Nonagenarian campaigns for Japanese parliament

‘NO GRIP ON REALITY’::The 94-year-old candidate was inspired to run after watching a political debate and being outraged by the ‘disorganized’ major parties

Reuters, TOKYO

Fri, Dec 14, 2012 - Page 6

When Ryokichi Kawashima burst into a Tokyo city office to register as a candidate in Japan’s parliamentary election, the woman behind the counter froze, then stuttered: “Are you serious?”

He was. The 94-year-old Kawashima had just taken ¥3 million (US$36,400) from the sum saved for his funeral and, just three hours before the deadline, became the oldest contender for Sunday’s election to the lower house of parliament.

“I just felt that now it was my turn,” Kawashima said in Hanyu, a sleepy town tucked away among the fringes of Tokyo.

“It occurred to me when I watched a TV debate between the major parties,” he said. “I just couldn’t stand how fragmented and disorganized they have become. They have no grip on reality.”

Kawashima is an independent, self-financed candidate and his campaign team is mostly family. He acknowledges he has little chance of winning a constituency that is also being contested by candidates from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party — which is heavily tipped to win the most seats in the election.

Yet Kawashima represents the most talked about and fastest growing part of Japanese society: the elderly.

Japan has aged at an unprecedented pace over the past three decades and at little more than 30 million, those aged 65 or older make up one-quarter of the country’s population, stretching Japan’s annual social security bill to ¥100 trillion.

However, Kawashima is not making benefits for the elderly an issue.

Instead, he drives around in his white Suzuki pushing a staunchly anti-nuclear and anti-nationalist stance.

“I fought in the Sino-Japanese war for seven years and the Chinese helped me survive in the tough post-war years, so I know them well,” Kawashima said. “That whole dispute over the [Diaoyutai] Islands [釣魚台] and talk that they will invade us is just pure fear-mongering. Their rulers may say such things, but I know they would never do anything like that.”