Professor-Turned-Governor Ikuo Kabashima
Fellows in the Field*
TO: SSRC New York
FROM: Jeffrey Broadbent, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and 2006-2008 Abe Fellow
RE: Ikuo Kabashima's Landmark Political Campaign
DATE: April 2008
*Editor's note: With this article by Abe Fellow Jeffrey Broadbent, we introduce an occasional series of reports by SSRC-sponsored researchers in the field.
I have been spending periods of several months in Japan since this time last year, doing research on the role of scientific information in the formation of Japanese policy on global climate change with the support of an Abe Fellowship. My Japan findings will feed into a study I am doing of this issue on a global basis, a comparison among 17 countries.
The tale I am about to tell is only tangentially related to my official research—but has led me to think more deeply about the practical applications of that research. That’s the nature, and often the beauty, of academic fieldwork. You never quite know what you’re going to encounter. On the occasion of this trip, I found myself swept into the vortex of local Japanese politics. The protagonist of the story is an old friend of mine, Ikuo Kabashima—we were at graduate school together at Harvard in the late 1970s. With the ending of the Japanese academic year last month, Ikuo took the momentous step to leave his career as a political scientist at Japan’s most prestigious university to run for governor of Kumamoto, a rural prefecture on the western coast of the island of Kyushu, where he was born. (As serendipity would have it, for my doctoral thesis I had conducted resident field work, 1978-1981, on the same island albeit in a different prefecture, Oita, on the politics of building steel and oil refineries and public protests against the resultant pollution.)
In this year of the unusual political candidate, I can report another first: Ikuo’s candidacy reportedly marks the first time in history a seated Tokyo University professor has withdrawn from his position to enter politics. What follows are my notes, in diary form, of what it was like to assist with this landmark campaign in its final days.
Friday morning, March 21
I fly to Kumamoto and join Ikuo’s supporters on the campaign trail. Ikuo has been campaigning assiduously since early January—by his account, sleeping only about five hours per night while crisscrossing the prefecture to shake hands and give speeches to build up support. His motto—to realize a "dream" for Kumamoto (see the red banners in the uppermost photo, each carrying the single white character "dream"), by which he means turning hard times into renewed prosperity—reminds me a little of Barack Obama. Most notably, his campaign manifesto pledges to reduce the prefecture’s mountain of debt. To demonstrate his resolve, Ikuo says that when elected governor, he will cut his own salary for the first year from the regular 1,240,000 yen (about US$12,300) per month, down to 2,400,00 yen (about US$2,300) per month: a cut of 1,000,000 yen. Reporters often ask him how he could survive on so little. He always says it will be tough and that his wife is worried about how they will pay their monthly mortgage since he has thrown all their savings into the campaign. But then he adds that if he is going to ask the prefectural employees to take pay cuts, he will have no choice but to do the same.
I learn that Ikuo is competing in a field of five candidates, four of them professing to be independents and not beholden to any political party. The fifth, his most formidable opponent, represents the Democratic Party. All five candidates can claim outstanding accomplishments. Behind the scenes, though, the Liberal Democratic Party had offered major support to Ikuo. But even in conservative Kumamoto Prefecture, party organization alone no longer suffices to win elections. Otherwise, Ikuo would not have felt the need to spend an exhausting two months of daily campaigning, giving talks to little groups gathered at the local agricultural cooperative headquarters and parking lots throughout the prefecture and shaking as many individual hands (in his Westernized style) as possible. It’s been intense.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Ever the teacher, Ikuo has invited his former students from undergraduate and graduate seminars at the University of Tokyo to come to Kumamoto to observe and help out during the culmination of the campaign. I am included into this group. Our major duties are to follow the candidate along shopping streets and country lanes as he scurries from bystander to bystander, earnestly bowing and shaking their hands. Our little group—and up to a dozen or more other local supporters—carry his red banner emblazoned with the kanji for "dream." We bow deeply to every passerby, entreating: "Please, please vote for Kabashima." Japanese election laws forbid any political advertisements in newspapers, radio or television, strictly limit the number and placement of campaign posters, forbid widespread leafleting, and restrict campaign vehicles to one or two official cars with loudspeakers—hence the need for a rather large personal entourage. In this sense, campaigning costs much less than in the United States! Still, Kabashima said he invested his life savings into his bid for the governorship.
I reflect on Ikuo’s campaign pitch. It is much like those of American politicians in that it rests on his personal story—which, in truth, is almost as inspirational as Senator Obama’s insofar as Ikuo, too, lacks a strong political pedigree. He was born into a family that, after returning penniless to Kumamoto prefecture from the Japanese colony of Manchuria at the end of World War II, was no stranger to hardship. The way Ikuo tells it, he spent his high school years mostly daydreaming, graduating at the very bottom of his class (200th out of 220 students). He then went to work for the local Agricultural Cooperative delivering fertilizer and propane gas. A turning point came when he entered into an exchange program with a farm in the United States, which gave him the opportunity to enroll in summer classes at the University of Nebraska. Inspired, he entered the university full time and worked so furiously that he ultimately attained a Master’s degree in agricultural economics with a brilliant thesis on the economic effects of artificial swine insemination. His grasp of economics persuaded Harvard University to admit him to its Ph.D. program in political economy, where, if memory serves me, he wrote an outstanding thesis explaining how Japan, contrary to the Huntington thesis of rural sacrifice, had managed to attain rapid economic growth without impoverishing rural areas. He went back to Japan to become a professor at the University of Tsukuba. After some years, he received a call from Japan’s prestigious University of Tokyo to join its Faculty of Law.
When he became a Tokyo University professor, national newspapers trumpeted the story of a farm boy rising to the very peak of Japanese academia. In his academic career, Ikuo became known as an advocate for the emergence of a political system in Japan where two viable parties could alternate in power. He also advocated more thorough public political participation and sent his students out to conduct participant observation—something quite original for Tokyo University. But after ten very successful years in this position, nearing retirement age, Ikuo stunned his colleagues once again by resigning to run for governor of the rural prefecture in Kyushu where he grew up.
Notably, shortly after his campaign kicked off in January, Ikuo published his autobiography, Adversity and Dreams (Gyakkyou no naka ni koso yume ga aru)--a title not unlike Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Today is voting day, so all campaigning has to stop. On voting day, campaign organizations can make calls to urge people to vote, but they cannot advise voting for a particular candidate.
The polls close at 8:00 p.m. At around that time, I join a throng of about 300 of Ikuo’s supporters at election headquarters, where we await the results. Usually, TV news shows the candidate totals gradually rolling in for a couple of hours, before the winner becomes evident. However, in Ikuo’s case, the exit polling shows him enjoying such overwhelming popularity that a few minutes after 8:00 p.m., television announcers declare him the winner. Victory! Cheers and cries of joy are heard as Ikuo ascends the stage under the bright lights of the TV cameras. Helpers pass out little boxes of orange juice and tea, and we all raise a toast to the new governor. I exchange congratulations with several local farmers and a lady who runs a small printing shop in town.
Like a genial Mike Huckabee, Ikuo fields the barrage of reporters’ questions with engaging humor and aplomb. When asked about his ambitious hopes for the prefecture, though, his televised face takes on a deeply serious mien. A profoundly ethical person, he fully understands the seriousness of the challenges he will face. Besides his pledge to reduce the prefecture’s mountain of debt—and thereby bring about a revitalization of the prefectural economy and society—he is also committed to resolving a contentious debate on an expensive dam construction, as well as the remaining issues of the Minamata mercury poisoning disease. That evening, I go out to dinner with his former Todai students and two local business people who played central roles in Ikuo’s campaign. We drink and eat until midnight, excitedly discussing the campaign and what lies ahead for this professor-turned-governor. One of the students, who has now graduated and is working, hopes to become Ikuo’s chief secretary (a few weeks later, he is called to the job).
Monday, April 7, 2008
Back in Tokyo, I reflect on my friend’s major life change. Having made the jump from the academy to the heated competition of real politics, Ikuo now refers to university life as "tepid water." I wonder if some day the gubernatorial waters may prove too hot for his liking.
He will now be putting to the test the political principles he has
embraced throughout his scholarly career. To realize his dream for
Kumamoto, he must find a way to revitalize the prefecture's economy
without borrowing and placing a burden of debt on future generations.
Fiscal austerity has forced the central government to reduce its
subsidies for prefectural public works from 100 percent to 50 percent.
Rice farming (typically on about two acres) has become a weekend job;
most farmers hold outside jobs, often with local construction
companies. Villages are depopulating, leaving mostly the elderly
A proposal to cut Kumamoto's deficit spending could enrage construction companies, workers and farmers. Moreover, it could bring down the wrath of the central Ministry of Transport. In this situation, I can't help but wonder: how can Ikuo possibly fulfil his dream of revitalization?
Emblematic of the problems the prefecture faces is the half-built Kawabegawa Dam. Since the idea was first introduced in 1966, the dam has become not only a local but a national symbol of dubious public works projects. A vociferous local citizen’s movement with considerable national support has protested continuously against construction of the dam, insisting upon more productive public works investments. Construction on the dam stopped over a decade ago--when the central government stopped paying all the bills. Since then, the dam has remained a contentious issue--so much so that the previous governor managed to pass her entire term without committing to the project either way.
During the March campaign, the other four candidates came out against continuing the construction of the dam. Ikuo, however, said that he would convene a study group of experts on the problem and announce his final decision after six months. Now both sides, pro and con, fear having their voices left out of the study group and are already putting pressure on the new governor.
The stakes are high. Thoroughly alienating the pro-dam coalition could result in his being bitterly disliked by the "construction tribe" politicians who control the prefectural legislature.
Twenty years ago, Ikuo wrote a book entitled Political Participation (published by University of Tokyo Press). Who knew that he would someday face the ultimate test of putting those ideas into practice? Can he muster the political skill required to convince his various constituents of the long-term benefits of attaining a balanced prefectural budget? Is his only answer austerity, symbolized by his own salary cut? Or can he find more productive types of public works that would produce payback worthy of the investment? For an agricultural prefecture far from Japan’s bustling Tokyo, and in an age of global markets and rising fuel prices, coming up with viable alternatives will not be easy.
Kumamoto’s main claim to tourism is the presence of Mount Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano. Fumes and smoke regularly drift up from its central mouth, sending gawking tourists on the edge running for cover. Images of towering volcanic plumes bring me back to my own research on environmental politics, and I think about the study I am doing with my Abe Fellowship on climate change and alternative sources of energy. The presence of an active volcano indicates that there is a lot of heat being stored in the ground. Perhaps Ikuo's government could fund the construction of a large geothermal electrical plant and provide inexpensive power for Kumamoto. That would go a long way toward economic revitalization, not to mention the reduction of the prefecture's greenhouse gas emissions.
Politics versus economics: That's what makes the Kumamoto case so fascinating. In a nutshell, it reveals the contradictory forces at work in trying to create a sustainable world. In rural Japan as elsewhere, huge clanking political-economic mechanisms and rule-bound institutions bear down on the fates of individuals. Can a single brilliant, well-intentioned political leader succeed in switching the tracks slightly, sending the juggernaut of special interests hurtling off to a new destination? Pathways, turning points, junctures: here is a case in point of the human capacity to change the course of history.
If I, too, could have a dream for Kumamoto, it would be that the new governor, in his search for productive forms of public works investment, is able to put the prefecture on the road to a viable and sustainable future. I can already see the title of my next report: "Japan's Environmentally Progressive Governor."
Condensed and edited by Mary-Lea Cox.