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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

UPPER HOUSE SHOWDOWN

Shimane voters: Has Tokyo helped us?

Ruling bloc reforms seen lining deep, absentee pockets, not rural coffers


Staff writer

MATSUE, Shimane Pref. — National polls may show that voter outrage over the pension records fiasco is the primary issue in Sunday's Upper House election.

Upper House candidate Shuntaro Kageyama
Upper House candidate Akiko Kamei
Upper House candidates Shuntaro Kageyama (top) from the Liberal Democratic Party and opposition challenger Akiko Kamei make campaign stops in Shimane Prefecture last week. PHOTO COURTESY OF TATSUO NAKAYAMA/ERIC JOHNSTON PHOTO

Shimane Prefecture voters share this anger, but they are also expected to cast judgment on whether the economic reforms pushed by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and continued by Shinzo Abe have made life better for those living in the countryside.

Three candidates are running for one Shimane district seat. Incumbent Shuntaro Kageyama of the Liberal Democratic Party and Akiko Kamei, running as a Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) candidate with the support of the Democratic Party of Japan, are in a close race, while Katsuhiko Goto of the Japanese Communist Party is considered a long shot.

Rural Shimane, with its strong, traditional farm lobby support, has long been an LDP bastion. The late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita was from the region and ex-Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki, who served as acting prime minister briefly in 2000 when Keizo Obuchi lapsed into a coma, is one of the most powerful members of the Upper House.

But after Koizumi became prime minister in 2001, disenchantment emerged in Shimane over his urban-based reform agenda. Many people bitterly opposed his postal privatization bills, siding with LDP politicians who rebelled against him and were booted from the party when he called the September 2005 general election.

There was great personal sympathy for politicians like one-time LDP powerhouse Shizuka Kamei from neighboring Hiroshima Prefecture, one of the "postal rebels" ousted from the party. Kamei went on to form Kokumin Shinto, prevailing in that year's election against Internet upstart Takafumi Horie, an independent running with Koizumi's tacit support.

Until a couple of months ago, Aoki, Kageyama and prefectural LDP officials expected little in the way of serious opposition from Kokumin Shinto in the Upper House election, confident Kageyama would win easily.

But in June, the 42-year-old Kamei, the oldest daughter of Lower House Kokumin Shinto member Hisaoki Kamei, announced she was running on the Kokumin Shinto ticket. She subsequently gained the support of the DPJ and its leader, Ichiro Ozawa, who is popular with both younger voters and owners of small businesses in the Shimane cities of Matsue and Izumo.

Suddenly, local media began reporting that Kageyama was no longer a shoo-in.

"This has turned into a very tight race, tighter than we thought it would be," admitted Tetsuo Nakayama, a senior member of Kageyama's campaign team.

"Originally, Kageyama planned to be in Tokyo on Diet business and to do more campaigning on behalf of other LDP candidates in other prefectures. However, those plans have changed and he'll be in Shimane until election day," Nakayama said.

Aware that many voters dislike and distrust Abe, Kageyama has attempted to distance himself from the prime minister, instead emphasizing his experience and connections in Tokyo to ensure continued funding for local agricultural and industrial revitalization projects, and social welfare assistance for the elderly.

Taking care of Shimane's elderly is a major campaign pledge of all candidates. A survey conducted by the prefecture last October showed Shimane had the highest percentage of elderly in Japan. Nearly 28 percent of its 737,000 residents were over 65. Nationally, about 21 percent of the population is over 65.

Kageyama has also attempted to distance himself from Abe in other areas, including constitutional reform.

"His attitude is that it's something that can wait. He identifies more with the dovish factions of the LDP," Nakayama said.

While Kageyama attempts to keep voters in the LDP camp by reminding them the party is not all about Abe and that only the LDP can meet the social and economic challenges that lie ahead, Kamei asks them if they can afford to continue supporting LDP policies that line the pockets of Tokyo and not Shimane.

"Have the economic reforms enacted by the Koizumi and Abe governments really benefited Shimane? These reforms have meant that huge, Tokyo-based department stores and supermarkets have come into the prefecture, driving small shops into bankruptcy and sending the profits back to Tokyo, not to the people of Shimane," Kamei said in a campaign speech Saturday.

Kamei's message has hit home with younger voters and those tired of ruling bloc promises that the local economy will improve via deregulation efforts. That Kamei is a well-traveled, fluent English speaker who worked for many years as an interpreter also appeals to many local voters.

"She's got a lot of contacts all over the world. I think her international experience will appeal to a lot of voters — not just female voters but also those who appreciate that she can represent Shimane both in the Diet and abroad," said Makiko Ishida, a resident of Matsue who attended one of her rallies Saturday.

One international issue of interest to Shimane is the territorial dispute over the cluster of South Korea-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea. In March 2005, the prefecture designated Feb. 22 "Takeshima Day," marking the centennial of it declaring the islets part of Shimane in 1905. This drew harsh criticism from Seoul. However, both Nakayama and Kamei say the issue is not big with Shimane voters in this election.

And although Kamei supports Kokumin Shinto's overall platform, she doubts the wisdom of her party drafting disgraced former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to run in the nationwide proportional representation segment.

Fujimori, under house arrest in Chile, is awaiting that country's Supreme Court decision on whether he should be extradited to Peru to face charges of corruption and human rights abuses, including sanctioning death squads.

Asked what a Fujimori victory might mean for Japan's relations with Peru and other Latin American nations, she only said his candidacy is a complicated issue and not everybody in the party believes fielding him was a good idea.

In the end, Kageyama and Kamei are betting the election will be won or lost on who the voters trust more to revive the local economy and to ensure their future social welfare needs are adequately met — needs that will continue long after the pension debacle fades.



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