Friday, July 04, 2008

Politics as Usual in Inakadate Village? You Decide

In 2007, the annual tanbo aato (rice paddy art) festival drew 240,000 visitors to Inakadate (literally, Rural Estate), a rice farming village on the chilly plains of Aomori Prefecture with a population of 8,333 residents (2008 May 1, estimate). Inakadate is not any old village, however; it has been watched with envy by other municipalities since 1993, when it started copying mainly Japanese art on a wide swathe of rice paddies near the village municipal building (itself surely as in so many other rural municipalities an uncommonly large edifice, it Inakadate’s case designed to look like the main building of a Japanese castle) by using a variety of differently-colored rice. Other municipalities have watched Inakadate with envy since the inauguration of the event and tried to copy its success, to little avail; Inakadate remains firmly entrenched as the art capital of the rice paddy art nation.

The Inakadate Village Development Promotion Consultation Committee, chaired by the village mayor, is responsible for the event. But planning, planting, growing, and maintaining the 5 hectare (that’s² 538195.520 ft, for all you Americans, Burmese, and Liberians reading my blog) piece of rice art apparently is an expensive undertaking, or perhaps the entrepreneurial mayor Takao Suzuki, just decided that it would be a good idea to replenish the village coffers. In any case, this year, the Committee convinced the Aomori Prefecture newspaper Too Nippo and Japan Airlines (Japan Airlines?) to pony up 2 million yen to put their logos on the painting.

Unfortunately, as the Asahi reports, the owner of the farming rights to the land, former mayor Takashi Sato, objected, “I didn’t receive prior consultation, corporate advertisements cannot be allowed.” Mr. Sato must have been providing the land free of charge, for the Committee had no choice but to pull up all the offending rice plants today. The little blue dots that you see in the photo taken at 10AM are the people erasing the ads.

Now Inakadate was not really pushing the envelope here in inviting sponsors, but Mr. Sato does have a point. It may not be fair to compare this year’s generic rendering of Diaikokuten, one of the Seven Lucky Gods and responsible for good harvests with the gigantic replica of the breathtaking view of Mount Fuji by the great Hokusai on the Wikipedia site, but I think that it looks better without the commercial. Let me put it this way: How would like to see every painting in the Louvre adorned with the IBM logo?

Still, Mr. Sato may—ah, that dreaded “may”—have had something more than aesthetics and the spirit of Avery Brundage in mind when he objected to the corporate logos. In 2004, Mr. Suzuki had denied Mr. Sato’s bid for a third straight term as mayor of Inakadate. There must be some bad blood between the two. And the next mayoral election comes up later this year in October.

Wait. The backstory does not end there. Mr. Suzuki may not have run for mayor but for an earlier, freak political event. In 1999, Mr. Suzuki was the President of the Village Assembly when he was arrested for accepting a bribe from fellow assemblyman Junji Abe. According to a Too Nippo report, Mr. Suzuki was accused of accepting money from Mr. Abe (a few hundred thousand yen according to the report) in return for allowing him to succeed him as President, but double-crossed him anyway and won reelection by a vote of eight to seven. Online records are scant on this issue, but one online report that I have been unable to relocate says that the two men were found guilty in 2001. If true, my guess is that Mr. Suzuki must have received a suspended sentence and, instead of appealing the verdict, decided to accept it and wait the two to three years to get his record cleared. He then ran for mayor, successfully, as it turned out. In short, if the bribe had not been uncovered, it is likely that Mr. Suzuki would still be President of the Village Assembly and Mr. Sato would be serving out his third term as mayor and head of the Inakadate Village Development Promotion Consultation Committee, and none of the current mess would have occurred.

So, what’s the point of all this? The moral fof the story? The implications, the lessons for the national body politic that this blog ever aspires to elucidate?

Dear readers, none whatsoever. If that makes this post another one of those Japan-Is-Weird Tales, the kind that I decry on every other occasion, then, so be it. And to anyone who has any complaints, I pass on this wonderful colloquialism that I learned from a dear friend just yesterday: Bite me!

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