Crusading champion has no answer to the power of Japan's ancient ties

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The Independent Online
Naoko Sato is the Chris Evert Lloyd of Japan, which is just as well given the athletic ordeal she has just put herself through. Twenty years ago, she was the country's most talented tennis player - 17 appearances at Wimbledon were followed by a career as a writer, sports commentator and celebrity. Yesterday, she stood for election to the Japanese Diet as a representative of Shinshinto, the New Frontier Party.

Ms Sato wanted to be elected as a woman of vision and ideas. Her manifesto speaks of the global environment, reforming the bureaucracy and "a new course of nation-building aimed at the 21st century." But the voters of Edogawa Ward, the Tokyo suburb where Ms Sato stood, had other ideas. They nodded when she talked of reform, but what they really wanted to hear about was the new local hospital and the big library which she is proposing. Above all they wanted to see the famous tennis player in person.

And so the 41-year old Ms Sato embarked on a punishing 12-day marathon - pounding the streets of Edogawa, in a campaign van and on foot, from morning to evening. "I'd like to believe they think about the bigger problems," said Ms Sato last week, hoarse from eight hours on the stump. "But people vote on local issues."

Two election campaigns came to an end in Japan yesterday. The first was the familiar kind, conducted in press conferences and party political broadcasts, focusing on tax reform, welfare spending and security. But the decisive battle was fought elsewhere, in a thousand individual campaigns like Ms Sato's, lost and won for reasons which have less to do with politics than with personal appeal, local gain and the almost feudal network of loyalty and obligation that runs like an invisible thread through Japanese life. The profoundly unpolitical nature of Japanese politics becomes clear on a stroll through Tokyo 16, Ms Sato's battleground in Edogawa Ward. Voters in the capital are the most sophisticated in the country, but it is difficult to find anyone who votes for purely ideological reasons.

"The parties are all the same," says Hitoshi Makino, 38, a taxi driver who voted for Ms Sato. "Most of the people round here don't have any special loyalty, but the religious groups send their members to ask their friends to vote for a particular party, and some of those friends ask their friends. If you know someone who belongs to a party, that might be what makes up your mind."

"The truth is that I hold somewhat right-wing ideas," said Seiichi Tsuge, a shy looking 50-year-old who voted for Yoshinobu Shimamura, the candidate of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. "I'm a militarist, you see, and I want to use my vote to stop the left-wingers." But personal connections lurk behind even the most ferocious convictions. "Mr Shimamura's cousin is also a friend of mine," he went on.

Behind many of the votes cast yesterday, lies the concept of giri, or dutiful obligation, which surrounds every Japanese from birth. You have giri to your parents, relations, teachers, friends, your clients and employer, and to the politicians who win government funding for new bridges, hospitals and libraries. For years it was common for construction companies which benefit from these handouts to recommend a favoured candidate. Employees were expected to vote accordingly.

Ms Sato has youth, ideas and celebrity but, as a woman and an outsider in a conservative area of Tokyo, the traditional networks of giri were closed to her. By ten o'clock last night it was clear she had lost to the 62-year-old Mr Shimamura, a former Education Minister, who represents everything that she is not. His father was elected in 1946 and for most of the 50 years since then, Edogawa has been represented by a Shimamura. Many of his supporters are children of the men who elected his father

Throughout the country yesterday, voters surrendered to their conservative instincts and drifted back to his party. As the longest established of the main parties, the LDP has an unrivalled local network. Its near victory last night puts it in the strongest position it has enjoyed for three years. "Voters get the politicians they deserve," said an old man called Masayuki Sudo. "But Japanese thinking is still stuck in the 19th century. It makes me angry. Japanese people complain about the state of the country, but they don't know what to do to change it."