Photo/Illutration Kita Ward Mayor Yosota Hanakawa, who will seek his sixth term in April, speaks on Feb. 9 at the municipal government office in Tokyo. (Kae Morishita)

At 87, Kita Ward Mayor Yosota Hanakawa insists he is not over the hill. In fact, his age is likely why he is still king of it.

Tokyo’s oldest mayor in the capital’s 23 special wards recently grabbed headlines when he said he plans to seek re-election this April for what would be his sixth term.

During a Feb. 9 news conference to announce his candidacy, Hanakawa stressed that he is “now more full of energy than ever in my life.”

A check of compiled municipal statistics shows he is now the second oldest municipal leader in all of Japan, after Noriyuki Kobayashi, 89, the mayor of the small town of Izumozaki in Niigata Prefecture.

But Hanakawa told reporters that while he is pushing 90, age is just a number to him.

“I do not care about my age, now that more people are expected to live to 100 years and older.”

He even gave an example of his spryness.

Mimicking a baseball pitcher’s throw, he said, “I take the mound for the ceremonial opening ritual (throws) for matches.”

PLAYING THE LONG GAME

Hanakawa is a typifying example of how the graying of Japanese society manifests itself in local politics in the capital, which has become something of a magnet for politicians in their golden years.

The average age of Tokyo’s ward mayors, excluding Toshima Mayor Yukio Takano, who died Feb. 9, is 64.59.

That is high compared to other levels of government. Prefectural governors average about 61, while lawmakers in both the Upper and Lower houses average around 57.

The Tokyo trend of electing, and re-electing, older and older mayors--about half of whom have already turned 65 and four of whom are now over 80--may be explained by their expected career trajectory.

“The typical career path is that metropolitan assemblymen hold a number of important positions and then debut as local ward mayors as ‘hanamichi’ (the last important position before retirement) after turning 60,” said Nobuo Sasaki, a professor emeritus of public administration studies at Chuo University.

For example, six ward mayors are 75 or older, and all but one of them served as members of the Tokyo metropolitan assembly before becoming mayors. And even he worked as a staffer for the Tokyo metropolitan government. 

There was also Takano in Toshima Ward, who passed away at 85, close to fulfilling his sixth term. He, too, was a former metropolitan assemblyman.

Sasaki, who was previously a staffer with the local government, said one key reason for this trend is there are no other local governing bodies in Japan set up like the capital’s special wards.

Since the metropolitan government shells out for some ward services normally paid for by cities, strong political and administrative connections to it are important in the eyes of voters.

For example, real estate taxes in the wards are collected by the metropolitan government, and 55 percent of the revenue is distributed back to the municipalities. The water and sewerage systems and firefighting halls in the wards are all managed by the metropolitan government.

“Ward governments commit themselves to administrative execution rather than designing or improving towns,” said Sasaki. “Some voters prefer candidates who have strong links with the metropolitan government for (furthering their) ward’s interests.”

AGE AN ASSET, NOT LIABILITY

As for Hanakawa and his upcoming race, he has several decades on his younger competitors, who are both eager to take him on this spring.

Mikio Osawa, 53, a former member of the idol group Hikaru Genji, and Miki Komazaki, 43, a ward assemblywoman, are throwing their hats in the ring against Hanakawa.

Osawa said he will “take over good policies” from Hanakawa, while Komazaki said “being elderly does not mean someone is bad” as a politician, signaling both of them have no intention of turning his age into a campaign issue. And for good reason.

In the last election four years ago, where voter turnout was 51.74 percent, Hanakawa beat two political newcomers in their 30s and 60s.

The election was held on the same day as that of the Kita Ward assembly members. According to the voter turnout for the assembly election by age group, which was compiled by the ward election administration commission, turnout was higher for the older generations.

The turnout of voters in their 20s was 27.71 percent, the lowest among all groups, while that of voters in their 70s was 69.88 percent, the highest.