Politics in any locality involves competition between a variety of vested interests seeking their own advantage. The degree to which the various interests sacrifice their own personal advantage for the good of all varies considerably from country to country and within local regions of countries, but there probably isn't anywhere that altruism truly prevails.
Tsukuba is certainly no exception, as its unique history abundantly testifies. The city of Tsukuba only officially came into existence in 1988, with the merger of 5 ancient townships that were adjacent to or contained parts of the nationally funded "Tsukuba Science City." Needless to say, there have been clashes of interest from the beginning, and many of these battles continue even today.
One prominent feature of the local scene is the conflict between the kyujumin (old residents) and shinjumin (new residents). The kyujumin, by definition, have deep roots in the area, many with family trees extending back hundreds of years. Many are from a farming background, and as is obvious to anyone who looks at some of the houses they have built, many have become quite wealthy from the sale of ancestral lands at highly inflated prices. Those who didn't happen to be land owners in the old days, however, have generally not fared so well.
Painted with a very broad brush, the kyujumin are typically conservative and not very highly educated, while the shinjumin are mostly scientists, researchers, students, and government employees connected with the research establishment. These people naturally tend to be more liberal and very highly educated. There are, of course, many exceptions to these generalizations, but the tensions that exist between these two groups of people is real and on-going. Moreover, living patterns tend to minimize interchange between these two groups, which makes it difficult to bridge the gaps that exist. It should be added, of course, that many do not fit nicely into either of these categories, and as time passes, the demarcation between the two groups is becoming less distinct.
When Tsukuba Science City was first planned out in the late 60's, the area running roughly north and south along the border of the old townships of Sakura and Yatabe, extending from Kukisaki in the south up into Toyosato, Oho and Tsukuba-Cho (the township that included southwestern flank of Mt. Tsukuba) was chosen precisely because large sections were undeveloped pine forests (much of it not being very good farm land) and close to Tokyo. This central corridor, together with a couple of "islands" such as the complex of agricultural institutes in the southwestern part of the city, constitutes the "Science City" part of Tsukuba. As one would expect, the shinjumin are highly concentrated in these areas, while the kyujumin live mostly in the older areas of the city. This results in a patchwork of contrast, with wide roads and new buildings abounding in the "Science City" parts of town while narrow, winding roads connect the old style homes (even though many are newly built) of the kyujumin areas. A good example of this is how the old hamlet of Onozaki interrupts Minami Odori, which ends at Nishi Odori only to begin again in Matsushiro. Finishing this main east-west artery would be highly beneficial to the city as a whole, but it would mean having to move an ancient Shinto shrine and several houses in the middle of the hamlet. So far, in this sparring match of vested interests, the local interests have won out.
When it comes to the political power bases involved, it is obvious who the winners have been and will in all likelihood continue to be for some time. Of the roughly 160,000 residents of Tsukuba, only about 60,000 fit into the shinjumin category. Of these, the 4000 plus foreigners are automatically eliminated from the equation since they have no voting rights. Likewise, students who are not yet 20 are also eliminated. And since few of those students who do have the right to vote in local elections feel they have any stake in the matter, only about 30% even bother to vote. Thus, the city council is dominated by representatives elected by the much stronger and more highly motivated kyujumin vote.
One might infer from this that an anti-intellectual provincialism would rule political life in Tsukuba. While this element certainly is present, many of the kyujumin have benefited greatly from the existence of the Science City, and thus there are many areas where the interests of the two groups fit together. Likewise, it would be a mistake to assume that all or even most of the kyujumin are uneducated and narrow-minded (or on the other side that the typical shinjumin is a broad-minded "world citizen"). People do not fit so easily into such stereotypes, and there is often much more variety than at first meets the eye. For one thing, allegiance to the former townships is still a significant factor. Thus, representatives with strong ties to their old township still tend to emphasis the needs of their own area to the detriment of the city as a whole.
Another feature that is common at all levels of politics in Japan is the tensions that exist between the ideals of the democracy imposed upon Japan after WWII and the realities of the money-manipulated, "political machine" type politics trying to hold on from the past. Behind the scenes political deals involving the illegal exchange of money happen in most if not all countries of the world. Japan would seem, however, to have more such scandals than most. Whether this is due to more effective monitoring or is really because a higher percentage of politicians feel justified in "doing politics" that way, I don't know, but I suspect it is the latter. A number of such local scandals have surfaced in Tsukuba in recent years, but since we promised not to mention names, we won't. Part of the problem stems from the "traditional" practice of vote buying. Stories abound of candidates passing out ¥10,000 bills along with promises for other benefits to encourage people to vote for them for city council. How much of this still goes on is unclear, but our sources say that while not nearly as common as before, it still happens.
Attempts at eradicating this practice have, unfortunately, resulted in increasingly "noisy" campaigns. Door-to-door campaigning in Japan has been outlawed, and real political debates have never become part of the campaign tradition, though many Japanese express their desire for that. The result has been that candidates are driven around in special sound cars where they can wave their white-gloved hands while loud speakers blare their appeal for votes. It is very much an image-building enterprise, and I have witnessed candidates literally begging from their platforms for people to vote for them. The image seems to be: "Look how sincere I am! Look how hard I'm working for your vote!" The white gloves supposedly symbolize "purity" untainted with dirty money.
People (and not just incredulous foreigners) often complain about the noise and meaninglessness of it all, but it is just accepted as part of the price for democracy. One local candidate a few years back tried to buck the system and drove around in a car playing soothing music with just a sign saying that he would be quietly working in our behalf, but unfortunately, he was not elected.
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