Japan's old guard teeters in high-turnout election

"I want this election to be a turning point," said the young schoolteacher. "But whether it will really be so, I don't know." It was voting day, June 22, and my friend had gone to the polls as soon as they opened at 7 a.m. Now we are standing at the top of Mount Yumihari overlooking Sasebo harbor and the 99 green islets that dot the surrounding bay. It was a hazy morning -- blue sky alternating with layers of moist gray.

A couple of American destroyers lay at anchor in the middle of the harbor -- symbols of Japan's continuing dependence on the security link with the United States. To the right were the docks and workshops of Sasebo Shipbuilding -- now emerging from deep recession, but with an uncertain future.

Hardly visible amidst the mammoth tankers in the docks and repair yards, the slender Mutsu, Japan's only nuclear freighter, is undergoing repairs in Sasebo after having been turned away from its home port in northern Japan and having been refused admittance to practically every other port in the country.

My schoolteacher friend had no feelings, good or bad, about the Mutsu.

"People are afraid of nuclear mishaps -- that's a fact," he said. "i belong to the teachers union, and i have demonstrated against nuclear power in the past. But if the union called for a demonstration tomorrow, I'm not sure i'd join in. With the Middle East countries raising the price of oil on us every few months, we've got to expand every other source of energy we can."

Recession is in the air throughout Japan, but especially here in Sasebo, which depends on shipbuilding and its ancillary industries.

"No one is going hungry," said my friend. "But smaller enterprises are having a lot of trouble. I know -- my older brother works in a small toolmaking factory. That's why we get so angry when we read of corruption among politicians, or that a Liberal Democrat congressman lost millions gambling in Las Vegas. I want my vote to count in making sure that politics is going to be cleaner. That means breaking the LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] monopoly of government."

At 5 p.m. the radio reported that people were flocking to the polls in greater numbers than last October. Even in Tokyo the turnout was said to be 63. 5 percent. Nationwide, it was closer to 73 or 74 percent -- five to six points better than last October.

In the past, a big turnout favored the Liberal Democrats. This time no one can be certain.

"Neither we trade unionists, nor the conservatives, can be as sure of our bloc vote as we used to be," said one union official. "Especially with the young. They don't oppose us to our faces when we ask them to support such and such a Socialist candidate. But when they mark their ballots, they do as they please."

This phenomenon is reflected in the steady decline of both major opponents, the Liberal Democrats and the Socialists, since the early 1960s. In May 1958, 57.8 percent of the voters supported the LDP and 32.9 percent the Socialists. By October 1979, only 44.6 percent supported the LDP and 19.7 percent the Socialists.

A flock of so-called moderate parties has sprung up to rob votes from the traditional two opponents. This election wil determine whether the trend will continue to the point where the LDP loses its parliamentary majority (as distinct from the popular majority the LDP lost several years ago), and new coalition emerges -- made up either of opposition parties (unlikely) or of the LDP with one or more moderate parties.

At the same time, many voters are skeptical that a coalition in and of itself can solve japan's pressing economic and political problems.

"I told you I hoped this election would be a turning point," said by schoolteacher friend. "But I know -- and so do most of my friends -- that however we vote today, the politicians are going to get together after the election to decide who will succeed Mr. Ohira. [Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira passed on suddenly in the midst of the election campaign June 12, and his successor will not be determined until after the results of the election are known.]

"We don't have such high hopes about what will happen after the election, really.We would just like someone who would hold the helm steady so that we can beat inflation, and keep the oil flowing, and make sure our goods can find markets in the world."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.