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Tokyo Elections and Urban Development

July 13, 2009

Pretty much as predicted, the LDP lost badly in the Assembly elections for Tokyo. They ended up with only 38 seats to the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) 54. The LDP will continue to be part of the largest bloc in the Assembly thanks to the 22 seats held by the Komeito, the party of the Soka Gakkai, a lay organisation of the large Nichiren Shoshu evangelical Buddhist sect. The Komeito have almost single-handedly kept the LDP in power in Japan for years now, and seem to have no point to their existence at all, apart from ensuring that laws on religious organisations are kept as light as possible. Nevertheless, even as a bloc, the LDP / Komeito no longer have a majority in the 127-seat Assembly.

Under pressure, unpopular LDP Prime Minister, Aso Taro, has now called elections to the national Diet for August 30th. Normally one would expect a wipe-out of the LDP, but that’s not how Japanese politics works. With very strong rural and regional support, the LDP will most likely win again, but a different faction will get their man (and it will most probably be a man) into the PM’s office. There has been a non-LDP government before, but it happens so infrequently as to be almost unheard of…

Whilst Aso is unpopular and LDP’s response to the recession has been both predictably unimaginative and unsustainable (in short, “more concrete!”), this wasn’t just about national issues, despite what LDP spokespeople in Tokyo would have us believe. There are some serious economic and urban development issues in Tokyo. More people seem to have lost patience with long-standing Governor Ishihara, who is backed by the LDP on the whole, and in particular the almost collapse of Ishihara’s subsidies for Tokyo banks affected by the global collapse of financial services, and the latest mega-scheme to free up land for private sector redevelopment, the proposed move of the famous Tsukiji fishmarket from its convenient and historic location at the edge of fashionable and expensive Ginza to some remote toxic waste dump in the middle of nowhere. 20 years ago, even 5 years ago, such ridiculous schemes to aid private capital were routinely forced through, but in the current climate, this may not be possible. Finally, like Rio de Janeiro, where I was earlier in the year, Tokyo is candidate city for the 2016 Olympics with all the financial (and social and security) implications that bidding for and hosting such a mega-event implies, and people are starting to wonder whether the city can afford it.

Still, the relentless march of redevelopment continues elsewhere: the old Koma Theatre in Kabukicho, which I predicted would be targeted by developers as soon as they started trying to secure the area with CCTV cameras and intensified policing a few years back, is now almost demolished (pictures soon)… apparently Shinjuku’s red light district is now officially safe for more mainstream and less obviously dirty forms on capitalism.

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