Yokohama anti-casino movement fumbles the ball

IR issue to impact Yokohama election

Imagine this scenario for the August 22 mayoral elections in Yokohama: Exit polls show voters most of all concerned about IR development, and they are opposed to it by a more than 2-to-1 margin—and yet the winner of the election is pro-IR incumbent Fumiko Hayashi.

Such a scenario is now entirely plausible due to the political management of the opposition parties, first and foremost the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ).

It now appears that there will be at least eight candidates in the race, six of them with overt anti-casino policy platforms.

Four of the announced candidates—Masataka Ota, Akiko Fujimura, Mineyuki Fukuda, and Yoshikazu Tsubokura—appear to be minor players, unlikely to have a major impact unless one of them turns out to be an unexpectedly strong street campaigner.

The higher tier candidates are likely to be Fumiko Hayashi, Hachiro Okonogi, Takeharu Yamanaka, and Yasuo Tanaka.

But with Okonogi, Yamanaka, and Tanaka all appealing to the anti-casino camp, this seems to leave Hayashi with the pro-IR lane all to herself. The Yokohama Chamber of Commerce & Industry and much of the conservative political establishment can be expected to fall in line behind her. In other words, if this is indeed the field of play on Election Day, she could very well win.

This represents a failure of leadership by the anti-casino forces, most of which have looked to the main opposition CDPJ for its organizational heft.

The first hints of their ineptitude, however, appeared early. The very first candidate in the race, way back in January, was Masataka Ota, a Yokohama city councilman who is a member of the CDPJ. A sensible political party would have either quickly backed their man and started to build him up starting six months ago, or else leaned on him to drop out of the race in order to clear the path for a more powerful candidate. They did neither.

The CDPJ waited two more months until March before finally establishing a committee headed by national lawmakers Kenji Eda and Tomoko Abe. Originally, they indicated that they would complete their task by the end of April. Despite appeals from their allies in the citizens’ movement, they took their sweet time about it. It wasn’t until mid-June, after three months of deliberations, that they finally unveiled their candidate—a university professor with no political resume.

That professor, Yamanaka, could turn out to be a strong campaigner and has a good chance of being elected mayor if he shows the requisite skills, but it’s beyond dispute that he should have launched his campaign months earlier than he did in order to build up better name recognition.

Yasuo Tanaka’s entry into the mayoral race this week also looks like a political miscalculation by the CDPJ. As a former governor of Nagano Prefecture and a political celebrity with a national profile, he seems like he would have been an ideal candidate for the anti-casino movement to rally behind had he appeared on the scene a couple of months ago.

One wonders what happened. Did Tanaka let the CDPJ know he has interested in the mayoral post but was rebuffed? Was he waiting to be asked, but never received the approach? Did he only decide that he was interested at the last minute, after smelling weakness in the Yamanaka candidacy? At any rate, there was clearly some kind of failure on the CDPJ’s part.

However, one initiative that the CDPJ cannot be blamed for was the unexpected moves of former National Public Safety Commission Chairman Hachiro Okonogi. No one could reasonably have anticipated that he would resign his post in the Suga Cabinet and then join the mayoral race on a pledge to pull the plug on the Yamashita Pier IR. That one truly came out of right field.

Also unexpected in this context is that Okonogi jumped into the race without adequately preparing his ground, provoking a rebellion by pro-IR politicians within the ruling party’s local chapter, and thus creating a wide lane for Hayashi to enter the race with substantial support from both the business and political establishment.

The upshot is that the anti-casino movement, especially the CDPJ, has really dropped the ball on this one. Instead of uniting behind one major candidate who has the attention and support of a broadly anti-casino general public, they have fallen into a scenario in which they could very well win the argument and still lose the race.

A Hayashi win would keep IR development in Yokohama on track, though much of the local public would be seething with discontent.