Campaign Controversies

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Why mori's gaffes may help at the polls

The small seaside city of komatsu on japan's western coast is just an hour's flight from Tokyo. But the contrast between this sleepy town and the bustling, neon-lit capital helps explain how Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's brand of nationalistic conservatism can raise hackles in one part of Japan and a shrug of the shoulders in another.
Mori grew up in this area of Ishikawa prefecture, which Japanese journalists have dubbed the kingdom of conservatives. The streets near Mori's tile-roofed house in Komatsu are home to Buddhist temples, a tatami-mat maker, a ceramics shop and the residence of a flower-arranging master. Like many others in the ranks of the Liberal Democratic Party, Mori rode his family coattails to power. His grandfather and father were mayors of the small town of Neagari. To this day, the Prime Minister's father Shigeki, who was mayor for 36 years, is something of a mythological figure; many people support Mori because of fond feelings for his father. Some still tell stories of Shigeki plunging into the cold, stormy waters of the Japan Sea to retrieve the bodies of two fishermen whose boat was shipwrecked. The Prime Minister was the son of our mayor, says 72-year-old Shinichi Mori (no relation). That's one reason why we supported him.

So it's no surprise that many here are comfortable with Mori's recent invocation of Imperial Japan. He is just using country language, says Shinichi Mori. His speech will become more polished in time. The Prime Minister's rhetoric plays just fine in rural Japan. Countryside voters, who tend to be more conservative than city folk, have given the ldp a nearly uninterrupted hold on power for more than four decades. And the party has used that power to make sure legislative districts are drawn to give disproportionate weight to rural areas, where the Liberal Democrats are stronger. In the last election, in 1996, the ldp won 56% of the seats with just 39% of the vote. Some rural districts have fewer than 200,000 voters; some urban districts have more than 400,000.

That's why Mori's recent verbal gaffes may not have been accidental--and are unlikely to cause him lasting damage. In May, he told an organization of pro-Shinto members of parliament that Japan is a divine nation with the Emperor at its center. That remark outraged many Japanese, as well as other Asians, who have long memories of the atrocities committed in the name of the Emperor before and during World War II. In a subsequent appearance Mori referred to Japan using the archaic term kokutai, a word referring to national unity that was used in the years leading up to World War II. He evoked war-era language again on a campaign stop in his home town, Komatsu, calling on voters to protect the home front while he fights on the frontline.

Like Tokyo's incendiary governor Shintaro Ishihara, Mori may be calculating that an appeal to such right-wing, nationalistic sentiments will help him hold onto power in this week's parliamentary election. Declining poll ratings and a restless public suggest that a high voter turnout could topple Mori. It is my impression that Mori is trying to draw support by making retrospective and sentimental remarks that point to Japan's ancient regime, says Shingo Fukushima, 78, professor emeritus at Senshu University in Tokyo.

Or it could simply be that this is what Mori believes. In the 1970s, he belonged to Seirankai, a hawkish group of legislators that stood for a stronger Japan independent of U.S. influence. The group included Ishihara. Whatever Mori's true beliefs, the media lynching he has received over his remarks only helps him in places like Komatsu. On his first visit to the area after his series of controversial remarks began, 15,000 fans came out to cheer him with cries of Banzai! Because the press attacks him, we're much more eager to support him now, says Kantaro Nishi. After all, he's one of them.

With reporting by Sachiko Sakamaki/Komatsu