Japanese comics take crucial role in party politics


in Tokyo

"It's like a magnitude 7 earthquake," said the man from the Tokyo Metropolitan government, "and the rule book only goes up to magnitude 6." Seismic analogies are becoming all too common in Japan, but - among business people and politicians, at least - Sunday's local elections have caused genuine shock.

In Tokyo and Osaka, a pair of independent candidates, Yukio Aoshima and "Knock" Yokoyama, were elected governors, inflicting mortifying defeats on candidates backed by the ruling coalition government. The two are old friends, having been elected to the Upper House of the Japanese Diet in 1968, but they are better known in their alternative incarnations - as television comedians, the Norman Wisdom and Ernie Wise of Japanese showbiz.

Yesterday, a number of senior Japanese were very pointedly failing to see the joke. Greeting the media at his home in a western suburb of Tokyo, a smiling Mr Aoshima confirmed their worst fears. "I want to learn a lot about the metropolitan government," he admitted, "because I really don't know anything about it."

Publicly, political leaders expressed their "surprise" at his victory. Off the record, Mr Aoshima's future servants in the metropolitan government were less circumspect. "Can he be serious?" asked one. "Do I have to travel around the world bowing my head in shame?"

The triumph of the comedians will have real consequences, for Japan's broader political picture, and for life in its two greatest cities. In an effort to bring down local taxes, Mr Yokoyama has hinted that he may revise plans to expand Osaka's gleaming new Kansai International Airport.

On Saturday, Mr Aoshima told the Independent that he intends to withdraw municipal support from a 30bn yen (£220m) bail-out plan for two bankrupt credit unions, "review" a massive development programme on the Tokyo Bay waterfront and cancel the World City Expo planned for next year, which has already sold 2.6 million advance tickets.

As "citizens' candidates" without any party base, the two men will face immense difficulties in negotiating the tight-knit cliques of the regional assemblies. Governors do not, in any case,enjoy great autonomy and after a period of conflict Japan's powerful consensus machinery is likely to find ways of neutralising and co-opting Messrs Aoshima and Yokoyama.

More significant is the shadow the election results cast on the nine- month-old government of the Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama. The coalition, between Mr Murayama's left-leaning Social Democratic Party and the conservative Liberal Democrats was always an unlikely and cynical alliance. Since its feeble response to the Kobe earthquake in January, the government's credibility has ebbed with each new crisis.

Two more elections - to local assemblies in April and to the Upper House in May - will determine whether either side can capitalise on the weekend's mayhem, and whether anything can be done to stem Japan's growing disgust with politicians.