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The political disgust that upended Tokyo

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Takashi Mikuriya

The Yomiuri Shimbun The uproar throughout Japan caused by the outcome of the 127-seat Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election continues to reverberate. Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites first group), led by Gov. Yuriko Koike, won 55 seats, including those endorsed by the group after the election — suddenly emerging as the leading party in the assembly. What is going on? Prompted by the Tokyo assembly election, The Yomiuri Shimbun asked political scientist Takashi Mikuriya to share his thoughts on the state of the country, Tokyo, and the Tokyo assembly. The following are excerpts from the interview.

How should we interpret the Tokyo assembly election?

The shocking outcome demands long and thorough consideration.

At any rate, it was a severe loss for the Liberal Democratic Party, which dropped from 57 seats in the Tokyo assembly to 23, putting it on equal footing with Komeito. It is only natural that newspapers all ran the headline “Historic defeat.” The Democratic Party, the top opposition party in national politics, was reduced to just five seats, which leaves it on the brink of destruction.

The outcomes of Tokyo assembly elections have presaged political changes on the national level.

Past major national political shifts, such as the surge of the Japan New Party, the change in administration to the Democratic Party of Japan and the comeback of the LDP, were all fairly accurately predicted by the Tokyo Assembly elections that preceded them.

There will not be a national election in the near future, unless Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolves the House of Representatives. But if there were, it would most likely bring about a major shift.

Tomin First no Kai’s quick capture of 55 seats appears similar to the emergence of the Japan New Party. However, the stirrings in the undercurrents may be bigger this time.

The major defeats suffered by both the ruling LDP and the top opposition DP are quite a thorough rejection of the status quo. There is even the feeling that this was a rejection of the mind-set of a political order in which the two main parties take turns in power. Many had come to believe this was the goal of political reform — myself included.

This may be a worldwide trend.

In France, the presidential candidates from the two major parties on the left and right were defeated, and Emmanuel Macron, who caught the voters that steered clear of established politics, won the presidency.

In the United States as well, President Donald Trump is not the embodiment of the traditional Republican, nor, obviously, is he a Democrat. It is fair to say that the disappointment and, indeed, disgust with the two major established parties were primary factors that produced President Trump.

The impact of the internet is also undoubtedly connected. Information that spreads a blend of truth and falsehoods creates and amplifies a certain kind of political disgust, bringing about election results more extreme than traditional empirical assumptions. This new political ground is something shared globally.

Tomin First’s victory in the Tokyo assembly election, rather than reflecting any policy expectations voters might have, was more about the timely arrival of a new force that is, as yet, relatively free of this sense of disgust. Of course, the instinct is to perceive that timing is crucial for a politician to succeed, so I can only be amazed at Koike.

Even so, the new political force of Tomin First is so incredibly amorphous that it is difficult to understand. In terms of its ideology or political convictions, it is largely a mystery.

The cycle of “Koizumi Children,” “Ozawa Girls,” “Abe Children” and now “Koike Children” is like watching a steady stream of soon-forgotten one-hit-wonder entertainers that come and go — an extremely dangerous state for politics to be in.

Gov. Koike may well be dropped just as quickly as she was elevated. If her politics lack depth and only produce a one-hit form of entertainment, voters will likely continue to chase after more and more extreme one-hit wonders.

What is the Tokyo Assembly?

From where I stand now, in the Odaiba waterfront area, I have a clear view of skyscrapers in central Tokyo. It is quite a fine view, but against the results of the Tokyo assembly election, surrounded by this solid yet somehow vacant Tokyo landscape, we must think long and hard about how to make amends going forward.

For example, the certainty of a major earthquake with an epicenter directly beneath the capital looms, and there are many dangerous areas with a high concentration of wood-frame buildings. Tokyo is an extremely multifaceted city, and there are countless problems Tokyo Assembly members must grapple with. However, this assembly election was yet another that will “predict the course of national politics.” The results were hardly influenced by Tokyo issues at all.

Before World War II, when Tokyo was classified as a city, Diet members could also concurrently serve as members of the Tokyo city council. [Well-known Diet members] Banboku Ono and Ichiro Hatoyama were both Tokyo city councilmen as well. By which I mean to say, the Tokyo city council had major political players. They were able to consider the interests of the country as well as the imperial capital of Tokyo, without much conflict in terms of the local and national political systems.

Since the end of the war, we have been unable to give consideration to the interests of both the country and the capital. When you look at the Tokyo assembly these days, its existence is in a state of limbo. It is not as close to the people as a ward assembly. As the assembly of the capital city, it does not have big enough debates to make waves in the country.

Gov. Koike has adopted the cause of reforming the Tokyo assembly, but until she answers the simple question — “What is the Tokyo assembly?” — the issues of the metropolitan government will never be tied to voting behavior in Tokyo assembly elections.

Odaiba is a futuristic urban space and a fantastic place to work, but it is not the sort of environment in which one would wish to live. This rapidly developed, planned city somehow seems to mirror the current Tokyo assembly. It seems to me that politicians coming from such careers as the IT industry are looking at the places where people actually live, while they are off in the distance, from the other side of Rainbow Bridge.

Looking back on Meiji era

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. It also seems likely that the curtain will come down on the Heisei era after exactly 30 years.

Perhaps next year, in which the key dates of significant events will coincide, will bring with it the opportunity to rethink the state of politics and elections from various angles, as well as the state of Japan and capital Tokyo. This Tokyo assembly election will make excellent material.

From the outset of the Meiji era, there was a sense of closeness about the state, as though it were in arm’s reach. It was possible to do simple yet lucid nation building in the sense that to achieve a modernization of the state in the Meiji era, it would be necessary to start by modernizing Tokyo. Now, however, the framework of the country and the framework of Tokyo have become muddled. To restore clarity, it might be worth turning our thoughts back to the starting point of the Meiji era.

The 30 years of the Heisei era exactly overlap with a period of repeated trial and error, when things happened such as a movement toward political reform, changes to the electoral system for both houses of the Diet, and a reassessment of the relationship between national and local government. This is a good opportunity to make a coolheaded assessment of successes and failures, and translate this into new debates.

Perhaps things have come to a constructive conclusion after all.

(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Yoshiaki Hotaka.)

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 6, 2017)

■ Takashi Mikuriya, Political scientist

Mikuriya is a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who specializes in Japanese political history in the Meiji era. He also studies current national and metropolitan politics. He is Japan’s leading authority in oral history, which verifies contemporary history through interviewing politicians and other figures. He was a key member of an expert panel on the reconstruction of the Great East Japan Earthquake, as well as of another panel on issues related to the Emperor’s abdication.Speech

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