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Sunday, Jan. 18, 2004

Osaka's governor candidates target bureaucracy, economy

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Candidates for the Feb. 1 Osaka gubernatorial election, who began their campaigns Thursday, are focusing on reducing bureaucratic waste and promoting economic revitalization, plans long supported by local business organizations.

But they offer no detailed solutions to specific problems, such as the future of Kansai International Airport.

The incumbent, Gov. Fusae Ohta, is being challenged by four contenders, of whom former Hanshin Tigers pitcher and Diet member Takenori Emoto is considered her most serious rival.

Ohta, speaking in light rain Thursday to about 4,000 people in front of Osaka city hall, said the election would be the voters' chance to judge her economic policies over the past four years and her ability to carry out further reforms.

One area of reform that she has concentrated on is the prefecture's bureaucracy.

"Over the past two years, we have reduced the number of prefectural government employees by 580, and eventually aim for a 20 percent cut in staff, which would trim 3,000 workers," Ohta said in December as she announced her campaign strategy.

She also publicly pledged to create an additional 120,000 local jobs, primarily through investment in sectors such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, a strategy which has long been promoted by the Kansai Economic Federation.

Ohta has the backing of the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito, the Democratic Party of Japan and the Social Democratic Party, as well as all the major Kansai business and industrial associations.

Although she announced last autumn that she would not seek official party support, she changed her mind when Emoto entered the race.

Emoto, a former Hanshin Tigers player and Upper House member with the opposition DPJ, is considered her main rival. He says Ohta's calls for reform are too little, too late, and that she lacks the leadership to carry through with the really tough economic reforms that are needed.

"The prefecture is currently more than 4.7 trillion yen in debt and this is not just, as Ohta implies, due to the drop in corporate tax revenues," Emoto said. "It's also because Ohta and her predecessors did not properly deal with wasteful third-sector projects that are bleeding red. Cutting these wasteful projects is where I would begin reform."

Emoto does not have the support of his own party, which chose to go with Ohta, but he says that does not matter because other governors, notably Nagano's Yasuo Tanaka, won with the backing of local citizens' groups and independent voters.

"Osaka has many voters who are not party-affiliated. Former governor 'Knock' Yokoyama won with their support, and those are the people who will decide the election," he said.

While both Ohta and Emoto have emphasized the importance of economic revitalization, their speeches and public manifestos are more vague when it comes to how they would accomplish their goals.

And neither candidate has offered a solution to or publicly spoken in detail about what many, especially in Kansai's foreign business community, believe is the most serious economic revitalization issue of all -- the future of Kansai International Airport.

The airport celebrates its 10th anniversary in September, but the past decade has been fraught with problems.

With among the highest landing fees for aircraft in the world, complaints about poor service and the sluggish regional economy, there has been a huge drop in the number of airlines using the airport.

Flights to Canada and the United States, in particular, have been reduced to the point where Tokyo's Narita airport now has nearly 10 times the number of daily flights to North America.

With a controversial second runway scheduled to open in 2007, two years after Chubu International Airport in Nagoya is expected to open, Osaka Prefecture, which has the largest share of local government investment in Kansai International, faces both additional financial burdens and additional competition for regional investment.

Ohta's policy has been to support the construction of the second runway and call for other prefectures, as well as the central government, to share more of the financial burden. Emoto simply says that a closer study of the problems involved is necessary.

"It's possible that Kansai International could cut its fees, but the issue is complex and, to be frank, I haven't studied it very closely yet," he said.

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The Japan Times

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