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Friday, Nov. 28, 2003

WHEN VOTERS AREN'T A VESTED INTEREST

Ailing, apathetic Osaka plods to the polls


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Osaka goes to the polls this Sunday to elect a new mayor. But Satomi Ando, 43, who runs a small printing business in the Tenma district, could care less.

News photo
A candidate for the upcoming Osaka mayoral election delivers a speech in Chuo Ward.

"None of those running represents the people of Osaka. They just represent their parties or a few vested interests. So, why vote?" she asked.

Since 1951, all of Osaka's mayors have come from the ranks of city bureaucrats, and the voter turnout has dropped. In the 1999 mayoral election, which re-elected Takafumi Isomura for a second term, turnout was just around 35 percent.

Five candidates are vying for the office. They include such improbables as Hidezumi Kotani, a 25-year-old employee at a local Lawson's convenience store, and Hideyoshi Hashiba.

Hashiba's hobby seems to be entering and losing elections, as he has already run and lost in gubernatorial polls in Osaka, Tokyo and Nagano.

But three other candidates are considered serious contenders.

They include Chuzo Nakagawa, a former employee at Kajima Corp.; Takeru Watanabe, a former city bureaucrat who is now a university professor; and Junichi Seki, a former city bureaucrat who at one time was vice mayor under Isomura.

Seki is considered the front-runner, as he has the backing of Isomura, the local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party, Democratic Party of Japan, New Komeito and the Social Democratic Party, plus the unofficial support of the Kansai Economic Federation and the Osaka Chamber of Commerce.

Watanabe has the support of the Japanese Communist Party as well as a number of prominent citizen activists who opposed Isomura's policies.

And it is Isomura's policies, specifically pouring money into failed third-sector projects, which are jointly conducted by the public and private sectors, as well as social problems ranging from the homeless to petty crime, that are the main campaign issues.

"Osaka under Isomura has been a disaster. Total debts have climbed to over 5.5 trillion yen. Osaka's third-sector construction projects pushed by Isomura, notably the huge Asian Trade Center and World Trade Center buildings, are bankrupt, while the failed 2008 Olympic bid cost the city billions," Watanabe said.

Also, the unemployment rate is hovering as high as nearly 9 percent and more than 10,000 homeless people are living in Osaka, half of the nation's total, according to Watanabe, whose comments are echoed by Kotani and, to a lesser extent, Nakagawa.

Watanabe, Kotani and Nakagawa are all calling for a freeze on city funds for various third-sector projects, and for their re-evaluation.

"Those in City Hall responsible for the mess have to be identified, and they should be reassigned, have their salaries reduced, and even, if necessary, be subject to legal action for their gross incompetence," Nakagawa said.

"The city should get out of the construction business and turn the facilities over to private firms."

Seki, however, favors a more cautious approach. While admitting that Osaka's third-sector projects need to be reconsidered, he insists they can still benefit the city.

"A clear policy needs to be discussed and enacted, but we have to discuss how to turn these projects into effective assets for the city," he said.

Seki has made far more concrete statements regarding the Osaka economy and the homeless problem.

"The homeless problem is related to the flight of small and midsize businesses from Osaka," he said. "I want to create employment in new industries and strengthen the competitiveness of small and midsize firms with the aim of creating 50,000 new jobs by 2007.

"In the meantime, we need to establish a committee of private and public experts to deal with the homeless issue and formulate a long-term policy. We also need to expand the number of employees working at the current city-run support centers."

Despite Osaka's severe social and economic problems, there is worry that apathetic citizens will not go to the polls. An October editorial in the Osaka Nichi Nichi Shimbun noted that, although residents are proud of their city, the idea that they have to be active participants in the democratic process is still lacking.

Ando, the printing shop owner, agrees with that assessment, but still says it's unlikely she'll go to the polls.

"It appears Seki is going to win because he's so well organized. He's not the ideal candidate but I think the others would be worse, so I'll just leave the election to fate," she said.



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