Nagano: Japan’s First Citizens’ Revolution

Nagano Prefecture, a few hours by bullet train northwest of Tokyo on Japan’s main island, is famed for its rugged mountains and was the site of the 2000 winter Olympics. On 1 September 2002 the Nagano Prefecture gubernatorial election attracted nationwide attention over its significance for the very nature of Japan’s political structure and its “construction state” system. The race was between the previous governor, Tanaka Yasuo (46, independent) and five other candidates (all independent), including lawyer Hasegawa Keiko, 50, who had the support of the anti-Tanaka prefectural assembly and municipal mayors. Several months earlier, the Liberal Democratic Party-dominated Nagano prefectural assembly passed a no-confidence motion on Governor Tanaka. Tanaka had conflicted with the assembly on numerous occasions, particularly over his “no-dam” policy and attempts to confront Japan’s construction and bureaucracy oligarchy. Before Tanaka’s election in the fall of 2000, Nagano Prefecture had long been dominated by bureaucracy-led politics and strong construction lobby groups. Tanaka, and the election of 1 September, challenged this conventional style of politics to its core. The election race and Tanaka’s landslide victory are reported in detail here by Japanese journalist Hoyano Hatsuko.

[From Shukan Kinyobi, 6 Sept. 2002]

It was 7 o’clock in the evening of August 31, and the next day voters in Nagano Prefecture would go to the polls to elect their governor. When candidate Tanaka Yasuo’s car drew up to the square in downtown Matsumoto, loud cheers and applause rose from the waiting crowd. Tanaka, sunburned and dressed in a beige suit, stepped onto the platform of beer cases and turned to the pressing throng to begin his final speech of the campaign.
Looking around at the crowd, men and women of every age group, I saw faces beaming with such deep satisfaction that I couldn’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe, the first real citizen’s revolution in Japan was underway here.

No going back

To each of the concrete policy proposals that candidate Tanaka put before them the crowd responded with cheering and applause. They knew the issues well, issues like putting an end to decision making behind closed doors, the problem of prefecture assembly members’ costly junkets, gains made under Tanaka’s governorship in social services and forestland management, and opening up public works projects to participation by local companies.
Before the candidate’s arrival I had spoken to Hanba Shigeyoshi, a 76-year-old man who had come on the express train from the town of Kisofukushima in the southwestern part of the Prefecture just to hear this speech.

“Tanaka-san made himself available to groups like mine, people with family members who are mentally handicapped. He invited us to the prefectural office three or four times and listened sympathetically to what we had to say. And he’s been to my part of the Prefecture five times to hear directly from the people about their concerns. He’s putting money into our forests too. He’s strikes you as a cute, earnest, kid.”

The day before, the 30th, candidate Tanaka had gone to speak before all of twenty people in a small village in Usuda Town, in the Saku region near Gumma Prefecture in the south. From there he went to a northern part of the Prefecture that borders on Niigata for an evening rally, heading back south from Akiyamago the next day.

After his ouster from office, Tanaka started his comeback in Tenryumura, a village in the south bordering Shizuoka Prefecture. Seeking out isolated mountain communities like this, areas that had never seen a visit by a governor, was by now a Tanaka trademark. And the “small support” generated through this attention to minorities had steadily added up.
Now as the hands of the clock approached 8 PM, the close of the campaign, candidate Tanaka wound up his speech with a call. “Let us vote so that Nagano Prefecture does not go back into the darkness of the night! Let us vote so that tomorrow becomes a day that will give courage and hope to the whole country!” The crowd exploded in exuberant cries.
A “spontaneous mass” campaign

“Going step-by-step, being simple.”

That’s how Chino Shunko, Tanaka’s campaign manager and coordinator of Shinayakakai, his supporters’ group, describes the campaign style. “It’s an irregular election in which people are essentially being asked to state, one-by-one, whether they agree or not with the Prefecture assembly’s no-confidence vote, and prefecture folks who want to take part in our campaign do so as individuals.”
If what had led up to this Nagano Prefecture gubernatorial election was totally unprecedented, so too was this campaign. Like Tanaka’s first campaign it was run by what is referred to as a “volunteer’s coalition (katteren)”, but otherwise the race was quite different this time around. Unlike the previous time, when big-name Tanaka supporters poured in from far and wide, this time all offers of help from outside the Prefecture were turned down. It was a campaign by the candidate and volunteers alone, and there were practically no endorsers’ speeches. Tanaka had learned from the criticism leveled at him of inviting in famous people to get publicity.

The labor union federation, Rengo Nagano, which had supported Tanaka in the previous election, switched over to the opposing candidate, Hasegawa Keiko, so this time it was up to volunteers to do all the leg work, phone calls, and other tasks that the unionists had organized before. In fact, other than a statement of support from the Communist Party, this turned out to be an election run without any organizational support at all. In the beginning supporters had doubts about whether they could wage a campaign “without money and organization,” but as it turned out, the handful of paid staff were soon augmented by an estimated two to three thousand volunteers around the Prefecture. There was a campaign office in Nagano City and another in Matsumoto, but elsewhere the volunteer coalitions and individuals took things in hand.

What was the candidate’s schedule? Nobody knew whom to ask. It wasn’t decided until two days ahead, and then, was often changed. But, for instance, a day or two after the start of the campaign, virtually all of the posters were up on the designated boards throughout the Prefecture. People had gone on their own initiative to the campaign office to pick them up, had posted them themselves or gotten others to put them up. Local volunteer groups made the arrangements in their own areas for mini rallies and stop-off points for the candidate. And when the candidate’s car pulled into the parking lot of a super market or factory, there would be a hundred or so people gathered in no time. Rallies in the cities drew one or two thousand, and the numbers swelled as time went on.

It is hard to put a label on this unique campaign. The previous campaign, though katteren-run, had had the help of the labor union “pros”. And although a volunteer’s coalition had been the core this time too, the people around this katteren, and the many other individuals that got involved, were all acting so spontaneously that you could not have said that they were part of the katteren itself. It was rather as if a spontaneous “katte mass” had been born. The voters seemed to have said to themselves, “I may be only one person, but I’m going to do something,” and they moved.

Hasegawa camp…”an anachronism”

Tanaka’s opponent, Hasegawa, promoted as a “citizens’ candidate” supported by “a group of women”, was soon favored with the support, “as individuals,” of the majority faction in the Prefecture Assembly. Then mid-way through the campaign, labor union Rengo Nagano, Shakenren (a Prefecture-wide organization affiliated with the Social Democratic Party), and the Clean Government Party all came out with endorsements. By the end of the campaign, the Hasegawa camp had even outdone the Ikeda machine, Tanaka’s opponents in the previous election, in the number of organizations on its bandwagon. Their campaign style too could not have been more different from that of the katteren forces backing Tanaka. They stuck to the old pattern of having the candidate go around shaking hands at meetings set up by big organizations like the JA farmers organization, chambers of commerce, labor unions, and support groups of Prefecture Assembly members. As soon as the Hasegawa camp had realized that their campaign would never get off the ground on a “citizens’ support” base, it dropped all pretense and switched to an organizational top-down command structure. But the organizations that the Hasegawa camp put its faith in weren’t able to deliver, and their candidate met the same fate as had Ikeda before her.
Women voters were particularly critical of the Hasegawa campaign. Why was it, they wanted to know, that they had put up a woman candidate to oppose Tanaka? Did they suppose that just because the candidate was a woman she would have the support of women and come complete with some kind of Woman Policy? And what kind of fools did the Prefecture Assembly members take the voters for-claiming to be supporting Hasegawa as katteren “volunteers”? The Hasegawa camp had nothing that could pass for a platform either. The slogan on the first poster that they came out with proclaimed, “Change Prefecture politics from the kitchen!” And in the middle of the campaign they unveiled a cooking pot and an iron as their campaign symbols. The women whom I talked to all said that they found the Hasegawa campaign “a total anachronism.”

The Hasegawa camp’s resort to smear tactics also showed how out of touch they were. They didn’t target the Tanaka camp itself, but tried to whip up fear of “the Communist Party running the Prefecture.” One conservative assembly member even referred to the party by name in a speech. But in fact the Communist Party itself had to hold back organizationally from working for Tanaka. It made no policy agreement with the Tanaka camp, avoided campaigning for him out on the streets, and any party members who helped with the campaign did so as private individuals.

There has probably never been an election campaign in which anything smacking of the entrenched organizations has been so unpopular with the electorate as this campaign, a phenomenon that can only partially be accounted for by the Tanaka camp’s strategy. It would seem that in the turbulent two years since Tanaka took office, voters had seen through the facades of the vested interests. They had come to understand that what was preventing “the will of the people,” their will, from being carried out was the corruption  endemic to “the majority” at the seat of representative government. They realized too that the old organizations, whether the political parties or the labor unions, had long since degenerated into pursuing their own narrow interests and forgotten “the will of the people.”
What this indicates is that elections and politics as we have known them, geared to either big construction company or labor union interests, are coming to an end. In Nagano Prefecture, an estimated 70% of voters do not associate themselves with any political party. The electorate “majority” are therefore no longer linked in any way to the existing political networks. These people think for themselves and act accordingly, and when they realize the power that they have in their single vote and use it, things change. That, I think, can be called a voters’ revolution. Indeed, it is what elections are supposed to be about in the first place.

The leading political actor that has emerged to replace those organized entities turns out to be the voter’s political will, what can only be called “the will of the people.” The results of an opinion poll of Prefecture residents that was compiled halfway through the campaign by the local newspaper, Shinano Mainichi Shimbun, on August 12 were amazing. Over 90% of respondents said that they were interested in this election. And what they cited as the factors that would determine their vote was also quite interesting.

As many as 36.8% responded that the most important factor in choosing a candidate was “the candidate’s politics,” while 32.8% cited “the candidate’s position on reform of Prefecture politics.” Only 20% cited the candidate’s “character and quality” – the supposed lack of which had constituted the sole reason given by the assembly for its no-confidence vote against Tanaka. Fewer than 1% of those polled said that they would vote according to “the recommendation of a political party or organization.”

In the 30s and 40s age groups, the tendency to vote on the basis of the candidate’s political position was particularly pronounced. In this election the voters were eager to hear discussion of policy issues like the dam construction controversy — issues the majority of assembly members preferred to avoid. The defeat of the issue-less candidate whom these politicians supported, then, was an expression of “the will of the people.”

To another survey question, dealing with the relationship between the governor and the assembly, over half, 53.5%, responded that “to further Prefecture political reform, conflict is unavoidable.”  While many of these respondents were supporters of the Communist Party or Social Democrat Party, as many as 55.4% of those who responded thus were voters with no party affiliation (a group which comprised 68.2% of survey respondents), indicating a radical tendency in the “floating vote.”

Respondents also took a radical stance on a question about how they hoped the new governor would “ascertain the will of the people.” An amazing 79% said they would “prefer [the governor] ask the people of the Prefecture their opinion directly.” Only 15% thought the governor should “listen to the opinion of the Prefecture Assembly and town and village mayors.” And those who favored the direct approach were largely people in the 20 to 40 years age group.

The conflict that lead to the no-confidence vote against Governor Tanaka boils down to the issue of how to interpret the will of the people. The majority faction in the assembly were adamantly opposed to the direct approach, and as Tanaka was determined to carry out the will of the people as they had directly and in no uncertain terms expressed it to him, the conflict lead to a final rupture. And through the rerun election, the majority of voters in the Prefecture voted their approval of the governor’s action.

A local election with nationwide involvement

It is very unusual for a local election to draw the tremendous interest nationwide that this one did. Overseas media also showed an interest. The statement that Tanaka made in his speeches about this campaign being “the watershed that will foretell the future of the whole country” was by no means an exaggeration.

Three students from Shinshu University who came to the square to hear Tanaka’s final campaign speech had very definite views about the elections issues. “I can’t understand why they want to destroy our beautiful nature here to build more dams. They should stop it,” one said. Another said that she thought “the no-confidence vote was very strange. Governor Tanaka went through all the proper steps in taking his decision to stop the dam construction, and to think that they would go to such lengths to try and overturn that!” The young women only regretted that they weren’t yet of voting age.

In Tanaka’s campaign office in Matsumoto there was a smattering of volunteers from outside the Prefecture. Nagase Tomoko had taken a 2-week leave of absence from her job in Saitama Prefecture to work in the office. The office had told her that they were not accepting volunteers from outside the Prefecture, even though they were seriously shorthanded, but when she came anyway and asked them to let her work for even just two days, they decided to take her on as staff.

“Yes, this election is about Nagano, but it’s not only about Nagano,” she said. “You know, I am thirty-three years old and I have never voted in an election. Tanaka-san is the first person I have ever wanted to vote for. His working in an office with glass walls is no mere publicity stunt. It’s a symbol of making information accessible, and it has made me want to find out about politics. I thought that what was starting in Nagano might just spread to the whole country and, well, I had to come.” When she got there she was astonished to see the many young, energetic staff working on the campaign.

Terui Kensuke, a company employee from Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward who was folding leaflets, had also taken time off to come and work on the campaign. “I just had to be here. I want to see it myself, right up to the victory,” he said. “The Koizumi Cabinet doesn’t have what it takes to really develop democracy in Japan. We’ve got to win here. The Tanaka administration is closest to the interests of the people and is the one that can change the big construction companies’ grip on the nation.”

And I know myself that a number of local assembly members and national Diet members came to Nagano to look in on the rallies and the campaign office. There were many people throughout the country who identified with this Nagano Prefecture gubernatorial election.
Voters as well as politicians have begun to be confronted by the none-too-easy question of how to politically realize “the will of the people. In this gubernatorial election the people of Nagano Prefecture directly expressed the will of the people for the second time. I don’t know what position the majority faction in the assembly will now take after being defeated by this will of the people, but they are going to be facing an assembly election by next spring at the latest. On September 1st the people of Nagano Prefecture began to take the first step toward their third voters’ revolution. The waves from Nagano will certainly be felt throughout the country.

Hoyano Hatsuko is a journalist and author of Nagano no “datsu-dam”… ,Naze? [Nagono's "No more dams" policy… Why?], published by Tsukiji Shuppan.
This article was translated by Jean Inglis.

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