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Nagasaki IR bid gets top-level political patronage


The Nagasaki IR licensing bid has now gained something that it never had before—a political patron at the very top of Japan’s government.

It was by no means obvious that Nagasaki would gain a pipeline to the top, as there are no incumbent politicians from the prefecture who are at the very top levels of either the government or the ruling party. But the genius of making the Nagasaki bid into the Kyushu-wide regional bid is now apparent. The chairman of the new Kyushu IR Promotion Council is Yutaka Aso of neighboring Fukuoka Prefecture.

Aso, himself, of course, is a businessman, not a politician. He heads the major firm Aso Cement Co. But he is a grandson of the renowned early postwar Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru. More to the point, he is the younger brother of former Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Elder brother Taro Aso’s short and unhappy premiership of 2008-2009 is less important than what he is today. Continuously since December 2012, he has held the dual roles of deputy prime minister and finance minister of Japan. Even more, Taro Aso heads a major faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, one of whose members, Taro Kono, could very well become Japan’s prime minister by the autumn of this year.

The importance of having Yutaka Aso front the “Kyushu IR” bid should be apparent. The powerful elder brother’s name and prestige has also been put on the line for a project which is now being promoted as being a major benefit for the region as a whole.

It’s probably no coincidence that all four of the locations currently seeking IR licenses now have identifiable political patrons at the very top.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the national leader and president of the ruling party, is the patron of Yokohama’s bid, where his own political district can be found. Though no one has produced concrete evidence, it is widely believed that it is Suga who has been pushing Mayor Fumiko Hayashi behind the scenes into making a play for a local casino which may turn out to be ruinous to her career and reputation.

After Suga, the most powerful person in the ruling party, holding the No. 2 position, is Toshihiro Nikai. He hails from Wakayama, and is known, among other things, for his tight links to the tourism industry. Nikai clearly gives political heft to Wakayama’s IR bid.

The person holding the No. 2 position in the government administration, Taro Aso, will now also be associated with a specific IR bid.

Currently looking a little weaker by this standard is the Osaka bid, which has no direct patron at the very top. Their heft comes from the fact that they run a small national political party, the Japan Innovation Party (Osaka Ishin), which sometimes acts as a de facto conservative ally to the government. Also, Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui and the prime minister have a good working relationship.

The national government will probably announce the three winners of the IR licenses in the summer of 2022.

An interesting point is that, viewed from today’s vantage point, only Taro Aso is likely to be equally powerful or even more powerful in 2022 than he is now, with the other three possibly in political eclipse.

Prime Minister Suga has an uphill battle to remain in office beyond this autumn. He has not demonstrated the communication skills nor the public charisma likely to achieve strong election results. Facing so many crucial elections in the months ahead, the smart money is that he will be forced to resign by October at the latest.

If so, both Yokohama and Osaka would lose their best connection to the top.

As for Nikai, it is plausible that he could remain LDP secretary-general into next year, but the fact is that he is fairly likely to be out soon as well. Within the ruling party there’s been a lot of dissatisfaction about his long tenure in his current post, as well as about some of his policy decisions.

It was Nikai, more than anyone, who selected Suga as the successor to Shinzo Abe, and that hasn’t proved to be an entirely happy choice for the ruling party. The pressure for Nikai to go may be too strong to resist once Suga is gone, and that could be bad news for Wakayama’s IR chances.

Taro Aso, on the other hand, may find himself in an even sweeter position come next year. Although his eight-year tenure as deputy prime minister and finance minister is seen by many as having gone on too long, his role as faction leader to Kono means that he could play a role in the next government similar to the one that Nikai plays with the Suga government—the most important figure helping the prime minister keep control of the ruling party.

If Aso makes it clear to a Prime Minister Kono that he wants his little brother to get one of the three IR licenses for the benefit of the Kyushu region, it seems highly unlikely that he would face a rejection.

Of course, one could choose to believe the senior level politics will not play a role in the IR licensing selection process, and that the winners will be the local governments that compile the best bids.

We can’t know for sure, but there has been very little so far in Japan’s IR development process that inspires confidence that selection won’t be politicized. Indeed, the selection of Yutaka Aso as chairman of the Kyushu IR Promotion Council suggests that the folks in Nagasaki understand this game. (AGB Nippon / AGB Nippon – JP)

Michael Penn
Michael Penn
Michael Penn is a journalist and scholar based in Tokyo, Japan. As a journalist, he both writes print news articles and produces news videos. On the video side, he has several years of experience doing it all by himself: reporting the stories, shooting the video, and editing the packages. As a scholar, the bulk of his past publications have been about Japan's modern relations with the Islamic world.