and believes he can only do so from an executive position, even if it's at the head of a prefectural government. It's no coincidence that he shares Ishihara's nationalist credo, but so do Hashimoto and Higashikokubaru. The difference is that they approach their jobs as servants of the people who elected them, not ideological crusaders.

Normally, after a politician wins office he thanks those who supported him and assures those who didn't that he will represent them, too. But, since his victory, Morita has been busy cultivating powerful people outside of Chiba in his own "friendly" way — gesturing a little too dramatically, laughing a little too loudly, touching a little too intimately. He has appeared on network variety shows and paid visits to Prime Minister Taro Aso (the head of the LDP, thus bolstering some people's suspicion that Morita's unaffiliated status was a temporary convenience) and Ishihara. He even tried to give Ishihara a hug, but the Tokyo governor managed to avoid full contact.

Eventually, Morita will have to address Chiba's financial problems, and it will be interesting to see what happens. If more hospitals and public services in the prefecture start shutting down, residents may wonder why their celebrity governor isn't as effective as Osaka's is. Morita's fame is what won him office, but as the extraterrestrial Jones discovered, popularity is fleeting.



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