Yet it appears to be a whole different ball game in the provinces. The re-election on Sept. 1 of Yasuo Tanaka as governor of Nagano prefecture is a sign that, at long last, Japanese democracy is coming of age. Citizens are tired of pork-barrel construction projects and politics as usual. So they are handing power to leaders who seem genuinely committed to doing things differently.
Tanaka's outrageous personal style—his stuffed animal collection, his bright ties, his see-through "crystal office"—grabs headlines, yet he is only one of a group of influential governors challenging the center. Best known is Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo, notorious for his blunt speech and strident nationalism. Just last week, Ishihara sparked a furor about Japan's hapless banking system by threatening to pull the city's deposits from troubled Mizuho Holdings.
Ominously for mainstream parties, most of these leaders are fierce independents. "It may be rude to say it," observes Kitagawa, "but in the case of Chiba's Akiko Domoto, Nagano's Yasuo Tanaka, and myself as well, 'weirdos' became governor." Asano and Domoto both refused all party endorsements, yet won handily. Staying unattached and "weird" means freedom from the smoky backroom culture that is smothering Koizumi. Governor Asano wrote to candidate Domoto, "Please don't think of nonaffiliation as a means to gain advantage in the election. It's not a means; it's a policy."
It is said that no country achieves democracy until it has had to fight for it. Japan had democracy handed to it on a platter by the U.S. after World War II. It wasn't a gift in which the public had much interest. During the high-growth years, citizens contentedly relied on Elite bureaucracies that steered the nation with a magic hand, functioning in near total secrecy, with budgets and planning structures far removed from the political process. Over time, their programs began to diverge drastically from the real needs of society. Today, there are things worth fighting about: among them, the last rivers and wetlands still unconcreted, and a skyrocketing national debt due to reach 200% of the GDP by 2005.
The "fight for democracy" has only just begun, and the governors will not find the going easy. Japan's construction boondoggles come rigged with booby traps for those who try to dismantle them. Former Governor Yukio Aoshima of Tokyo, who campaigned in the mid-1990s against a ruinous bay project, was forced to retreat when he found that cancellation would incur hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties.
No one should underestimate the long memories and dogged persistence of the bureaucrats either. Public resistance to the Yoshino dam project in Tokushima forced the River Bureau to "table" it. The bureau did not officially cancel the project, keeping the option of pursuing it later. A bureau spokesman commented that a blank page should not be allowed to appear in his ministry's history dating back to the Meiji period—institutional memory going back more than a century.
Indeed, many have predicted a flowering of Japanese democracy before. Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa's 1993 victory over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the first in decades, was short-lived. Within nine months, Hosokawa was out and party stalwarts ruled as before. This time, however, the outspoken governors and their grassroots electorates—who are now rising in open rebellion against central authority—appear to be something truly new. While Koizumi and Tokyo's power brokers are sidelined, it is maverick local leaders who are running up to the ball. Let's just hope the ball is still there when they get to it.