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Opening Nagano's Mind
The new governor wants citizens to act

A housewife's win means politics will never be the same

No one would have imagined a few years ago that Tanaka Yasuo, would — or could — become a prefectural governor. He first achieved fame with his prize-winning novel Somehow Crystal (l980) about youths obsessed with designer brands. He stayed in the public eye by writing about social issues, food, fashion, with a reputation as a critic of bureaucracy and big business. More notoriously, he wrote a regular magazine "diary" about his social life, including explicit accounts of his affairs with numerous women. (He says he is "an Italian inside.") Tanaka's image began to change in l995, when he rode through earthquake-devastated Kobe to distribute aid. Later, he led a campaign against the construction of an expensive airport near Kobe, and in June formed an organization that sent questionnaires to every candidate running in the general elections.

Still, everybody was surprised when he decided to run for Nagano governor just three weeks before the polls. He had spent part of his childhood in the prefecture but otherwise had few ties, let alone a support base, so his prospects were dim. Nagano is machine politics country, and the establishment pulled out all the stops. (Four public officials have been arrested for pressuring subordinates to vote for Tanaka's rival, the former vice governor.) But thousands of volunteers, tired of the local administration's heavy hand, emerged to support Tanaka and his call for more transparent and citizen-oriented government. In the end, Tanaka outpolled his opponent by over 100,000 votes, and he extended the voters' revolt that helped him by campaigning for Kawada Etsuko in Tokyo. At 44 the youngest governor in Japan, and "perhaps the only one to wear Versace" according to himself, the dapper Tanaka spoke to Asiaweek's Tokyo Cor-respondent Murakami Mutsuko.

What happened in the Nagano election?

The same happened with Linux, which is a farewell to the invisible hand of Bill Gates and a move toward flexibility and independence. [Linux is the free, open-source computer operating system that continues to develop with input from interested programmers everywhere, and is winning market share from Microsoft's proprietary Windows system.] In the past, many people helped candidates or voted by just following the decisions of the organizations they belong to. There was no individual initiative, no true human factor. This time, voters acted with their minds, kept flexible and open in the Linux-style.

Does your victory, and that of Kawada Etsuko, signal a change in Japan's political environment?
Now is the time for boutique politics, not for department stores. The conservative LDP wants to carry a full line of policies but is not focused on serving the people. It doesn't understand that it cannot sell like that anymore. I have a boutique of my own, Kawada-san does too, and we can work hand in hand on issues we agree on. I can work with anyone. The LDP provided steel and concrete [public works], which it thinks is the best way to make residents happy. I won't offer what people should want, but will offer a variety of scenarios and means to achieve them for citizens to choose.

Will this trend continue? Are Japanese voters finally changing?

Look at the way Japanese people are calling increasingly for local referendums in recent years. Also, the 1995 subway gassing [by doomsday cult Aum Shin-rikyo] and Kobe quake taught the Japanese that they cannot remain dependent to established authorities. Political leaders did nothing to help. People helped each other as fellow human beings. This realization has gone deep to the Japanese mind. If you ask whether independent candidates will win in all future elections, I doubt it. It depends on whether the candidates have attractive characters, individual ideas and, more importantly, the Linux mentality [of participatory development]. If that type of leader takes over more local governments, then national politics will not be unaffected, I am sure.

How do you answer criticism that you are promiscuous and immoral?

I am doing nothing wrong. I earn money from writing, I enjoy good food with friends and sex with women, without hurting anyone. I am not forcing women into what they don't want, unlike some dirty old men using their money or social status to get what they want. The immoral ones are the Nagano officials who shamelessly burnt financial documents regarding the money spent to win the [1998 Winter] Olympic games. [A probe into alleged excessive entertainment and bribery of Olympic officials went nowhere for lack of concrete evidence.]

So what now?

I aim to build Nagano anew together with its citizens. My victory was not the goal. It was simply a water station in a race, where people can get a drink and keep moving forward.

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