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Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Key gripes converge in Tokyo poll
Opposition hits Tsukiji move, Olympics, Shinginko
By MARIKO KATO
With the July 12 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election drawing near, opposition parties are beginning to attack the contentious policies endorsed by the bureaucracy and Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.
Among the hottest issues are the relocation of the Tsukiji fish market, the bid for the 2016 Olympics, and the cost of keeping ailing lender Shinginko Tokyo afloat.
The campaign is drawing close attention because it is expected to set the tone for the general election Prime Minister Aso must call by autumn — a pivotal race that could see the opposition wrest power from the Liberal Democratic Party.
With 70 seats, the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc, which backs the fiercely independent Ishihara, has a majority in the 127-seat assembly.
But the opposition, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, sees the LDP's increasingly weak standing with the public as a chance to create a favorable tail wind for the campaign.
Two opposition parties — the Japanese Communist Party and Tokyo Seikatsusha Network — are assailing the vast budgets dedicated to the contentious projects during the nation's worst recession since the war.
"During these financially unstable times, Tokyo should prioritize citizens' everyday lives, but this has not been done under Ishihara," Nobuo Yoshida, secretary general of the Tokyo JCP chapter, said at a June 24 discussion at Waseda University where representatives of all the parties in the assembly brought the issues to a head.
Aso and his LDP have been taking a beating in opinion polls since the resignation last month of internal affairs minister Kunio Hatoyama, the latest member of the Cabinet to leave. And the DPJ's resurgence since replacing scandal-tainted leader Ichiro Ozawa with Yukio Hatoyama has given the leading opposition party new momentum.
One of the world's largest metropolises, Tokyo is home to nearly 13 million people, or 10 percent of the national population, including about 395,000 foreigners, and runs on a budget of ¥6 trillion.
One of the local government's most publicly opposed plans is the relocation of the popular Tsukiji fish market from Chuo Ward to the highly toxic grounds of a former Tokyo Gas factory in Koto Ward in 2014. All the opposition parties are against the move.
"The safety of the new location has not been confirmed, and the Tsukiji brokers have not agreed. The DPJ opposes this aggressive move," the chief opposition party says in its platform, which puts priority on this issue.
Ishihara started pushing the idea of relocating the gigantic wholesale market when he took office in 1999, saying the current site is unhygienic, run-down and crowded. The metropolitan government estimates the total cost of the move, including the process of purifying the soil, will be ¥431.6 billion.
The move is strongly opposed by many in the fisheries industry, who are concerned about the safety of the food and its image.
"More than anything, it's about (food) safety and peace of mind," said Haruo Yamazaki, representative of the Association for a Study of Tsukiji Market, a group of 210 seafood brokers who oppose the relocation.
Yamazaki said he cannot buy the metropolitan government's promise to clean up the soil because it has repeatedly been dishonest about the site's safety, recalling how it only investigated the toxic waste in 2007, six years after the contamination was first discovered. Reports of the exact degree of contamination have since varied.
"They're also refusing to make public what equipment will be used (to purify the soil), claiming that because the latest technology will be used, it must be kept secret. We've asked specialists and they think it's impossible to completely rid the soil of toxins," he said, adding he will be voting for the DPJ.
Another bone of contention is Tokyo's 2016 Olympic bid, at least for the JCP, the party with the fourth-largest number of seats in the assembly.
The JCP, which calls itself the only real opposition party because the others have recently tended to side with Ishihara's policies, insists the ¥400 billion budget for the games could be better spent elsewhere, especially on welfare.
The Olympic bid has received lukewarm support from residents. An opinion poll commissioned by the International Olympic Committee in February showed that only 56 percent of the public wants to host the games — the lowest figure of any of the four candidate cities, although surveys by the bid committee show figures as high as 80 percent.
Takashi Inoue, secretary general of the Tokyo division of the New Japan Sports Federation, a national organization of local amateur sports clubs, said the city has drastically neglected sports in recent years, and its promise of brightening Tokyo's future by hosting the Summer Games is hypocritical.
"Since Gov. Ishihara came into office, the budget for sports has been cut by nearly 70 percent, management of facilities has suffered, and user fees have doubled," he said, promising to vote for the JCP.
The DPJ meanwhile does not oppose the Olympic bid, according to Ryo Tanaka, secretary general of the party's Tokyo branch. Although the DPJ voiced concerns earlier this year about the cost of building a main stadium big enough to seat 100,000 fans, it retreated after being criticized by Ishihara, chairman of the bid committee, for opposing the venture at a late stage.
According to the city, hosting the Olympics could give the economy a ¥2.94 trillion boost. Tokyo's pitch highlights the capital's compactness and environmental steps. Most of the venues would be within an 8-km radius, and the city is promising to double the number of trees in the city to 1 million.
The issue on which all the opposition parties are united in condemning Ishihara is the establishment of Shinginko Tokyo, his pet project.
The bank, set up in 2004 to support small and medium-size companies, lost more than ¥100 billion in its first three years. Even though the city injected a further ¥40 billion for recapitalization, Shinginko Tokyo posted a net loss of ¥10.5 billion for the year ended in March.
The DPJ initially supported the establishment of the bank, but it is now demanding the city swiftly divest itself from the bank, a stance backed by the JCP and Tokyo Seikatsusha Network, which champions the improvement of local living conditions.
Yoshio Nakajima, secretary general of New Komeito in Tokyo, indicated his party is torn by the unpopular issue.
Tanaka of the DPJ pointed out that an external report published earlier this year revealed that in 2005 an executive admitted the bank was in such bad shape that it should not lend any more money.
"A bank must issue loans because that's how it makes profit, but (Shinginko Tokyo) was in this condition after just a year. So why was the problem not dealt with then? This is symbolic of the Ishihara administration," Tanaka said.
Zenji Nojima, deputy chairman of the Tokyo LDP's policy research council, said he didn't intend to defend his party's position on Shinginko Tokyo, Tsukiji or the Olympics during the discussion.
But he applauded Ishihara's "strong one-issue policies," and stressed that the LDP will be a "responsible power" if it prevails.
"It is easy to say 'We want to do this, we want to do that,' but you have to secure the financial resources, and the LDP is a party that can take on that responsibility," Nojima said.
In the meantime, policies that are being endorsed by all parties include steps to address unemployment, improve child care and medical care, and deal with the aging population.
For example, the DPJ is pledging to double the number of jobs the city is trying to create for laid-off workers, while the LDP plans to strengthen financial support for the jobless. To encourage families to have more children, both the LDP and DPJ promise to increase the childbirth allowance. The JCP wants to introduce more subsidies for the elderly.
All parties plan to increase the number of child care centers to reduce swelling waiting lists, and address the severe shortage of doctors in perinatal care centers that is forcing many hospitals to turn away pregnant women.
To sway Tokyo's 10.58 million registered voters, the JCP is differentiating itself with promises to reduce class sizes and scrap the contentious law that forces public school teachers to sing the national anthem during school ceremonies.
The last Tokyo election in 2005 drew only 44 percent turnout, compared with 66 percent for the general election the same year.
Masayasu Kitagawa, a former Mie Prefecture governor and now a Waseda professor who coordinated the discussion, said he was particularly concerned by the apathy exhibited by voters in their 20s, who had a turnout rate of barely over 20 percent.
"They say that it's difficult to know where to vote, they don't have opportunities to meet assembly members and didn't really learn about democracy and elections in junior high school or high school," Kitagawa said.