Home News Is this Japan’s vibrant democracy, or is this just the circus?

Is this Japan’s vibrant democracy, or is this just the circus?


Tokyo voters will face a host of choices when they go to the polls on Sunday to elect the mayor of the world’s largest city.

A record 56 candidates are vying for the presidency. One candidate, who calls himself “The Joker,” has proposed legalizing marijuana and said polygamy could solve the country’s declining birth rate. Another candidate is a professional wrestler who hides his face from the camera and vows to use artificial intelligence to complete government tasks. There’s also a 96-year-old inventor who says he’ll deploy gas-powered cars that don’t emit carbon, and a 31-year-old entrepreneur who takes off his shirt in a campaign video and promises “funny things.”

It may have looked as if democracy had gotten out of hand. But in reality, the race was largely a status quo, with the incumbent expected to win a third term.

The proliferation of candidates reflects a weariness with business-as-usual politics, many of whom are half-hearted attention seekers, creating a farcical, circus-like atmosphere that makes real change even more out of reach.

Emma Dalton, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, said: “I wonder if this is democracy in action or democracy’s ‘God bless’.” Several candidates have criticized the incumbent president. Koike YurikoMs. Dalton said, “In the crudest way possible. Because they knew she was going to win.”

Tokyo election is Symbol of Japanese politicsThe LDP has governed the country for all but four years since 1955. The party supports Koike and maintains a tight grip on Japan’s parliament, despite a series of LDP scandals and widespread voter discontent that is reflected in opinion polls but rarely in voting.

Koike, 71, has been questioned about her university credentials and has refused to respond to allegations that she has ties to a major real estate developer involved in several controversial projects. But just as the LDP has continued to govern despite low approval ratings, she may also be benefiting from a sense that No need to disrupt your plans During a period of relative prosperity.

Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Hosei University, said that despite widening inequality and some poverty, “most of the middle class are happy with their lives in Tokyo.”

While Koike has yet to fully deliver on her promises to eliminate daycare waiting lists, ease congestion on commuter trains and eliminate overtime for municipal workers, she has used budget surpluses to provide subsidies for families with children and to make the city’s private high schools tuition-free.

Ms. Koike declined an interview request. Mitsui Fudosan, a developer involved in the construction project, said in an email that it has “no close relationship” with the governor and has not “received any special treatment.”

At first, the Tokyo gubernatorial race seemed to foreshadow a referendum on the LDP, but then a strong challenger emerged to take on Yuriko Koike: Saito RenhoThe 56-year-old, who once led Japan’s largest opposition party, resigned from her parliamentary seat to run, but the large number of candidates distracted her from the race.

Ms. Saito, who is widely known in Japan as the first woman to lead the opposition Democratic Party, has distinguished herself from Ms. Koike by stressing the need to raise wages for young workers and rein in government spending. But she has also criticized the party’s Financial Scandal This has little to do with the position of Tokyo Governor.

Kenneth McIlwain, a political scientist at the University of Tokyo, said it was “easy” to focus on the national parties. The danger is that “it’s a reason not to vote for Koike, but it’s also a reason to vote for any of the 50 or so challengers.”

Other candidates have launched scathing attacks on the national government. In a campaign video for public broadcaster NHK, Yusuke Kawai, with unkempt hair, a pale face and red-painted lips, mimics the Joker from the Batman series. Severely criticized Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has proposed a plan to raise taxes.

“Prime Minister, before you raise taxes, please sell that Rolex on your wrist!” he screamed, laughing wildly and twisting his body on the table.

Campaign rules allow anyone who pays a deposit of about $19,000 to run for governor and give each candidate the right to two six-minute slots on NHK and to post a sign on one of 14,000 official election billboards throughout the city.

While its purpose is to level the playing field for political participation, the system has been hijacked by those who want to reach large audiences with messages that have nothing to do with politics.

In a campaign broadcast on NHK, young entrepreneur Airi Uchino peeled off a striped button-down shirt to reveal a creamy white tube top. “I’m more than just cute,” she whispered, inviting potential voters to Wirea popular messaging app in Japan. “I’m sexy, right?”

Ms. Uchino is backed by the NHK National Guard Party, a rebel group that backs nearly half of the gubernatorial candidates. The group has allowed its candidate and some others to post campaign posters with pictures of cats or cartoon animals on official election bulletin boards.

Some candidates use airtime to promote universal viewpoints, such as opposing welfare for foreign workers in Japan or the rights of transgender people.

The sheer number of candidates could overwhelm powerful opposition forces. Because all paid advertising is banned, “mainstream candidates can’t amplify their message to the point where they drown out the voices of smaller candidates,” said Jeffrey J. Hall, a political science lecturer at Kanda International University.

The confusion is palpable. Polls show Saito appears to be vying for second place with Shinji Ishimaru, 41, a former mayor of Hiroshima Prefecture who at a rally last week described himself as an “idol” to his supporters.

Mr Ishimaru hasn’t been offered much of a platform, but his popularity on TikTok and YouTube has helped him win support among young voters.

Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, said such candidates represented populism in Japan, adding that many “frivolous”
The candidates don’t expect to win.

“Fame is business now,” Mr. Nakano said. “Any fame brings more business.”

As someone attempting a serious challenge, Ms. Saito faces voters driven not by support for her but by a loss of interest in the incumbent governor.

Yumi Matsushita, a university lecturer who attended a rally held by Ms. Saito in Chofu, said she did not like that Ms. Koike “disrespected” the voices of other races or LGBTQ people.

But her real objection to Yuriko Koike is that “the third term is too long.”

As the incumbent, Koike retains a huge advantage: no previous president in office has ever lost an election. She also benefits from widespread support from the news media, which, while investigating rumors that she lied about her Cairo University diploma, did not investigate allegations that she favored the developer Mitsui Fudosan in construction contracts.

One possible reason: Japan’s two largest newspapers, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun, are investing in one of the construction projects.

River Davis and Hisako Ueno in Tokyo contributed reporting.

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