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Friday, Aug. 23, 2002

Kobe activists hope to repay Tanaka by rallying behind his Nagano race

Staff writer

KOBE -- Kobe-based activists who had worked with former Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka as volunteers helping this city following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake are lending support to his re-election bid in the Sept. 1 gubernatorial race.

News photo
News photo
Yasuo Tanaka waves as he appeals for voter support during the ongoing campaign for the Sept. 1 Nagano gubernatorial race, while his main rival candidate, Keiko Hasegawa, approaches a passerby on the street.

The Kobe activists say the race for the governorship of relatively distant Nagano Prefecture is not just another local election, but a major test of whether Japan's democracy is functioning.

"If Tanaka wins, it will spell defeat for the anti-Tanaka forces, who are in the minority, and show that the will of the majority cannot be subverted," said Kenji Tojo, a campaigner against the controversial Kobe airport project.

"A Tanaka victory will send a clear message to other local governments that the days of management by the bureaucracy and special interests are over. But a loss may indicate to the rest of Japan, and the world, that Japanese democracy is not working," added Tadamoto Hiraga, of Hyogo Shimin Ombudsman, a citizens' watchdog group.

Since the Nagano Prefectural Assembly in mid-July passed a no-confidence motion against the popular Tanaka, a vocal foe of vested interests and costly, contentious public works projects, forcing him out of a job and paving the way for a new gubernatorial election, Tojo and Hiraga have worked with nearly 60 Kobe-based activists to lend direct and indirect support to Tanaka's campaign.

This is repayment, both men said, for Tanaka's volunteer efforts for Kobe since the January 1995 earthquake.

"After the quake, Tanaka came to Kobe and helped out where he could, from delivering relief supplies to helping organize various volunteer groups. Later, he joined our effort to stop the Kobe airport construction, using his own money to fund citizens' groups opposed to the project and making speeches on their behalf," Tojo said.

Hiraga added: "In the fall of 1998, nearly 350,000 people in Kobe, about one-third of the population, signed their names to a petition for a plebiscite (against the airport). The large response was due to Tanaka's efforts."

That November, the city refused to hold the plebiscite, and Kobe airport is currently under construction and due to be completed in 2005. Locals felt the costly airport, for which an island must be constructed, is not needed in Kobe as the city is served by nearby Osaka airport and the increasingly costly and controversial Kansai International Airport.

Tanaka continued to make regular visits to Kobe to work with nongovernmental organizations opposed to the airport, even after he became Nagano governor in October 2000.

In return, Kobe citizen group members traveled to Nagano in 2000, where they told the public about what had happened in Kobe after the quake and how they came together as volunteers to press the central and local governments for assistance, touching on the role played by Tanaka in the effort.

While Tojo said those who went to Nagano to speak of their experiences did not campaign door to door for Tanaka, out of fear that the local population would resent outside interference, some 60 Kobe activists traveled to the city of Nagano on the weekends and helped pass out campaign flyers to passersby during the 2000 campaign.

"For this election, we estimate that about 15 Kobe volunteers are going to Nagano on weekends and passing out flyers," Hiranaga said.

A spokesman for Tanaka said that assistance from Kobe volunteers was being received, but that they were not speaking publicly or campaigning on Tanaka's behalf.

Although Kobe activists agree with much of the criticism that Tanaka could have been more politically astute in handling opposition within the prefectural assembly to his plans to scrap two controversial dam projects, which many believe led to the no-confidence motion, they say it's more important to focus on the fundamental changes he has tried to make.

"Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi talks a lot about reform," Tojo said. "But Tanaka is actually trying to carry it out by scrapping unneeded public works projects, abolishing the local press club and reaching out to voters who have traditionally been ignored."

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The Japan Times

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