Two Young Japanese Governors Rise to Prominence in COVID-19 CrisisPolitics
Measures to counter COVID-19 differ according to the situation in each part of Japan. Since prefectural governors have been granted a great deal of authority for implementing measures, the crisis has become a test of their ability to make decisions and take action. With so much media focus on the pandemic, the eyes of not only local residents but of the entire country are on these regional leaders, who are being tested every day.
One politician who rose to prominence early is the governor of Hokkaidō, Suzuki Naomichi. In advance of the rest of the country, he announced the closing of all prefectural elementary schools on February 26, and two days later declared a state of emergency within Hokkaidō, urging residents to practice social distancing by refraining from unnecessary trips outside the home. This prompt action influenced the subsequent response of the central government and made his name known throughout Japan.
Another prefectural leader who has been the center of media attention, almost on par with Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko, is Yoshimura Hirofumi, the governor of Osaka. In responding to a string of COVID-19 infections at four live music venues in the city of Osaka, he made a clear effort to curb the spread of infections by actively disclosing information, and bringing to light the different prefectures from where the audience members had come. He also displayed the ability to make and act on decisions, such as his call for people to refrain from traveling between Osaka and Hyōgo Prefectures during a three-day holiday that began on March 20. On May 5, the day following the central government’s announcement to extend the nationwide state of emergency, Yoshimura announced his own “Osaka model” of standards for gradually lifting the social distancing and business closures in his prefecture. He has made a splash for his straight talk about the central government, while his relentless energy has generated a flood of support on social media.
Suzuki is just 39 years old, making him the youngest governor in Japan, while Governor Yoshimura is the second youngest, at 44. The two have had to respond to the COVID-19 crisis after less than one year in office, as both were elected in April 2019. Their photogenic looks have been another factor in their media coverage.
Profiles of Suzuki Naomichi and Yoshimura Hirofumi
|Governor Suzuki (Hokkaidō)||Governor Yoshimura (Osaka)|
|Assumed office||April 23, 2019||April 8, 2019|
|Previous position||Mayor of Yūbari||Mayor of Osaka|
|Political party||Independent||Osaka Restoration Association (acting leader)|
|Date of birth||March 14, 1981||June 17, 1975|
|Degree||Faculty of Law, Hōsei University||Faculty of Law, Kyūshū University|
|First job||Tokyo municipal employee (after high school)||Lawyer|
Yoshimura is a graduate of the prestigious Osaka Prefectural Ikuno Senior High School, and passed the bar exam during his final year at university. In 2011, he decided to pursue a political career, and was elected as a member of the Osaka city council. In 2014, he rose to the national stage, winning a seat in the House of Representatives. When Hashimoto Tōru stepped down as the mayor of the city of Osaka, Yoshimura threw his hat into the ring as the best person to carry on his legacy and won the mayoral election. Deeply attached to his home prefecture, Yoshimura raised the campaign slogan, “I want to lead Osaka forward!!”
The obstacle-strewn career path of Suzuki stands in sharp contrast to the elite background of Yoshimura. The economic hardships resulting from his parent’s divorce forced him to abandon his plan to attend university after high school. Instead, he secured a job in 1999 as a Tokyo Metropolitan Government employee. While holding that job, he pursued a university degree at Hōsei University as a night student, also serving as the captain of the boxing team, graduating within four years. In 2008, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government seconded him to Hokkaidō to work for the city of Yūbari, which declared bankruptcy in 2008. Initially, the posting was to last for one year, but he asked for a year’s extension so he could continue trying to revive the local area. Upon returning to Tokyo, he was assigned to the General Affairs Division of the Tokyo Governor’s Office, and then dispatched to work in the Cabinet Office. But he subsequently decided to run for mayor of Yūbari, responding to enthusiastic calls from local residents, and was elected to that position at the tender age of 30 years and one month.
Immediately after taking office as mayor of Yūbari, Suzuki reduced his salary by 70% and eliminated the retirement pay benefit and entertainment funds to which he had been entitled. Those measures brought him attention as the “least expensive local leader in Japan” with an annual salary of just ¥2.5 million.
In aiming to make Yūbari a more compact city, Suzuki took the step of proposing to Japan Railways the elimination of train lines with few passengers and drawing up alternative transportation options. At the same time, he focused on restructuring the municipal government, including such initiatives as cultivating the sales of special local items like Yūbari melons. After his election as Hokkaidō governor, he also requested a 30% cut in his salary and retirement allowance.
The styles of the two governors are different, with Yoshimura projecting a strong image and shooting out ideas as fast as machine-gun bullets, while Suzuki takes a more measured approach, as if weighing the meaning of each word he says. Even though they are quite different as personality types, they share the ability to get things done, and both have come under the spotlight for their stances as leaders who protect the lives and livelihoods of their own residents.
(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo: Suzuki Naomichi, governor of Hokkaidō (left), and Yoshimura Hirofumi, governor of Osaka. © Jiji.)