The governor’s not for roasting
Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 25, 2007
It’s beginning to look a lot like Sonomanma Higashi Week around here, but after our previous stories about the new political career for the former comedian, ruffian, and playmate of underage girls at sex clubs, a look at how the Miyazaki Prefecture governor spent his first day on the job shows his capabilities for dealing with a full-fledged crisis.
Fewer than 24 hours after showing up for his first day at work—and fewer than 72 hours after being elected—Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo was forced to face a potential calamity that gave Miyazaki residents their first chance to see if the new governor was in over his head, still the same guy who whacked journalists with an umbrella, or the man who seemed to have learned from his mistakes and went back to university in his mid-40s to start from scratch.
He passed his first test in the public sector with flying colors. Miyazaki Prefecture is a largely agricultural area with a population of just 1.1 million people. The primary cash crops are vegetables, tropical fruit such as oranges and bananas, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes, which are often turned into an alcoholic beverage called shochu. Other enterprises include dairy farming and forestry.
Most important of all, it is the leading chicken production region in Japan.
That’s why it was an extremely serious matter when the virulent H5N1 strain of avian flu was confirmed in the prefecture two weeks ago, and 15,000 chickens were culled to prevent the spread of the disease. It grew more serious when the infection was found to be almost identical to the strain that caused an epidemic in China. And it became a calamity when, despite the best efforts of local officials to isolate and protect the local chicken stock, another outbreak of avian flu occurred before Higashikokubaru had finished sharpening the pencils in his new office.
Fortunately, he got off on the right foot–not only because of what he did, but also because of what he didn’t do. What he did was what any governor would have done. He visited the farm where the new outbreak occurred, consoled the local farmers, and exhorted everyone to make every effort to keep the infection from spreading.
What he didn’t do was appear to be a man in over his head, a show-biz personality playing at politician who panics at the first sign of trouble, or a man without a plan about how to handle the problem. Under the unforgiving eye of the television camera, the governor showed that he fully understood the gravity of the situation, knew what he was doing, and that the people could have faith that whatever he did, it would be the best course of action.
He had already outlined some of his initiatives at a press conference on Monday before being sworn in:
Higashi said at a press conference that he would scrap the system of calling for tenders from designated companies for public works projects and would introduce an online or mail bidding system as part of an open competitive bidding plan. He also said he planned to question all prefectural employees over whether they are keeping slush funds.
“As the prefecture is facing severe fiscal difficulties, I will cut the governor’s salary by 20 percent.”
His comments about the slush fund resonate very strongly in Kyushu, where Nagasaki Prefecture and Nagasaki City have been rocked by slush fund scandals so severe they’re more swamp than slush. The public employees of those jurisdictions connived with local businesses and had them bill for items that were never bought and pool the money. Said Nagasaki Governor Kaneko Genjiroat a news conference:
“At this point, I believe that there was no misuse of the money for personal purposes.”
While his optimism and faith in the government workers is admirable, it was misplaced. Little more than a week later, Kaneko found out that prefectural employees indeed used the money for personal purposes, such as buying golf clubs. In fact, the personnel department alone scarfed up 600,000 yen (about US$ 5,000) worth of instant ramen between 2001 and 2003. And the accountants are still trying to figure out why a local fisheries cooperative was given 2 million yen.
If you’re betting on form, put your money on the probability that Miyazaki has its own homegrown slush fund. Indeed, the election that Higashikokubaru won was necessitated by the arrest of his predecessor, Ando Tadahiro, in a bid-rigging scandal.
Most politicians in Japan are so dessicated they might as well have been raised in a human version of a poultry farm. Some of them behave as if they haven’t picked up a shovel in their lives, not to mention ever having had to wipe chicken dung off their shoes.
As he dealt with his first crisis, former funnyman Higashikokubaru came across as grounded, serious, in control—and best of all—able to strike just the right tone and speech level in his public statements. He’ll have to show his performance was no fluke. But if he can follow through on his fast start, it may prove to be a positive development outside Miyazaki as well.
Japan’s local governments don’t need any more boneless bureaucrats or dilettante celebrities in their executive offices. What they do need are men and women who are competent, clear-headed adults who put their hands to work on the task at hand instead of into the public till.