Just 10 minutes and change past the closing of polls at 8 p.m. on March 25, Ikuo Kabashima secured his second term as governor of Kumamoto Prefecture amid shouts of "banzai!"
The election had pitted a newcomer connected to the Communist Party against the multiparty-backed incumbent Kabashima. The atmosphere was certainly different this time around compared to four years ago, when Kabashima fought his first election campaign while being told things such as "you must bow your head further."
For Kabashima, a former political scientist specializing in elections and public opinion, however, voter turnout was an "invisible enemy." Voter turnout is a barometer of public will and winning an election with a low voting rate cannot necessarily be called a victory.
"It's no good unless prefectural residents share the awareness that 'this is a governor created by us.' (Without that, the governor) is far removed from the citizens of the prefecture," Kabashima said during the election campaign.
Though he urged constituents to "get out and vote" until his voice was hoarse, voter turnout was a paltry 38.44 percent, a record low. The governor remained undaunted. "I had calculated a theoretical figure of 28 percent," he said. "The result was 10 percent higher. I believe I put forth a pretty good effort."
AN AT-RISK STUDENT
The eighth of 10 children, Kabashima was born into a poor farming family residing in a small agricultural community in the northern part of the prefecture. From his second year of elementary school through the end of his third year in high school, Kabashima got up early every morning to deliver newspapers along with his older brothers and sisters in order to help support his family's finances.
Not studying much, he ended high school ranked 200th out of a class of 220. Cutting class, Kabashima could often be found sprawled under a lone pine tree atop a small rise or absorbed in reading novels in the school library. He was very much an at-risk student.
"Though he was unable to study, he was a big talker with a silver tongue," said Takahiro Serikawa, 65, a former classmate of Kabashima's from elementary school through high school. During that time he already had dreams of becoming a rancher or politician.
After high school, he found employment with an agricultural cooperative and at age 21 went to the United States for practical study in farming.
There he participated in a rigorous apprenticeship at a farm in northwestern Idaho where the smell of sheep and cattle clung stubbornly to his body. A strong desire to open a farm at the foot of Mount Aso allowed him to persevere.
"As long as I could recall the poverty of my childhood and had a dream, the hardship could be endured," he said.
At the end of a year and a half of practical training he took courses at the University of Nebraska. It was at this time that an interest in studying awoke inside him.
While paying tuition and living expenses with a combination of funds from scholarships and part-time jobs, he completed his undergraduate work before going on to obtain a master's degree.
"There was unused capacity in my head because until then I had put almost no knowledge into it," he said. At age 28 he gained admission to a doctoral program at Harvard University.
His classmates from Kumamoto were stunned. "Kabashima, Harvard? No way!" The former "at-risk student" returned to Japan with a Ph.D, eventually becoming a professor at the University of Tokyo.
Serikawa said, "'Don't be miserable even if you are poor, don't be dispirited even if things are difficult.' That was his (Kabashima's) outlook on life. He is an optimist by nature."
In his first election campaign in March 2008, Kabashima's camp handed out pamphlets that used manga to portray the ups and downs of the candidate's eventful life to appeal to voters. The front cover was adorned with Kabashima's face drawn in the likeness of a hippo. ("Kaba" can also mean hippopotamus in Japanese, though in the candidate's name the character represents a cattail.) It was a big hit with both children and parents alike and helped Kabashima stand out and earn an overwhelming victory in the free-for-all election, which tied the postwar record with five candidates.
A number of tests awaited the Kabashima administration in its first term.
One was what to do about construction of the Kawabegawa river dam, which the national government had planned more than 40 years ago.
Kabashima stated he would "come to a conclusion within six months of becoming governor," but offered no opinion about the pros and cons of the project during the election campaign. There were a lot of people in favor of the dam's construction among prefectural public servants and within the prefectural assembly. If Kabashima had voiced his opposition right from the start it would have been rather difficult to freeze construction. He needed time to make preparations and lay the groundwork.
In the prefectural assembly in September 2008, Kabashima declared a halt to the dam construction. He spoke on the issue for 45 minutes. The night before his speech he polished his rough draft with a trusted confidant, Taisuke Ono, 38, a political policy adviser to the governor and also a former one-term student of Kabashima's at the University of Tokyo. "How to strike a balance between reason and emotion? Considering that the feelings of some could be hurt by his decision, the governor worked hard on his presentation," Ono said.
Another test awaiting the governor was the need to rehabilitate the prefecture's finances.
For the first year of his first term, Kabashima reduced his own monthly salary by 1 million yen to 240,000 yen ($12,400 to $2,900), leaving him with take-home pay of about 140,000 yen. He had a mortgage to pay for a condominium in Tokyo so life certainly was not easy. He somehow managed to gain consent for the cut from his wife, Tomiko, who has been with him since his days as a self-supporting student.
That the governor reduced his own salary also had the effect of encouraging the public to question the prefecture's fiscal condition: "Are prefectural finances really in such bad shape?" It also led to salary reductions for the prefecture's 23,000 public servants. It is forecast for fiscal 2012, the amount of outstanding prefectural debt will fall below 1 trillion yen for the first time in 15 years. In the prefectural assembly in April, Kabashima again proposed and won approval for a cut to his own governor's salary. This time a 30 percent reduction in the monthly stipend and a 10 percent cut to the semi-annual bonus.
THE IMPORTANCE OF WORDS CALLED INTO QUESTION
Kabashima has gone through life using the challenges he sets for himself as springboards. "I believe the life I have led so far to be a good one and thus have few wants. I can stick to my beliefs without fear of losing."
However, politicians cannot always win everybody's approval.
In 2009, Kabashima had direct talks with the Democratic Party of Japan's Seiji Maehara (currently chair of the party's policy research committee) and others concerning establishment of a Special Measures Law for helping unrecognized sufferers of Minamata disease.
Kumamoto Prefecture is home to Minamata Bay, where industrial wastewater discharged into the bay caused toxic chemicals to bioaccumulate in seafood, leading to mercury poisoning in people who consumed it over 30 years, into the 1960s.
However, even after enforcement of the law there are still victims receiving no relief, and Minamata disease lawsuits continue. In February, the Fukuoka High Court declared the national government's standards for determining Minamata disease to be insufficient and ordered it to recognize a female sufferer who passed away while her petition was still before the court.
Dissatisfied with the ruling, Kumamoto Prefecture filed an appeal. Some are saying "the governor should not have appealed the decision. He should have pressed the national government to revise the standards." Kabashima has this to say: "I was troubled (about appealing) but the Minamata issue comprises an enormous legal and political system. I want to first seek the decision of the Supreme Court of Japan. It can at times be risky for a politician when 'taking crucial action.' "
Caught between ideals and reality, how does one honor their own beliefs? As a politician the governor's words can be called into question. This is perhaps a new challenge that will need to be cleared in the future.
* * *
Born in Inadamura (now Yamaga city), Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1947. The eighth of 10 children born to parents repatriated from Manchuria. In 1968 he went to the United States as an agricultural trainee and in 1974 graduated from the University of Nebraska's agriculture department. He specialized in research related to the preservation of pig semen. He completed a master's degree in agricultural economics at the same university before graduating from Harvard in 1979 with a Ph.D. in political economics. Returning to Japan, he taught as a professor in the College of Policy and Planning Sciences at the University of Tsukuba and at the University of Tokyo, Faculty of Law, before going on to win the Kumamoto gubernatorial election in 2008. He is currently serving his second term.
Favorite book(s): The high school Kabashima attended had a two-story concrete library, which was unusual at the time. He said he often borrowed and read books that had been donated by Keigo Kiyora, a local who went on to become prime minister of Japan in the Taisho Era (1912-1926). He read Plutarch's Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous men, which influenced his dreams of becoming a politician.
Public relations efforts: Last year, in order to attract tourists to Kumamoto from the Kansai region, he made an appearance along with Kumamoto native and top television personality Suzanne at Yoshimoto Kogyo's new Nanba Grand Kagesu Theater in Osaka.
Instead of pretending to trip and fall forward in a scripted scene, the governor fell down backward, leaving the Yoshimoto performers speechless.
Nationwide name recognition: Last year the Kumamoto prefectural mascot Kumamon was voted number one in an Internet poll of local government mascots. There are reportedly more than 800 promotional items related to the character for sale. The copyright for the character is held by the Kumamoto prefectural government, which it licenses free of charge; this was also the governor's idea.
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