Ben Hills

A dripping man in a wet green suit bows low in front of the gaudy, roaring neon-bathed Dragon pachinko parlour, and croaks out his spiel for the umpteenth time of the morning.

“Kyoshi Tabata … Japan New Party … thank you … I am sorry about the commotion … thank you so much.” The players, hypnotised by the stainless steel ball bearings cascading down the pinball machines, ignore him.

He repeats this ritual all down the long, deserted street, soaked to the skin by the seasonal downpour Japanese call the plum blossom rains. Straggling behind him, calling out the same refrain, splash his campaign volunteers, college kids bearing bedraggled banners.

They bow to the dry-cleaners, to the Osaka sushi restaurant, to a photo-shop displaying a picture of the centenarian singers Kin and Gin.

“In Japan, we are not allowed by law to actually knock on the door,” says candidate Tabata, raindrops running down his black-rimmed spectacles, “but I hope people will still see me, see that I have made an effort in spite of the weather.”

This is the new Japanese politics in action – no slick public relations machine, no multi-million-dollar TV campaigns, no highly-paid staff, no brown paper parcels bulging with yen handed over in the private rooms of Akasaka geisha-houses to pay for it all. Just an extremely soggy man walking the streets of suburban Shibuya asking, very politely, for votes.

Mr Tabata is a candidate for the Japan New Party (see story above) at Sunday’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election – an election that will be the barometer for the national poll on July 18. He is the only JNP member of the current assembly, but if the opinion polls are right – they show the JNP attracting anywhere from 6 to 13 per cent of the vote – up to 20 more comrades will join him after the election.

The party that wins control of the assembly is responsible – along with the city’s governor – for a population of 13 million, a budget of more than $100 billion (about the same as the Australian Federal government) and an economy larger than all but a dozen countries in the world.

Like the national parliament, it has been dominated since the 1950s by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. The governor, Shunichi Suzuki – he is now 82 years old, but fond of demonstrating his fitness by touching his toes on national television – has been supported by an improbable coalition of Left and Right since the Liberal Democratic Party lost its outright majority at the last election four years ago.

If the Japan New Party does pick up a substantial bloc of votes, the damp Mr Tabata will be the face of the new Japanese politics. “We set an example to the rest of the country … if we succeed, voters everywhere will say, ‘if Tokyo can do it, we can do it,” he says.

So what sort of policies does he espouse? Well, as you might have gathered from the suit, he is an environmentalist. On his business card is his campaign mascot, a squirrel holding a pencil and a dictionary, which Mr Tabata says looks a lot like him. He wears a suit the colour of dried pea soup – “new grass,” the Japanese say, rather more poetically – with a green tie, green pocket handkerchief, green socks, and, he pulls his waist-band out to demonstrate, green underpants.

“I like green,” he says, “it is not just the colour of the environment, it also means in Japanese ‘naive’ or ‘innocent’ and I think I am like that, and the party is like that. This is our first major test.”

Mr Tabata is 34 and, in spite of a few white streaks in his hair, gives the impression of being a permanent student. He graduated in literature from Keio University, did a master’s in education, and was then hand-picked by the former chairman of the giant National electronics group Kounusuke Matsushita for a five-year postgraduate scholarship in politics. The walls of his cramped basement office are lined with thousands of books.

LEST this make Mr Tabata and his colleagues sound like the fairies-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden party, it is only fair to point out that the JNP also has policies about garbage (they oppose plans to build giant incinerators all over the city), the aging population (increase the retirement age to 65), education (reduce the school week to five days) and public works(speed up the construction of a new metro line).

But they are stuck with Governor Suzuki’s greatest financial folly, the Waterfront Centre. This futuristic city of 170,000 is being built on a man-made 448-hectare island in the middle of Tokyo Bay. It is far and away the most ambitious construction project ever attempted on earth and by the time it is opened, with a blaze of fireworks at the Frontier Expo in 1996, it will have cost $110 billion. It is too late, the JNP believes, to turn back.

Money on a rather different scale is the major problem for the JNP candidates. Just to run a nine-day campaign for the assembly will set Mr Tabata back more than $100,000 – most of which will have to come from his savings. “I get a few small donations from business, but you could count them on one hand,” he says. “Anyway, we don’t want to be in the pocket of big business like the Liberal Democratic Party.”

Mr Tabata is running for Shibuya ward, 20 minutes by metro from the centre of Tokyo. It is a mix of traditional old wooden mansions, high-rise offices, and modern apartments which sell for $1 million and up even in these recessed times.

Its most famous landmark is a bronze dog on a pedestal outside the railway station, a dog with a history much like the one on the tuckerbox at Gundagai.

Depopulation, he concedes, is the biggest problem. The ward has shrunk to 180,000 people and lost one seat since the last election as Japan’s crippling inheritance taxes force families who have had homes and businesses in the area for generations to sell up to redevelopers and move out.

In spite of this, Mr Tabata is modestly confident the voters will return him, and elect most, if not all, of the 22 other JNP candidates. “I feel a strong wind blowing for us and against the Liberal Democratic Party,” Mr Tabata says.

Liberal Democratic Party candidates have taped over the party affiliation on their campaign posters all over Tokyo with slogans like “In Favour of Reform”. In at least two wards, the Liberal Democratic Party candidates have hurriedly resigned from their party and are running under the banner of one of the two new conservative parties.

The ultimate humiliation for Japan’s lame duck Prime Minister was that last Friday afternoon – before the vote that led to his defeat on the floor of Parliament – he had been due to launch the Liberal Democratic Party’s Tokyo Assembly campaign at Shibuya station.

At the last minute, his candidates forced Kiichi Miyazawa to stay away – he read his speech in front of Liberal Democratic Party headquarters miles away, with not a candidate in sight.

NATIONAL issues, particularly electoral reform, which brought the Miyazawa government down, will be the overriding concerns at Sunday’s poll. And it’s not just Mr Tabata saying that. At the 1989 election, the Liberal Democratic Party lost its majority at City Hall because of the unpopularity of a new national consumption tax.

Sunday’s election will show not just how the numbers will work in the new Japanese politics – although almost certainly both the Liberal Democratic Party and the main opposition Social Democrats will lose seats. It will also give a guide to the sort of compromises and alliances the JNP and the other new parties are prepared to make to take power.

Meanwhile, the rain pours down on the streets of Shibuya, as the very wet, very green Mr Tabata squelches out on the campaign trail once again – an improbable figure to be at the front line of Japan’s most important election in two generations.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Friday 25 June 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 11
Word count: 1432
Keywords: Local government Elections
Caption: On the campaign trail …Japan New Party candidate Kiyoshi Tabata