Fujimori's Japan Campaign

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The upper chamber of Japan's Diet legislature goes by the august title of the House of Councilors, but it tends to attract the off-beat: baseball players, TV stars, even the occasional pro wrestler. A candidate who is the ex-president of a foreign country currently living under house arrest 11,000 miles away , however... that's a new one, even for Japanese democracy. But on Thursday morning the tiny conservative People's New Party (PNP) confirmed that Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru and a Japanese citizen, would campaign for the Diet under the PNP's banner. "I have agreed to run in the upper house elections," Fujimori told reporters at a press conference at the PNP's headquarters in Tokyo. "Please give me your support."

He'll need it. The 68-year-old Fujimori was addressing Japanese journalists via a speakerphone because he's currently forbidden to leave his home in the Chilean capital of Santiago, where he's fighting extradition to Peru. Lima wants Fujimori to stand trial on charges including corruption and sanctioning death squads during his decade-long reign as president. The son of Japanese immigrants to Peru, Fujimori was an obscure agricultural engineer before he won the presidency in 1990, upsetting the popular novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. As president he was as loved for rescuing Peru's economy from near collapse and ending a violent Maoist insurgency as he was hated for trampling democracy and humans rights.

After winning a third term in a 2000 election that was marred by allegations of ballot rigging, Fujimori abruptly fled for Japan and resigned his office — by fax. The new Peruvian government demanded his extradition, but Tokyo refused. Fujimori's parents had supposedly registered his birth with the Japanese embassy in Lima, which meant he remained a Japanese citizen, and therefore safe from extradition. Fujimori lived in his parents' homeland under the patronage of conservative Japanese politicians until 2005, when he made a surprise trip back to South America in preparation for a political comeback in Peru — only to be immediately arrested by Chilean police.

Fujimori's opponents in Peru have said that he's using his Japanese candidacy as a way to dodge extradition, and at today's press conference, PNP chief Shizuka Kamei confirmed that the party would ask Tokyo to help facilitate Fujimori's return from Chile so that he could campaign. (Adding to that suspicion, officials from the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan revealed this afternoon that Fujimori had approached them earlier asking to run on their ticket, only to be rebuffed.) According to the Japanese government, however, Fujimori will still be allowed to run even if he remains under house arrest in Chile — but if elected, he must appear before the Diet within seven days, or face a summons and an investigation. "Logistics and how he would actually run is going to be discussed from now," admits a PNP spokesperson.

A better question might be why a Japanese party would draft a former Latin American strongman as a candidate in the first place. But beyond sheer publicity for a party that needs it — the PNP holds just nine seats in the Diet, fewer than the Japanese Communist Party — Fujimori is held in high regard by some Japanese, despite his alleged crimes. In 1997, while President of Peru, he spearheaded the dramatic rescue of 71 hostages from Tokyo's embassy in Peru, earning the respect of Japanese who viewed their own leaders' performance in the crisis as ineffectual. "If Fujimori has an image, it's not as a human rights violator, but as the guy who rescued the hostages," says Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

The PNP is clearly counting on Fujimori's tough image, and party leaders say that he will focus on bringing home Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s. "I strongly hope Mr. Fujimori, as the last samurai, will shake up a Japan that has lost its courage, self-confidence and gentleness," said the PNP's Kamei, who added that Fujimori will make use of his "knowledge, rich experience and reputation for our country's politics."

It's not clear now whether the Peruvian samurai with the accented Japanese will attract voters here who seem preoccupied with domestic issues, especially if Fujimori has to do all his campaigning via teleconferencing. But Fujimori's election could have a surprising impact on Japanese politics. If the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) loses Diet seats in the July elections, as polls suggest, they could lose their majority in the upper house unless they can form a broader coalition with new allies. If Fujimori can help the PNP win additional seats, the small conservative party would be a likely fit with the LDP. Fujimori has built his political career on the improbable, but going from house arrest to ruling class would be an impressive trick, even by his standards. With reporting by Yuki Oda and Michiko Toyama/Tokyo