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A Yama Gets Wacky: Politics Lessons from a Paradoxical Election, Part Two

Thousand-year-old pilgrimages, remote coastal outcrops, the world’s most controversial fishing, and supremely old-school LDP politics: welcome (back) to Wakayama. © Makoto Akamatsu; Shin’ya Ichinohe via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0); MOFA via Wikimedia (JP govt. licence compat. with CC BY 4.0); WEF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A while back, we published an article about the apparently mundane but surprisingly revealing race for governor of Wakayama prefecture. Last time around, we covered the background explanation, of what soshiki-hyō or “organisational votes” are; for readers who have not yet seen it, the important message when talking Wakayama is that a large proportion of Japanese votes are essentially directed by large networks of groups without much of an ideology other than a love of power, and ostensibly the protection of their members’ interests. In rural areas, the vast majority of these soshiki (“organisations”) reliably turn out for the local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Now we’re caught up, let’s talk Wakayama.

A political map of Wakayama prefecture as of January 2023. © Makoto Akamatsu, outline images © Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Where is Wakayama anyway, and who lives there?

Wakayama is a prefecture in mid-western Japan, stretching along the southern coast of the Kii peninsula. Its capital is within striking distance of sprawling Osaka, but the prefecture’s other end is mostly made up of remote fishing towns, a world away from urban Japan. Wakayama is known for its UNESCO-listed ancient pilgrimage trails spanning the forested interior, as well as a few famous beaches along the coast. Outside of Japan, however, most people who have heard of Wakayama know it as the centre of Japanese whaling, especially the now-notorious small town of Taiji of The Cove fame.

Like most other remote western prefectures, Wakayama is fiercely conservative. The LDP rule the roost here, and politics tends to be very old-school, soshiki-driven, and personal. One can even see the effects of Wakayama’s political scene as a tourist. The construction industry, a major source of soshiki votes, turns out in force in these parts, so a striking number of local mountains and rivers are encased in concrete.

The long-time king of Wakayama politics goes by the name of Toshihiro Nikai. The Lower House MP for Wakayama’s third district (furthest from the capital), the 83-year-old Nikai spent five years in the extremely powerful post of LDP secretary-general and has led one of the party’s formalised factions for over a decade. He is almost defiantly ‘retro’, one of the few remaining masters of an intensely personal style of politics that ruled Japan before it started to unravel in the 1990s (like everything else, some would say), and that gives him a degree of clout with politicians and soshiki leaders who never learnt the old ways. When, in 2016, agricultural cooperatives in northern Japan helped turf LDP Upper House members out of office in protest at then-PM Shinzō Abe’s love of trade deals, it was Nikai whom the LDP parachuted in to ensure the soshiki returned to the fold before the next election. Likewise, Yoshihide Suga’s sudden rise to frontrunner in 2020’s LDP leadership contest was Nikai’s doing, and some blame Suga’s downfall in October 2021 on his decision to try and placate the backbenches by sacking Nikai a few days earlier. Eric Johnston at the Japan Times calls him a “shadow shogun”.

Were it not for Nikai, Wakayama politics would likely be ruled by another LDP heavyweight, local Upper House member Hiroshige Sekō. Sekō has held his seat since the last millennium and was a close confidant of Abe, for whom he served as economy minister for three years. His CV is undoubtedly impressive, but look what happened when he came into conflict with Nikai.

Toshihiro Nikai, left, putting his soshiki-wrangling prowess to work at the start of an LDP MP’s reelection campaign in Aichi Prefecture. © 依田奏 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ten up, ten down, and one man left standing

Four events shook the usually dull, LDP/soshiki-dominated world of Wakayama politics before the election. In April of 2022, the prefectural assembly revolted against incumbent governor Yoshinobu Nisaka, voting down his flagship plan to attract a casino to the area. The next month, Shūhei Kishimoto, the MP for Wakayama’s first district then sitting with the centre-right Democratic Party for the People (DPP), announced he was challenging an increasingly wobbly Nisaka for the governorship. This proved to be the last straw for Nisaka, and he made his own decision in June not to contest the autumn election.

The fourth event took place in Tokyo, far from Wakayama, but was perhaps the most important of them all. The Diet moved closer to passing a bill aimed at ensuring no Lower House district had more than twice as many voters as any other. In order to ensure that the most populated district only had 1.999 (no, really) times as many voters as the least, ten new Lower House districts were to be created, all but one in greater Tokyo, and ten in rural areas would vanish. One of these doomed ten happened to be Wakayama’s third, represented by Nikai. Complicating things further was Sekō’s personal wish to switch houses from Upper to Lower (why that is is not obvious, unless he has unlikely prime ministerial ambitions).

The local LDP found itself, as they say, in disarray. Kishimoto was personally popular in his district and conservative enough to avoid turning off soshiki-type voters, so they needed an equally well-known candidate to push through and avoid an embarrassing loss in an otherwise happy hunting ground. The first candidate mooted was the MP for Wakayama’s second district, sandwiched between Kishimoto and Nikai, but he refused. Sekō then moved to secure the LDP’s endorsement for a candidate close to him, a bureaucrat parachuted in from northern Japan, ensuring greater control over the Wakayama political scene if he won.

It was at this point that Nikai leapt. No upstart former economy minister was going to lay claim to his backyard on his watch.

This is where the soshiki come in. Although differences in factional and soshiki support can sometimes lead to two de facto LDP candidates standing at once, Nikai knew that such a move was unlikely to work. So he drew close… to Kishimoto. He got to work with his personality-politics magic, convincing his loyal soshiki in construction and elsewhere to back Kishimoto over the official LDP candidate. The endorsements piled up, and ultimately the local LDP had no choice but to declare the northern bureaucrat’s campaign “difficult” and throw its weight behind the nominally independent Kishimoto. The true victor, however, was not Kishimoto, but Nikai, happy that at 83 he could still wield a power base with the best of them. Sekō, meanwhile, had to endure a humiliating press conference explaining the LDP’s decision.

The curious Porto Europe theme park on an artificial island off Wakayama’s coast, next to the site that former Governor Nisaka hoped to build a casino on. © Yanajin33 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The vote, not to be confused with the bit that matters

And so we come to November and the election campaign. The true contest, between Nikai and Sekō, had already been resolved, and in a weird twist of fate, an opposition MP had become the LDP candidate as a result. The mainstream opposition parties, like in most other prefectures, also coalesced around the same candidate as the LDP (a phenomenon known as ainori; the previous article explains this more). The only true electoral opposition, therefore, came from candidates with less of a chance to win. Two, to be precise.

The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) have never had any truck with soshiki other than their own party-focused one, and so fielded their own candidate, former city councillor Michiko Matsuzaka. JCP supporters point to this as proof they are the only principled opposition to the old boys’ network, but their refusal to endorse ainori has left them mistrusted by almost every other party, a situation made worse by lingering doubts about the word “communist” in their name and their unreformed “democratic centralist” party management. JCP candidates often try to alleviate this by standing as official independents and giving their campaigns a “citizens’ movement” image, but Matsuzaka stood as a JCP partisan, usually a sign of local weakness.

The other candidate standing was Nana Honma. Honma is a former leader of the small, economically leftist but socially strongly conservative Kunimori party. She also stood against Nikai in the 2021 general election, but before that, had no obvious connections to Wakayama; her previous political activity was mostly in Aichi and Hokkaido. Given Kunimori’s rhetoric (the party name literally means “protectors of the country”), it seems likely that Honma entered Wakayama politics out of anger at Nikai specifically, and particularly at his strikingly welcoming stance on China.

The campaign passed without much comment; the local issues were the same as ever, guaranteed by Kishimoto dodging the closest thing to a potential flashpoint, the casino issue. Westerners reading this might expect whaling to be a political issue, but it’s not that contentious in Wakayama. (For what it’s worth, Honma believes it should continue as a matter of national pride in the face of foreign criticism; Matsuzaka did not comment, although a JCP policy statement in 2008 reflects a moderate position, banning only the hunting of endangered species; and Kishimoto has called for reform in the past but was silent during the election. Some, of course, see the latter and suspect Nikai’s hand at work.)

Ultimately, Kishimoto cruised to victory with over 80% of the vote, surprising nobody. All the surprises, after all, happened over the summer. So. What does this say about local politics in Japan?

The Taiji Whale Museum. If it looks oddly large for a town of about 2600 people, thank Nikai and the LDP. © silvia_c77 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Despair, betrayal, or good old Japanese defeatism?

The personal battles rage on, with Nikai now in a stronger position in the chess (or should that be go?) match between himself and Sekō. The game has not ceased; Nikai, having backed the casino and also having failed to elect his son as mayor of the city of Gobō in 2016, has already tasted hubris and has no desire to do so again. The next moves will concern this year’s by-election for Kishimoto’s empty Diet seat, in which Nikai wants to see a weak LDP candidate willing to be forced out in the boundary changes, while Sekō looks to take the seat for himself and push Nikai into a bitter selection fight for the other one in the process.

What is missing from all this is any reference to, well, Wakayama. In Tokyo’s corridors of power, the fate of one of the most defining political careers of the last decade is far more important than that of some Kansai backwater, and this echoes through each temple and fishing port. The closest thing to a divisive local issue, the casino debate, was stifled in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful candidate with an unclear position, and there was no real attempt to rise up against the soshiki ‘establishment’ for failing to stop Wakayama’s demographic and economic decline during Nisaka’s 16-year reign. The JCP are treated as almost theatre, a performance by people who will never win, and most other opposition parties fell behind Kishimoto. Even the genuinely novel Honma still finished on about 10% of the vote.

The Wakayamans, like much of Japan, seem bereft of any hope in politics. People in Nikai’s district don’t necessarily like him, but most will respect his ability to ‘do’ what is seen as practical politics, especially when put next to an opposition variously seen as incompetent and laughable. Any idea that politics does not have to revolve around ainori, the LDP, and deftly securing funding for the newest concrete mountain is seen as hopelessly idealistic. Hence the turnout rate – under 40 percent – and the soshiki, who thrive because their relatively low numbers can still decide election results when most other voters see electoral politics as a lost cause.

Thus, it can be said that the race for Wakayama governor stood out not only for its complexity, but for the nature of its complexity. Only time will tell whether Nikai or Sekō will put down the next stone, or indeed, whether anything will happen away from the board. The LDP and its soshiki can often seem unimaginably vast, like a whale; but since when has that stopped the Wakayamans?

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