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Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007

'DOWA' SCAMS, FAILED PROJECTS UNLIKELY TO SWAY VOTERS

Osaka mayor expected to prevail despite policy, financial snafus


Staff writer

OSAKA — Osaka Mayor Junichi Seki is expected to be re-elected when voters go to the polls Nov. 18, despite public anger over the city's problematic assimilation assistance policy for descendants of the feudal outcast class, failing public works projects and a lack of appeal among his peers, even in the ruling bloc.

News photo
Osaka Mayor Junichi Seki earlier this month announces his bid at City Hall for another term. Despite all his problems, he is seen as a safe pick in the Nov. 18 election. KYODO PHOTO

The election currently pits Seki against Osaka City University professor Nobuya Hashizume, running as an independent, and former Japanese Communist Party municipal assembly member Kiyoshi Himeno, who is running with the JCP's support.

After months of negotiations, the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc was expected to endorse Seki by Nov. 4, when the campaign begins. Both parties have supported him in past elections.

In early September, however, after the Osaka-hosted International Association of Athletics Federations games failed to draw as many spectators as forecast, some in the local LDP questioned Seki's leadership abilities.

The mayor's age, 72, is also a concern among those in the ruling parties who would prefer someone younger.

But with no clear alternative to Seki and concerns that the Democratic Party of Japan might front a strong candidate, LDP and New Komeito officials closed ranks around Seki.

The DPJ said earlier this week it probably won't field it's own candidate, but the party was in talks with Hashizume about offering support.

However, political and local media watchers alike agreed that Seki would be the clear front-runner in the campaign.

Even if Seki wins, he is likely to continue to face a rough time on several fronts, notably questions over the city's "dowa" assimilation assistance policy designed to help the "buraku" (former outcast) community.

The May 2006 arrest of ex-mobster Kunihiko Konishi, a senior leader of Osaka's buraku community, over a municipal-related scam led to months of revelations about three decades of corrupt business practices between his buraku groups and the city.

Public anger forced the city to re-evaluate its dowa policy late last year, and led to the cancellation of 24 city-funded dowa projects. The JCP's Himeno is hoping to capitalize on that lingering anger.

"Osaka's dowa policy is chaotic and disorganized. During my 30 years as a city councilman, I fought against the corrupt relationship between Konishi and the city," Himeno told supporters in late September.

If elected, Himeno has promised he will make available to all Osaka citizens empty public housing units that were built under a city-funded dowa project specifically for members of the buraku community.

The city's tax base has also become an issue. Over the past 20 years, it has shrunk as many Osaka-based businesses have fled for Tokyo or overseas, even as the previous mayor and city councils authorized expensive public works projects that have left municipal finances, which were in the black in the 1980s, deeply in the red.

Seki has attempted to reverse the "spend and build" mentality of the 1990s, with some success. But huge infrastructure projects like the Asia Trade Center and World Trade Center have drained Osaka's finances, leaving area businesses concerned that further tax hikes might be necessary.

In his platform released late last week, Seki promised to privatize a number of city services, including the bus system. As for the failing WTC and ATC projects, the mayor has said he will explore ways to reduce the financial risk to the city, but stopped short of calls in some quarters to sell off both buildings to private investors.

"Osaka desperately needs inward investment in order to rebuild its tax base. But it first needs to convince businesses that if they come to Osaka, the city will spend their corporate taxes wisely," said Yuji Yoshitomi, a local freelance journalist and author of a book on Osaka's finances.

"Nobody wants to invest in a city that's known nationwide as a paradise for bureaucrats or for failed municipal projects," he added.

Among the city's international residents, Seki has won applause for his efforts to open up Osaka more to the outside world. The Osaka Foreign Business Networking Club, which consists of area foreign and Osaka business and political leaders, was started under Seki, and he regularly attends meetings.

And, angered at recent overseas travel guides that portray Osaka as a sleazy, run-down, yakuza-infested town, Seki authorized establishment of a municipal committee to work on sprucing up the city's overseas image.

How Seki and Osaka are viewed overseas is hardly an issue of major concern for most voters. However, next summer, Osaka will host the Group of Eight finance ministers' summit, and there is a feeling among local ruling party leaders that things will go smoother for Osaka if Seki is in charge.

"A new mayor, especially one who doesn't have the backing of the ruling parties, will mean strained relations between the municipal and central governments over a host of summit-related logistic issues," said one city official involved with summit planning.



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