Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s claim that last month’s earthquake and tsunami were “divine punishment” sparked public outrage. It’s unlikely to prevent him winning a fourth term in elections this weekend.
Ishihara, who polls predict will win the April 10 contest to lead Japan’s richest and biggest city, apologized for his “deeply wounding” words. As the crisis deepened with the damage to a nuclear power plant, he sought to head off concerns over radiation levels in Tokyo’s water by drinking it in front of television cameras.
“He has the advantage of already being in office,” said Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Keio University in Tokyo. “And he projects an image of stability in handling this crisis more than the other candidates can.”
The Tokyo contest is the most prominent of this month’s regional elections that may influence whether Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party form a coalition to oversee recovery from the nation’s worst postwar disaster. Both parties are waiting to analyze the outcome of races in which analysts say incumbents have an edge as the nation focuses on the crisis.
Ishihara, 78, is favored to defeat Miki Watanabe, founder of restaurant chain Watami Co., and former Miyazaki prefectural governor Hideo Higashikokubaru, the Asahi newspaper said on April 5. Three-fourths of voters approve of Ishihara, a former LDP member and now independent, the paper said. The Asahi surveyed 1,592 voters and provided no margin of error.
‘Going to Win’
“Ishihara’s going to win without any difficulty,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University. “Getting these elections over with will remove an obstacle on the national agenda and facilitate intra-party discussions on the fate of the country.”
More than 27,000 people are dead or missing from the catastrophe. Ishihara’s comment that it was “divine punishment” for the “egoism” of Japanese society is the latest in a series of controversial statements that have studded his four-decade political career.
In a 1990 interview with Playboy magazine, he denied that Japan massacred Chinese civilians in Nanjing in 1937, provoking an outcry in China, which says more than 300,000 people were slaughtered. He co-authored the 1989 best-seller, “The Japan That Can Say No,” which argued against dependence on the U.S. He has also advocated “tearing up” Japan’s pacifist constitution in response to China’s growing economic and military influence.
“Ishihara has a good sense of people’s psyche,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation. “He’s decisive when it comes to crisis management because he doesn’t care about making noise.”
Ishihara criticized Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi atomic power plant, calling their response to the crisis “slow.” When radiation was discovered in Tokyo water, he ordered the distribution of 240,000 bottles of water to 80,000 families.
At the age of 23, Ishihara wrote a novel that won Japan’s most prestigious literary prize, then wrote the film version. He also covered the Vietnam War as a reporter, raced yachts and toured South America by motorcycle.
He was first elected to parliament in 1968 and served in two different LDP Cabinets. Ishihara is backed by his old party and his son Nobuteru is an LDP lawmaker. The DPJ isn’t fielding a candidate in the Tokyo race. Twelve prefectures hold races for governor on April 10, and others will take place on April 24.
After inheriting a 106.8-billion-yen ($1.3 billion) deficit upon taking office in 1999, he cut spending. Tokyo posted a surplus of 600 million yen in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2010. Standard & Poor’s cut the city’s long-term credit rating in January after lowering Japan’s debt rating. The national debt is about twice gross domestic product.
Tokyo has a population of more than 13 million and a $1.1 trillion economy that is bigger than Australia’s. It accounts for almost a fifth of Japan’s economy.
Campaigning has been quieter than usual, with fewer trucks driving around blaring candidates’ names from loudspeakers. Turnout will “be very low” as voters are pre-occupied with the crisis, Sone said. Races in quake-hit areas such as Iwate prefecture have been postponed.
Almost two-thirds of voters want Kan to bring the LDP into government, according to a Yomiuri newspaper poll published April 4. The paper surveyed 1,036 people between April 1 and 3, and provided no margin of error.
Kan has said he will compile a spending package this month to aid in relief and reconstruction, and the opposition has pledged cooperation in the efforts. LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki, who on March 19 rejected an offer to join Kan’s Cabinet, yesterday said his party was “cautious” about joining a coalition government.
“I want Ishihara to serve one more term,” said Hideshi Nakata, 45, a temporary worker at a food company in the capital. “Tokyo needs to stand firm as the brain and heart of Japan as he has said.”
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