Tokyo governor defies party bosses, may bring down Japanese Cabinet


TOKYO -- Shunichi Suzuki bends forward from the waist, his jaw set, his dark suit buttoned, his back and knees ramrod stiff and the top of his bald head facing the audience as he flexes his wrists and touches the floor of the stage with the palms of both hands.

The deep-bending exercise has become the trademark of Mr. Suzuki's campaign for a fourth term as governor of Metropolitan Tokyo, his defiant answer to kingmakers in the governing Liberal Democratic Party who tried to tell him 80 was too old to stay on as head of the government with the world's 10th-largest budget.

With just weeks to go before Election Day, April 7, polls show Mr. Suzuki unexpectedly building a lead so big that it could force resignations among top LDP power brokers who tried to dump him -- and might bring down the ever-fragile Cabinet of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.

"If Suzuki wins by more than 500,000 votes," political scientist Masayoki Fukuoka said, "there will be strong pressure on Ichiro Ozawa to resign as LDP secretary-general, and it would be very hard to sustain a Kaifu Cabinet without Ozawa."

"I will not retreat," Mr. Suzuki told supporters days before the campaign began. "Hell waits for me if I retreat, and I'm not ready for that -- not yet."

With or without wreaking still more havoc in the national ZTC governing party, which has yet to recover from a year of scandals that brought down two prime ministers two years ago, the man who governs Metropolitan Tokyo's 12 million residents sits at the apex of a patronage-rich system of more than 200,000 government workers.

His domain includes 23 city-sized wards, 27 suburban cities, six towns, eight villages and a scattering of islands that reaches more than 600 miles.

Mr. Suzuki inherited a deepening deficit crisis 12 years ago and rebuilt the megalopolis' financing, getting into the black within three years and going on to build an annual budget of more than $80 billion -- bigger than China's and roughly as big as Australia's.

In his later years, he has built the tallest building in Japan -- an $850 million, 48-story, twin-tower City Hall in the middle of the old Shinjuku red-light district -- and has railroaded through a highly controversial waterfront redevelopment plan that would rival any public works project in Japan's history.

Alongside this urban empire, he has built a network of political supporters and close associates among architects and builders, and a reputation for an imperious ego.

Japanese newspaper and television reports have pointed to the LDP's Mr. Ozawa as the man who cut the deal by which the governing conservatives joined with the Clean Government and Democratic Socialist opposition parties to dump Governor Suzuki in favor of Hisanori Isomura, a former TV news anchorman and foreign correspondent.

Most of those reports have asserted that dumping Mr. Suzuki was part of the price Mr. Ozawa and the LDP had to pay for the crucial votes by which the other two parties helped to push Japan's $9 billion contribution to the Persian Gulf war through parliament.

Mr. Suzuki seized upon those reports to portray himself as "the first Japanese victim of the gulf war." Abruptly, poll results began to reverse themselves, raising doubts whether Mr. Isomura's well-known face and the national LDP's campaign yen would be enough to beat an incumbent who had not seemed especially popular.

Previously seen as a high-handed former bureaucrat whose penchant for monument-building was costing him support, Mr. Suzuki began to show up in polls as an underdog, fighting interference from national politicians many Tokyo voters like even less.

Among large segments of Tokyo's 9.1 million voters, dumping Mr. Suzuki "is being seen as an act of extreme high-handedness," said Mr. Fukuoka, the political scientist.

"Japanese political culture favors an underdog," he said.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad