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Thursday, April 5, 2007


Kansai voters face mix of environment, social issues

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Public works projects, local environmental issues and what to do about support for the "buraku" community and the homeless are the main issues Kansai voters are expected to weigh in three key elections Sunday.

In Shiga Prefecture, the election for prefectural assembly seats is seen as a contest between Gov. Yukiko Kada, an independent populist elected last July with the support of environmental and human rights groups, and the Liberal Democratic Party, which controls the assembly with 28 of the 47 seats.

Kada was elected largely by promising to halt construction of a new bullet train station near the town of Ritto, about halfway between Maihara in northern Shiga and Kyoto. The station, which had been due to open in 2012, was strongly backed by Kada's predecessor, Yoshitsugu Kumimatsu, as well as the LDP. With Kada's election, its future is now uncertain.

"The only way the governor can realize her goals is to have a majority in the assembly that will help carry out her plans," Shozo Terakawa, who heads Kada's support group, said at a rally in Otsu last week.

Terakawa's group is fielding 19 candidates for the assembly, including 14 first-timers who have promised to support Kada. The group hopes at least a dozen of their candidates win, leading to a possible simple majority if they cooperate with the Democratic Party of Japan, which holds 12 seats and has indicated it may be willing to oppose the station.

In neighboring Kyoto Prefecture, 97 candidates are vying for 62 seats in the prefectural assembly and 91 candidates are competing for 69 seats in the municipal assembly.

No single issue has galvanized voters like the bullet train station controversy in Shiga Prefecture. However, the Kyoto elections will partially be a plebiscite on local environmental policies enacted over the past few years, as this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases.

These policies include stricter measures by the city and the prefecture to reduce air pollution through the promotion of city vehicles that run on biofuel, reducing urban blight with new height requirements on buildings and constructing rooftop gardens.

"The rooftop garden ordinance, which went into affect last Sunday, is designed to combat the heat island effect by requiring all buildings occupying an area of at least 1,000 sq. meters to set aside 20 percent or more of their rooftops for gardens or a green zone," said prefectural assemblyman Hiroshi Mizoguchi, who led the initiative.

These measures have the broad the support of most Kyoto residents. But environmental activists hope the elections will result in quicker action by politicians on other measures they've been pushing for years, including banning automobiles in the city center and passing ordinances to create more green spaces at ground level as opposed to rooftops.

"Kyoto politicians may be proud of the recent ordinances they've passed. But when I see what other municipal leaders around the world are doing in terms of passing ordinances to promote greener cities, I realize much work still needs to be done," Satomi Nagai, a Kyoto Prefecture-based environmental activist, said at the conclusion of an international mayors conference on climate change in February in Kyoto.

In Osaka, two hot issues will likely determine the elections for the city and prefectural assemblies.

The first issue is the city's "dowa" policy on official assistance in the form of public works' projects for buraku people, or descendants of Japan's feudal outcast class. Over the past year, following the arrest of a senior member of the Buraku Liberation League on embezzlement charges, multiple dowa-related scandals have come to light, exposing the corrupt side of a three-decade cozy relationship between senior ruling party politicians, municipal bureaucrats and the league's members.

Politicians as well as local media have raised questions about the need for some dowa projects, including human rights centers and community halls, that the city has funded.

Traditionally, discussion of dowa policy was considered all but taboo. With the exception of the Japanese Communist Party, which has long said Osaka's dowa policy is corrupt and actually promotes discrimination by singling out a specific group for funding, criticism from politicians at election time was rarely heard, and the media remained silent.

For this election, however, the ruling and opposition parties are speaking out loudly about the advantages and disadvantages of the dowa policy and the media are giving the issue more space than ever.

The opposition parties, led by the JCP, are telling voters the policy invites further corruption and that a comprehensive human rights policy covering a broad range of minorities is needed.

Ruling party politicians who support a dowa policy point to the reforms enacted over the past few months and say there is still discrimination toward the buraku community, and thus the need for such a policy remains.

Another hot topic that recently came to light in Osaka is what to do about the residency registration of homeless people.

In early March, city officials were stunned when a homeless man who was registered as living in a private shelter won his court case against Osaka. The city wanted to invalidate the residency registrations of the man and more than 2,000 other homeless who registered their addresses at three private welfare centers where they didn't live, an arrangement the city claimed was illegal.

The court decision forced Osaka to postpone its plans and set off a monthlong struggle between officials and the homeless, culminating in a tense meeting last week after the city announced it was invalidating the residencies.

Both activists and city officials admit the number of homeless who normally vote is very small. However, activists now say that a court case against the city for striking the registrations and possibly denying the homeless the right to vote is all but inevitable.

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The Japan Times

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