Ben Hills

From a wall in Hiroshi Mitsuzuka’s office hangs a small Shinto shrine, carved out of blond cypress wood and designed to bring the blessing of Japan’s ancient gods on his campaign to be re-elected to Parliament.

Beneath the shrine is a small stage, which would normally be piled high with tributes from his sponsors – crates of the local rice wine, sacks of rice, boxes of biscuits and other produce, labelled with the names of the donors. But this is not a normal election.

For the first time since he was returned to the Diet (parliament) three decades ago, the platform is empty.

“We are getting 10 bottles of sake a day donated to us by construction companies and other patrons, but we don’t know what to do with them. We can’t put them on display – it would give people the wrong idea,” says a campaign worker, between sips of green tea.

Japan’s latest corruption scandal casts a long shadow. Last week the venerable and highly popular Mayor of Sendai, Toru Ishii, was arrested by an anti-corruption squad from the Tokyo Special Prosecutors’ office on suspicion of taking bribes totalling $1.3 million.

The prosecutors pounced when several key figures under investigation began making reservations for hospital beds – a common way of avoiding interrogation in Japan.

Within days, eight more people had been taken into custody in the widening corruption investigation, including the chairman and senior executives of four of Japan’s largest construction companies – principally the Hazama Corporation, which does $8 billion a year of business, nearly half of it government contracts.

All over Sendai, work has ground to a halt on the multi- billion-dollar public contracts which have boosted the place from a sleepy, rural rice-growing town to a go-go city of nearly a million, which boasts an international airport and even an Australian consulate.

Freeways, a conference centre, gas reticulation, a new port … all are now under a cloud. And so are the candidates for the election, to be held on Sunday, July 18.

In his eight years as mayor, the 67-year-old Ishii (a former LDP member and Home Affairs Department bureaucrat) had been supported by all parties on the city council except a handful of communist councillors. In return, Ishii gave them money. As crude as that. “Envelopes were given to all the conservative members of the assembly,” confessed one councillor, who admitted having received nearly $8,000 in cash at a time.

Of all the candidates in this litmus electorate, Mitsuzuka has the highest profile – and stands to suffer the most from the scandal. Aged 65, he holds one of those obscure Japanese political jobs (chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s policy research committee) where real power resides – it would probably have been his turn to be Prime Minister in two years’ time, if the LDP had not split last month and been defeated on the floor of Parliament

This week, one of the country’s most powerful politicians is not thinking of the Prime Minister’s lodge; he is fighting to save his political life.

“Everyone knows Mitsuzuka was close to Ishii,” says Isao Kato, a political reporter for the local paper. “Everyone suspects that he was also receiving money.” And so, in an effort to distance himself from his imprisoned former friend, Mitsuzuka has had to pulp all his campaign material, which contained an endorsement from Ishii – as well as hide those bottles of sake donated by grateful businessmen.

All over Japan, as convoys of sound-trucks blast peaceful residential neighbourhoods, and candidates in white gloves beg electors for their votes, the issue is the same – reform Japan’s corrupt political system, do away with the “money politics” that have ruled the country for 38 years.

The cover story in the respected Aera magazine this week summed it up: “This Election is in the Hands of the Prosecutors.” Thousands of boxes of documents, seized from 18 construction companies, are being waded through. Hands are expected to fall on many more shoulders before polling day.

And it is not just the LDP that is threatened – although, with the trial of the party’s former Godfather, Shin Kanemaru, due to start only four days after the polls close, it has taken the brunt of the flak, and is bound to be savaged by the voters.

Kazuo Aichi, one of the 36 LDP MPs who defected from the party last month, realises that he, too, has a credibility problem as he fights to retain his seat in Sendai.

“I know the voters will say, ‘He was part of the LDP so long, how can we believe him when he now says he is a reformist?’ ” he says. “But the fact is that I did leave the party. That took some courage. I think we now have a historic opportunity to change the system.”

Aichi is now one of the leaders of the new Shinseito (New Life Party) which says it is committed to anti-corruption laws and a new electoral system.

UNDER the prevailing multi-member constituency system, Sendai will return five MPs to the Diet, two hours south by bullet train in Tokyo. For years there has been a cosy division of spoils – three LDP, two opposition.

But this year, like everything else in Japanese politics, is different. As well as the LDP and the Socialists, Aichi holds a seat for Shinseito, and there are three other candidates – the Communists (who are not given much of a chance), the Japan New Party of former LDP Governor Morihiro Hosokawa, and the Buddhistaffiliated Komei (Clean Government) party, which almost squeaked in during the last election.

Aichi seems reasonably confident of re-election, although he will be able to spend only four days campaigning in his own electorate. More than the party godfathers closeted in their back rooms down in Tokyo, he is able to project at least an image of the clean, new politics … in spite of having himself been tainted by the Recruit scandal two years ago.

Aged 56, Aichi took over the Sendai electorate from his father-in-law in 1976 – he changed his name and was officially adopted to enable him to do this, a not unusual practice in Japan where “inherited democracy” is common. Aichi speaks good English (he was posted in New York as a sales executive for a pipe-making company), has served in a number of ministries such as the environment, and is tipped to be Japan’s next Foreign Minister in a non-LDP coalition government.

He tells his campaign workers at a breakfast meeting: “I am sorry, but this election is different. There is no money.” He looks out of the window at the rain bucketing down. “There is no alternative – you will have to get out on the streets. You are not doing any good sitting in the office.”

The national newspaper Yomiuri estimated at the last election in 1990 that a candidate needed to spend at least $5 million to get elected. This time around, there is conspicuous non-consumption by all candidates – but, in spite of the fact that there is no TV advertising in Japanese elections, several hundred thousand dollars, at the very least, have to be raised to pay for the temporary campaign headquarters (Aichi’s is in an abandoned proctology clinic), printing, phones, travel and staff.

“Aichi is just as bad as the rest of them,” says Tomiko Okazaki, a former TV newsreader. She is one of the “Madonna women” swept into power under the Social Democrat banner three years ago in the wake of the Recruit scandal.

She has the hottest fund-raising gimmick in the campaign – a pair of bars of white, biodegradable soap, with the characters for her name embossed on one side, and the slogan “Wash the dirt out of politics” on the other. She has sold 40,000 already, and the campaign is only days under way.

“This election is about corruption,” she says, bouncing around her office, which is plastered with endorsements from various trade unions. “Not just the LDP, but Shinseito also. We have got to clean it up, to limit donations, to make the whole process of fund-raising transparent.”

Unfortunately for the Socialists, they have been saying this for a good many years with no success. They have been in opposition as long as the LDP has been in government. Now their leaders are talking about joining hands with Shinseito and other opposition parties after the election to form a grand alliance to push through reform legislation.

But it is not washing – so far – with the electorate. At the Tokyo assembly elections on June 27, half the sitting Socialists, including almost all the Madonna women, were defeated.

The polls indicate that one of the two Socialists in Sendai could be replaced by an unknown cram-school teacher running under the “golden banner”of the JNP – the Komei candidate.

BUT Ms Okazaki has, at least, got one vote from an unlikely quarter. A 30-minute drive from the concrete centre of Sendai you come across what this electorate is really all about – the village of Natori, a patchwork quilt of tiny rice paddies, some no bigger than tablecloths, and tiled wooden houses straight out of an Edo-era woodcut.

Yoshio Satake’s family has farmed here for 250 years. If he is typical of Japan’s three million conservative farmers – with their gerrymandered vote worth three times that of a city dweller – then the ruling LDP is in for a shock.

“This business (the arrest of the mayor) is just the last straw. We’ve got to get rid of these crooks – I’m going to vote for the Socialist, that woman…” He doesn’t even remember her name, but Tomiko Okazaki will pick up his protest vote just the same.

Apart from political reform, there is no real difference between the policies of the conservatives and the socialists on the issues that matter to the farmers, especially the importation of rice. Even the Communists are against that.

The Satake farm is somewhat larger than the average Japanese property – a whole three hectares, on which Satake rotates rice and barley, raises vegetables, and coddles a dozen black cows. Their marbled meat will finish up in the supermarkets at $120 a kilo – but, like the rice, Satake says, “the producers and the consumers suffer – the middle-man gets all the money”.

If people like the Satake family are serious – and no-one in the electorate, from taxi-driver to fishcake-maker, would speak out in favour of Government candidates like Mitsuzuka – then Sendai is going to send a message to the politicians down in Tokyo that will change nearly half a century of crooked government.

Just what kind of government the country will wake up to on July 19 is still not clear – probably some kind of shaky coalition of opposition parties that will hang together just long enough to pass electoral reform laws.

But one thing is certain – after decades of money politics, the Japanese voters have had enough of their Parliament of crooks.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 10 July 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 20
Word count: 1962
Photo: Mayu Kanamori
1. Kazuo Aichi, LDP “rebel” candidate, painting in one eye on a Daruma doll – a Buddhist good luck symbol – to kick off his campaign. If he wins, the other eye is painted in.
2. Sendai’s mayor, Toru Ishii, is driven away from the town hall after being implicated in a bribery scandal.