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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (September 4, 2002)

The Battle of Nagano A Greek Legend in the Making

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

Prof. J. Sean CurtinThe citizens of Nagano prefecture have just inflicted a serious blow to the ailing body of the Japanese political establishment. The landslide victory of die-hard reformer Yasuo Tanaka may eventually be seen as a milestone on the road to national reform. Perhaps, the defeat of the formidable forces of conservative pork-barrel politics might one day be viewed as the Japanese political equivalent to the legendary battle of Marathon. Just like the ancient Greek hero Phidippides, Tanaka has somehow prevailed despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered by a ruthless opponent. Mountainous Nagano has now become the frontline in the bitter war between those who really want to change Japan and those who are determined to maintain the status quo. The ultimate prize in this epic conflict is the economic future of Japan itself.

The current chapter of the saga began in October 2000, when Yasuo Tanaka was elected Governor. He ran on a platform of fighting the tax-and-spend policies of conservative politicians who had almost crippled the Alpine prefecture's finances with unnecessary public works projects. Unlike incumbent Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Governor Tanaka actually pushed forward his sweeping agenda once in office. This was anathema to the conservative members of the local legislature who had all been weaned on the money and power generated from endless dam construction projects.

Tanaka's sincere attempts to dismantle the entrenched system of pork-barreling made him a dangerous heretic to his opponents, who became determined to destroy him politically. To this end the local assembly took the almost unprecedented step of ousting the Governor in a vote of no-confidence. This move set the dramatic stage for the historic clash which has just been fought out between those who believe in genuine progress and their more numerous and powerful political foes. The result was a stunning victory for change and reform. Despite an intensive smear campaign against Tanaka's character, his share of the vote touched fifty percent, better than the forty-nine percent he garnered in the previous gubernatorial poll back in October 2000. The titanic duel also pushed voter turnout to 73.78 percent, which was a full four percentage points above the 69.75 percent of the last race.

The voters of this once deeply conservative prefecture have reaffirmed that they, like the rest of Japan, want the moribund political structures replaced with something that will restore national fortunes.

Unlike his first election, this time around Governor Tanaka's re-election campaign gripped the attention of the entire nation. In many respects Nagano's problems are a microcosm of the nation's woes. Most Japanese are absolutely frustrated with ten years of economic stagnation and crying out for change. Just like Nagano, Japan has been on a journey to nowhere for over a decade. The people have had enough. The nation is continuing to sink deeper into the economic mire and action needs to be urgently taken. Despite the dire circumstances, the political elite have been unable to break themselves free from their addiction to the failed policies of the past.

Prime Minister Koizumi skillfully utilized voter's strong yearning for meaningful change to catapult himself into office. He made forthright promises of radical restructuring to break the deadlock that paralyzed Japan throughout the nineties. Yet, sixteen months into office very little has actually been achieved, casting doubt on the Prime Minister's willingness to implement his proposals. One of the few ministers who did actually try to radically reform the system was abruptly sacked for doing so. It is claimed that the Prime Minister has been forced to slow down the pace of reform due to strong resistance to his plans from within his own party. Yet Koizumi is in the almost uniquely unassailable position of having no real rivals within the Diet. His excuses for inaction are becoming less and less convincing.

Governor Tanaka has now clearly demonstrated that with the backing of the people, reformers can overcome an apparently unbeatable army of resistance. History remembers the ancient warriors at Marathon for their brave determination to save their country against the overwhelming might of the Persian army. It is now time for Prime Minister Koizumi to show some political courage to save Japan from the economic quicksand. If he cannot find the will to do so, he must pass on the torch to someone who can.

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