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Confusion in Gunma Pref. town after mayor calls snap election over sexual harassment claim

Mayor Yoshinari Maeda holds a press conference at Minakami Town Hall after dissolving the municipal assembly, on Aug. 6, 2018, in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo. (Mainichi)

MINAKAMI, Gunma -- The residents of this town northwest of Tokyo have been put in a bind ahead of a snap town assembly election set to be held on Sept. 9, as the basis for how to vote for candidates has blurred following a sexual harassment accusation against the mayor.

In response to the passage of a no-confidence motion in the Minakami Municipal Assembly over the sexual harassment allegations against 51-year-old Mayor Yoshinari Maeda, he chose to dissolve the assembly. The candidates for the 18-seat assembly will be announced on Sept. 4, with a record some 30 people planning to join the race.

The sexual harassment allegations against the mayor look to become the major point of contention in the race, but it also appears that candidates who support the mayor will discuss different issues and use other methods to move focus away from the scandal. Amid these circumstances, Minakami residents have become unsure about the basis on which they should vote for candidates for the assembly.

Ahead of the municipal assembly election, large boards able to accommodate 36 candidate posters have been set up. According to an official from the town's election management committee, it is the first time that such large election boards have ever been used in Minakami for an assembly election. With the completion of assembly member terms, 20 people ran in the assembly election in April this year. However, less than five months later, as of Sept. 2, it looks as though 29 people are planning to announce their candidacy in the upcoming race.

The sexual harassment scandal broke when a woman in the town submitted a damage report to police in May alleging that she had been subject to forced indecency by Mayor Maeda. The municipal assembly then adopted a resolution calling for the mayor's resignation on May 10. A no-confidence motion was filed against the mayor on June 5, but the initiative was unable to get the votes from three-fourths of the assembly it needed to pass.

However, another no-confidence motion was submitted on July 27 on the grounds that the scandal was slowing down administrative activities and damaging the image of the town as a tourist spot, and passed. Faced with the decision to either resign or dissolve the assembly after the no-confidence motion was adopted, Maeda chose the latter.

If another non-confidence motion is put forward and adopted by a majority of the new assembly, then the major will still lose his position. Those against Maeda are calling for municipal government reform, and are aiming to get a majority in the assembly to push through the no-confidence vote.

On the other hand, those who support the mayor are instead running on a platform of debating the refuse-derived fuel (RDF) activities in the town that Maeda inherited from his predecessor. However, such an issue has not been seriously discussed in the assembly up until now, and even when the mayor himself was asked about issues with RDF at a press conference, he was stuck for an explanation.

One resident shook their head, commenting, "Even if they were to suddenly debate the issue now, residents probably wouldn't be able to follow." A digest of the candidates' policies will also not be published, further reducing chances for voters to learn about the political ideas, platforms and other information about each candidate. There are even anonymous defamatory documents being passed around, and some residents are calling for a public debate forum.

The sexual harassment allegations against the mayor have cast a shadow on the town as a whole.

Around mid-June, one Minakami woman experienced something she still cannot believe. When she accepted a package from a delivery company worker, the man suddenly reached out to touch her hand when she went to sign for the delivery. Without thinking, she made an exclamation of shock. The man laughed, saying, "Because Minakami is a town where sexual harassment is allowed," and returned to his vehicle without an apology. It happened roughly one week after the first no-confidence motion against Mayor Maeda was voted down.

"It was so sudden that my mind went completely blank," the woman recalled. "Some people may just start crying out of shock. Even if the person is sexually harassing someone as a joke, the victim is still left feeling frightened and uneasy. I don't want people to take this lightly."

The opinions of residents like the woman were carried in the town assembly magazine issued on July 15. One person wrote, "People are saying things like, 'Minakami where sexual harassment is OK.' When I think there might even be attacks on women, it's really frightening."

The women's group "Kobushi no kai" in Minakami is sending a questionnaire to all the candidates who are planning to run in the assembly race, asking about their campaign promises and what they wish to debate in the election. The group plans to then publish the responses on the internet and other media.

The group is composed of roughly 10 female residents interested in the administration of the town that began gathering around July. This time, the group hopes to convey the ideas of each candidate since there was not enough time for citizens to obtain information for making decisions on whom to vote for.

A representative of the group said, "For residents to take interest in the election, it is important for everyone to first know the stance of each of the candidates."

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Hata, Numata Local Bureau, and Atsuko Suzuki, Maebashi Bureau)

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