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Thursday, May 13, 2010
Parties pin poll hopes on sports star power
By ALEX MARTIN
The summer Upper House election is looking increasingly like an athletic competition as both ruling and opposition parties field sports stars to woo independent voters.
But it remains to be seen whether such efforts will translate into ballot-box success, and whether the ruling Democratic Party of Japan can use celebrity candidates to burnish its tarnished image with some glamour.
"Fielding well-known public figures has an obvious advantage for political parties in luring independent voters who don't support a particular party, and who are relatively prone to be attracted to a candidate's name value and public image," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
The DPJ, suffering from low approval ratings due to its string of money scandals and the impasse over where to relocate the U.S. Futenma air base in Okinawa, will be fielding three Olympic medalists on its ticket.
Judo superstar Ryoko Tani and former gymnast Yukio Ikenati will be running in the proportional representation segment of the election, while professional cyclist Tomohiro Nagatsuka will be seeking the Diet seat from the Ibaraki district.
During the news conference Monday when Tani officially announced her candidacy, DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa expressed hope that voters will get behind the two-time Olympic gold medalist.
"I don't think I need to explain who she is," a beaming Ozawa told a room packed with reporters and television crews.
"We are incredibly heartened by her decision to run as our party's official candidate, and would like to ask the public for its wide support," he said.
Despite the grousing by some over Tani's intention to pursue her judo career — the 34-year-old judoka vowed to bring home another gold medal from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London — her national celebrity status virtually guarantees her a seat in the Upper House.
"When there isn't much for the administration to look forward to, fielding a national figure like Tani and holding a news conference with her will definitely lift the party's image," Sophia's Nakano said, adding, however, that some might see Tani's candidacy for the increasingly unpopular DPJ as damaging her image.
The Liberal Democratic Party in turn has turned to professional baseball for its dose of celebrity glitz.
Former Tokyo Yomiuri Giants manager Tsuneo Horiuchi will be fielded as a proportional representation candidate, and former Kintetsu Buffaloes and Yomiuri Giants player Hiroo Ishii will be running in the Akita district.
The recently launched Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan) — formed by LDP defectors, including two former Cabinet ministers — has announced it intends to put former Yomiuri slugger Kiyoshi Nakahata on its proportional representation list.
From the world of professional wrestling, Osamu Nishimura, 38, will be running as a proportional representation candidate for DPJ coalition partner Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party).
Nakano said fielding sports stars and other notable public figures has been a fixture in Upper House races, which have traditionally been geared toward electing a wide variety of experts of various backgrounds from the public.
Many well-known public figures from the sports arena and elsewhere are currently in the Upper House, including former speed skater and Olympic bronze medalist Seiko Hashimoto and Olympic Nordic combined skier Kenji Ogiwara, both LDP members.