Shiro Asano, the popular 59-year-old ex-Miyagi governor, has definitively declined to run for Tokyo governor as the DPJ candidate. Naoto Kan, ex-party chief and eager to step back in if Ichiro Ozawa continues to stumble, not surprisingly also refused to stand. Barring a miracle, the JPJ will not field a candidate against incumbent Shintaro Ishihara on April 22.
There will be many other prizes available that day, because this is the year of the quadrennial joint local elections, when about a third of the seats for governors, mayors and local legislators will be up for grabs. But the failure to put up a fight in Tokyo substantially diminishes its national profile. This is a serious setback for the DPJ not only because it diminishes its national profile but because it also underscores doubts about its institutional viability. It definitely does not help in July, when half the Upper House seats go to the polls.
The more prominent prefectures in play other than flagship Tokyo? Kanagawa, Fukuoka, and Hokkaido.
Kanagawa: The incumbent, a DPJ Diet member who ran for governor as an independent, will be favored to hold on against an LDP challenge.
Fukuoka: The DPJ still has hopes that it will be able to field a candidate against the three-term incumbent (supported last time around by both the LDP and DPJ, but the LDP will not support him officially this time around as a matter of party policy because this will be his fourth term).
Hokkaido: DPJ has already decided to challenge the LDP/Komeito incumbent. Ms. Takahashi, the incumbent, has a strong personal following, but the DPJ candidate will also receive the support of down-but-by-no-means-out, charismatic Muneo Suzuki. (If you need to know how serious this man is, he regained his Diet seat while appealing a two-year sentence guilty verdict for bribery.)
If the DPJ get either Fukuoka or Hokkaido (but especially Hokkaido, with "We Can Be Proud That Nobody Has Committed Suicide" Yubari - no, not this Yubari - and other assorted local-center/rural-urban "kakusa" issues), they can combine that with any other local victories and tout it as a demonstration of the will of the people. That should help them get some momentum rolling in the run-up to the July elections.
Potential Problem: If local reports are correct, the Fukuoka and Hokkaido candidates were fifth, seventh choices. (In Hokkaido, they conducted a beauty contest, with six contestants. Four did not pass muster, and the remaining two declined.) Such things are quite common, actually, and I know at least one politician whose successful career was launched in this inauspicious manner (he refused, then finally relented after no one else in his neighborhood stopped the buck). No, it's the fact that this embarrassment is being played out in public that should be disturbing to the DPJ. The public may be moving away from Prime Minister Abe, but they do not seem to be edging toward the DPJ either.
Disclosure: Both the Fukuoka and Hokkaido governors are ex-METI officials, like me, and I know them both personally, and like them.