HIGASHIOMI, Shiga -- Rice fields ready for harvest move with the wind that blows all the way to Lake Biwa. During the Heisei era, this village in the eastern part of this western Japan prefecture was the scene of political reform.
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"Community repair of the rivers, community repair of the roads, we say. In Shiga, if a major river or road in a town needs to be repaired, then everyone comes out with shovels," said Masayoshi Takemura, 84, a native of the village of Tamao, now part of Higashiomi.
Takemura's New Party Sakigake split from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and took 13 seats in the 1993 House of Representatives election. He became a central pillar in the establishment of the non-LDP-led administration of Morihiro Hosokawa alongside the prime minister's Japan New Party and other parties.
The reorganization of the Japanese political sphere from the two-party "1955 System" of the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) emerged out of reflection on the dominance of money in politics. Starting in 1974, Takemura served three terms as the governor of Shiga Prefecture. He made his national political debut in 1986, when he was elected to represent Shiga under the multiple-seat constituency system of the time. Soon after his election, the 1988 Recruit scandal would shake the political world with revelations that a number of legislators and bureaucrats received prelisted shares of Recruit Cosmos, a subsidiary of Recruit Co.
Takemura established what would become the predecessor of the Sakigake party, the utopia political research association policy group, and called for the revision of the multiple-seat constituencies that had become a hotbed for money-driven elections, and sought reform of the campaign finance system.
However, he could not realize his desired changes while working within the LDP of the time. When he was serving as chief Cabinet secretary for the Hosokawa administration in 1994, he was able to realize the introduction of single-seat constituencies and proportional representational blocs to the House of Representatives electoral system. He also played a key role in the creation of a system for campaign funding for parties, along with many other large changes to the political sphere. In the 1996 lower house election, the first to be held under the new electoral system, Takemura was elected for a fourth term to represent what had become the No. 2 Shiga single-seat constituency.
What Takemura says supported him in all of his endeavors was the grassroots movement that he carefully nurtured since his time as prefectural governor. "I turned to a style of politics that made frontline connections, like at neighborhood associations, setting up a system where we made decisions for ourselves," explained Takemura.
In 1977, during his first term as governor, he created a subsidy system for neighborhood associations. Neighborhood association meeting halls were newly built or renovated all around the prefecture, and each was called a "grassroots house."
"I hoped that political participation would gradually be livened up to a level where people were able to say things to the prefectural or even the national government," Takemura said.
Even now, these grassroots houses exist across the region, often renamed things like "autonomy houses." However, the reality is that over the Heisei era, the conditions of regional areas like this have changed drastically.
"In the past we would hold cultural festivals, celebrate the efforts of those who participated in district sports days -- we would hold all of that here. But now the chances to use these facilities have decreased," said 73-year-old Katsuo Nakajima, the chairman of the federation of Higashiomi neighborhood associations. He reflected on the last 30 years while looking at the Uenakano meeting hall in what used to be the town of Aito. "This is an era of weakened connections between people," he said.
The city of Higashiomi was born out of the merger of one city and six towns in 2006. Nakajima, who was raised in Aito, watched the shift of eras from Showa to Heisei from the town while he was serving as the district chief. Now, he is now serving his second term as the head of the local residents' association. "A person born in Showa 20 (1945) is still at it," Nakajima said with a dry laugh.
"We still have most of our rice paddies, but the agricultural industry is no longer profitable, and most people farm now out of a sense of obligation," Nakajima said. "There is no reason to stay attached to this land. I feel there's a danger of the community being on the decline."
During the early years of the Heisei era, the town of Aito had a population of 6,172 in 1,387 households, according to 1990 national census data. Now, the district's population has fallen to 4,990 people divided among an increased number of households -- 1,428 per the 2015 census.
"In addition to an increase in nuclear families and the breakdown of households, there are also a lot of factories in this area, so the number of single-individual households has probably risen," a representative of the Higashiomi Municipal Government weighed in. These social changes may have brought these big changes to the region.
When Nakajima last served as the district chief, when spring came, the local community would all come out to examine and repair the region's roads and rivers, and the residents' associations would also play a vital role in going into the mountains and cutting the brush to prepare firewood for the winter months. Now, the residents still go out in groups to clean the river. But Nakajima lamented, "Changes to the land have already been carried out, so it's just a formality. It's not like in the old days when everyone would spend almost the entire day trying their best."
But still, from the standpoint of disaster and crime prevention, the community must prevent ties between its residents from weakening further. That's why Nakajima has teamed up with the district's community building cooperation committee chaired by Kunihiro Murayama to decorate the entryway from the main road into the district with flowerbeds planted with periwinkles and the like. To make the district a bit more colorful, each residents' association worked together to prepare roughly 650 such flowerbeds all around the area. "This is what brings people together," Nakajima emphasized, looking at one of the beds.
The change in the structure of regional society has also led to a change in politics. Katsumi Shimizu, 69, a former chief secretary of the Shiga prefectural chapter of the LDP, pointed out that its community-based vote-gathering method is no longer viable.
"At the start of the Heisei era, we would still ask the head of residents' associations or the district chiefs to help get out the vote," Shimizu said. "But now, that is completely out of the question. That era has ended, you could say." Recalling the 2009 switch to the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration, Shimizu said, "If (the LDP's) ties to local communities are strong, then changes of the ruling party don't happen. The fact that it did indeed take place means that our ties were weak."
Not only in urban areas, but in rural Japan, too, the number of people who do not identify with a particular political party has grown. Now, if the head of a certain party maintains some level of temporary popularity, that momentum can carry elections anywhere in the country. This is sometimes criticized as populism, and has also been pointed to as a harmful effect of the combined single-seat constituency and proportional representation electoral system. In Shiga's No. 2 electoral district, the Democratic Party of Japan won the House of Representatives seat for three consecutive terms from 2003, but the next three terms beginning in 2012 went to the LDP. The year 2012 happens to be the start of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's singular domination of Japanese politics.
"To be completely honest, I feel a little bittersweet. I don't have the confidence to proudly say that this was the right decision," Takemura now says of the political system which he helped reform.
"The Japanese, we think this is good but this other thing is also good -- we look at things in relation to others. The true nature of these Japanese people does not fit a system where 51 percent is a pass and 49 percent is failure," he went on. "I think that if the time comes, it wouldn't be a bad idea to once again have a large-scale discussion about how the electoral system in this country should work."
(Japanese original by Junya Higuchi, Political News Department)
This is Part 9 of a 10-part series.