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Fighting City Hall, Japanese-Style: New Governor Makes Waves

June 2, 1995

TOKYO (AP) _ They say you can’t fight city hall, and in few places has that been truer than in Japan. But one politician is shaking up the political establishment in a way not seen here in years.

When Yukio Aoshima, a former television comic and parliamentary gadfly, was elected governor of Tokyo on April 9, most Japanese could barely believe it.

A man who had spent 25 years in Parliament railing against powerful politicians had finally become one himself. The actor who used to prance around in wig and kimono on the TV show ``Nasty Granny″ was to rule a huge bureaucracy at Tokyo’s 48-story, $1 billion-plus City Hall.

The upset by Aoshima, an independent, over a candidate backed by most major parties posed a question: Can anyone derail Japan’s political establishment with its customs of corruption and big-money projects?

After Aoshima’s first 40 days in office, the answer is: maybe _ and it’ll sure be interesting to watch.

This week the governor, keeping a campaign promise, canceled a multi-billion dollar exposition of world cities that had been planned for Tokyo next year.

The move raised him to hero status among many Japanese who saw the expo as an expensive showpiece benefiting large companies while doing nothing to solve city problems, such a severe overcrowding.

``Any society is built around people keeping their promises,″ said Tokyo resident Shunsuke Miyawaki, who works for an English testing service. ``If he hadn’t canceled the exposition it would have been the end of democracy.″

But the decision infuriated most politicians _ no one more than Aoshima’s predecessor, Shunichi Suzuki, who had pushed for the expo. He even compared Aoshima to the terrorists who spread nerve gas on Tokyo’s subways, complaining that canceling the expo ``is like spreading sarin on the car of city government.″

Many politicians have been unable to conceal their malice against someone who broke all the rules _ refusing to give campaign speeches, for instance _ and still won a convincing election victory.

In one case, a legislator seeking to embarrass the governor decided to give him a pop quiz on city policy. Aoshima was forced to admit that he had never heard of ``Hello Work,″ the nickname bureaucrats have given to the unemployment office.

The governor got an F on the quiz _ but an A for politics. A wave of grass-roots sympathy has emerged for Aoshima, with the legislature widely portrayed as petty and undignified.

``Asking idiotic questions and then criticizing someone because he can’t answer them is just childish,″ scoffed Miyawaki. ``And `Hello Work’ _ is that English?″

The battling has taken its toll on Aoshima, 62, who overcame cancer several years ago. Normally quick with an acerbic crack in the informal lingo of an Edokko, or Tokyo native, he has been forced to adopt the honorific-laden jargon of professional politicians.

He wears a plaintive frown most of the time and complains of exhaustion. He has even become a terrorist target: A package addressed to Aoshima exploded last month when opened by an aide, blowing off the man’s left hand.

Through it all the governor has been in an unprecedented spotlight. The reason is this: Aoshima has translated the ill-defined dissatisfaction of many Japanese into a real political force for the first time in memory.

Urban Japanese citizens often complain that their houses or apartments are too small, that prices are too high, that politicians are too corrupt to listen to people like themselves.

But that dissatisfaction rarely percolates to the top in the way that middle-class revolt jolted American politics in the 1994 elections _ possibly because Japanese have little tradition of democracy and a strong tradition of doing what they’re told.

``The exposition was a symbol of what Tokyo has too much of,″ said Harumi Suda, a longtime civic activist in Tokyo. ``In Japan it has been the tradition that once the government decides something it cannot be changed. In that sense, this is revolutionary.″