Picture this bleak urban scene: A city of nearly 12 million people is on the verge of bankruptcy. Chronic traffic jams clog the streets, making a nightmare of getting from one side of town to another. Housing is so limited and expensive that the middle class has retreated to distant suburbs. Recession is swelling the ranks of the unemployed, putting more and more homeless on the streets. Sound a little like New York in the 1970s? Surprise: It's Tokyo in 1999.
With problems like these, it's hard to imagine who would want the job of running Tokyo. Indeed, Tokyo's overwhelmed current Governor, Yukio Aoshima, is calling it quits rather than stand for a second term in upcoming elections on Apr. 11. But a record 19 candidates are competing for the post, all of them pledging to revive the ailing heart of Japan. Contenders range from a nationalist famous for his stridently anti-American book, The Japan That Can Say No, to a former Foreign Minister--both of whom were rejected by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Instead, the LDP is backing a former U.N. peacekeeping chief who hasn't lived in Japan for 40 years.
Whoever wins will have his work cut out for him. Tokyo has been on a borrowing binge for years. Every time the national government draws up a public works spending plan to kick-start the economy, big cities must foot a large part of the bill. As a result, Tokyo's debt is expected to reach nearly $60 billion this year, more than three times the level of a decade ago. Trouble is, revenue isn't keeping pace. Tokyo depends on property, residential, and corporate taxes. But with land prices and incomes dropping, Tokyo's tax revenues fell 12% in 1998 alone. And with a slowing economy, debt servicing is a problem. Payments are estimated at $3.6 billion this year, or nearly 7% of the budget.
No surprise, then, that candidates are all talking about how they would raise badly needed funds. Koji Kakizaxwa, a former Foreign Minister,
wants Tokyo to get a bigger cut of national taxes. "Tokyo has been supporting the rural regions, but it can no longer afford to do so," he said recently. While the Tokyo region currently pays 30% of Japan's national taxes, it only gets 3% back. The other 97% goes to rural areas that are home to the LDP's political base.
Candidate Shintaro Ishihara, leading with 25% in the polls, also would get tough with national leaders. The author of the controversial Say No books, he advocates the same approach within Japan: "I want to turn Tokyo into a city that can say no and break control by the central government." He wants to cut Tokyo's forced contributions to marginal construction projects. "Instead, we should invest in projects [that make] Tokyo a leader in the information and software industries," says Keio University professor Heizo Takenaka, a member of the Prime Minister's Economic Strategic Council.
SERIOUS SPRAWL. Quality-of-life issues also are coming to the fore. The city still ranks as the most expensive in the world, and 3.3 million workers must commute more than two hours a day to work. Only 56% of Tokyo's planned roads have been built, adding to traffic nightmares. Tokyo building codes restrict construction of high-rises, fostering urban sprawl. Meanwhile, the numbers of unemployed and homeless are growing amid the worst recession in post-war times.
No matter who is elected, solving these problems will take years. To reduce the city's bloated workforce of 189,000 by 25%--a politically explosive task--would probably take a decade of attrition. Voters, more than 40% undecided just days before the polls, remain skeptical that anyone can fix things. "We need a real professional to clean up the mess, but I don't see one among the candidates," says Yasushi Nakajima, a 48-year-old company manager. Tokyo, once the symbol of Japan's might, now epitomizes its decline.