Swapping the sushi for spin: Local Politics in Nagoya
Added In: Articles › Life in Japan
Ruairidh J. F. Villar
“I’m new candidate Kentaro Hibi! 26 Years Old! Please vote for me! Yoroshiku onegai shimaaaaaaasu!” Fresh-faced young Hibi, a candidate for the Nagoya City Council elections, was leaping around with his usual energy the morning I joined him for some pamphleteering in the run-up to April’s local elections. A low bow and his triple-barrelled greeting met every sleep-dazed salary-man rushing for the morning commuter train, whilst I leapt out from the dawn shadows to push promotional leaflets into unsuspecting hands. “Yoroshiku onegai shimaaaaaaasu!” I got into the spirit and followed Hibi’s shrill battle cry.
However storm-trooper its approach may be, persistent grassroots electioneering pays off in Japan. When the results came in on Sunday 8th April, Kentaro Hibi — a young newcomer in his constituency of Meito, with a skeleton campaign staff and outside chances—romped home with a landslide share of the vote. Inexperienced, policies that appeared unclear and a variable public-speaking ability, all the odds were against him. But, morning-to-evening street campaigning—gaito in Japanese—and frequent outings on campaign bicycles clearly endeared Hibi to the electorate To the chagrin of the veteran councillors in the constituency, it handed him a resounding victory. Being seen battling alone against the odds at 11 o’clock at night outside a station, to ‘ganbaru’, it seems, matters more than paper qualifications or greying-hair legitimacy. Quite unnoticed, traditional politicking has gone and died; or is at least in the process of gasping its last few breaths.
In this election it was clear that many people—especially the growing number of non-aligned voters—were choosing candidates, as one woman interviewed outside a local station put it, “based on image and effort”.
Traditionally, fifty-or-sixty-something candidates would build up a merry band of pensioners to staff and recruit a koenkai, a personal support group. Trade Unions would then be wooed and many, many boring speeches would ensue. However, in this particular corner of Nagoya this time round, the normal style of campaigning was a spectacular flop.
It was the same in next-door Moriyama Ward. Just as in Hibi’s district of Meito, the story was about self-promotion and tireless, visible effort. Toshiyuki Ogawa (31), another young wannabe councillor with Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) backing, was pursuing a campaign-style that skirted around policy proposals and traditional electioneering. Clad in sports gear, Ogawa was often found racing around the district displaying youthful energy in bouts of frenetic handshaking. One Sunday afternoon I joined the Ogawa ‘Rinrin-Tai’—a group of five bicycles fixed-up with Ogawa flags—for a spot of campaigning.
Passers-by could not get enough of our little bicycle team. Cars honked as they sped past, waving hands greeted us at every crossing, and on one occasion, a group of incredibly attractive girls began flirting outrageously from the open window of a moving truck. And following us all the way was the crowning gem in Ogawa’s unique campaign strategy—the cherry-blossom gaisensha.
The gaisensha, or campaign truck, is a regular fixture in Japanese election campaigning. If you have spent any at all in Japan during election season you will doubtless have encountered one. Large white minibuses, emblazoned with the candidate’s name drive around and around the constituency while a woman seated inside repeats a set message through a loudspeaker attached to the roof. But as with all things in Ogawa’s campaign, there was a twist: from the megaphones hooked up to the roof of the van streamed the dulcet tones of a famous Japanese folk song, ‘Spring Ogawa’, and plastered all over the car were pictures of cherry blossoms. Everywhere we went, people came out of their homes to see what was going on; children heard the tinkling melody and ran out expecting something exciting. Unfortunately, we only had politics to offer, but it at least got us some smiles.
After six hours of pedalling in the weekend sun, we were toned, bronzed and exhausted, but we had circled the electoral district and no area had been left un-cycled. Individual contact with voters sapped both time and energy, but for Ogawa it was a winning strategy that gave him first place when the results trickled in.
In the past traditional campaigning was much more fun. Until relatively recently the smell of fresh sushi wafted through campaign offices, and gallons of sake would sit in the corner to encourage supporters to rally to the cause—amongst other examples of brazen bribery. But, legal standards have evolved, and politicians can now do little more than offer a cup of tea and a biscuit under the current tight electoral legislation. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the electorate finds the dry vestiges of this golden age of local electioneering frankly dull. Now the age of sushi-politics is gone, it appears a bit of originality and pluck is the way to rack up the votes. The ‘nail that sticks up’ is always supposed to be hammered down in alleged consensus-orientated Japan, but this election was an example of the exact reverse—it was the protruding nails that were chosen by the electorate.
Yasuo Kamakura (49), one of the numerous traditional politicians in Moriyama Ward expected to quash Ogawa Toshiyuki, was the darling of the local Trade Unions and had a koenkai so large that many people suspected a solid victory was a forgone conclusion. Yet on the day, although Kamakura was eventually elected as one of Moriyama’s six Councillors, his votes were nearly half of Ogawa’s. No sushi and no cherry-blossom bus—Kamakura had nothing to offer in an election where experience mattered not at all.
And yet, despite this new youthful fervour racing around the election, on the whole Nagoyans were not particularly inspired by the political process; nearly three-fifths of people stayed home. An injection of young politicians—fresh men and women with the energy to resist the inane routine of traditional Japanese politics—may be a promising sign for the future, and could be the catalyst for a bit more electoral enthusiasm, but it has yet to register with the wider populace.
At the very least it has made the old guard sit up and take notice. The electoral process is becoming increasingly open to outside chances and first-time candidates. David can take on Goliath; the underdog, with a bit of daring, can launch an assault on the status quo. Exciting tremors are rippling through the Japanese political landscape in the run-up to this summer’s Upper House elections; expect some interesting upheavals in the months and years ahead.
Ruairidh Villar, a student of Oriental Studies at Cambridge University in the UK, is currently an International Intern in the Office of Motohisa Furukawa, Member of the House of Representatives for 2nd Ward, Aichi Prefecture. Ruairidh is conducting research into Japanese local politics, focusing on Nagoya’s April local elections.