KYOTO— David Kubiak is going to attempt something no foreigner has ever done: get elected mayor of this historical Japanese city.
He knows the odds are overwhelmingly slim that he will be elected, and slimmer still that Kyoto lawmakers would pass the long-term reforms he has in mind if he does make it into office.
So why is he pushing ahead with his self-described “virtual campaign”?
He wants to focus attention on the issue of the Japanese public’s isolation from political issues — to use his campaign “as a pulpit for the rest of Japan to begin the dialogue, or hopefully the controversy, about why citizens can’t be trusted with power.”
Kubiak, 47, recently registered his political organization, the “Kyoto Eco-Media Nancho Ijin Butai,” with the authorities and is gearing up for the August elections with a number of backup projects.
But there is one major obstacle: As a foreigner he is prohibited under Japanese law from registering for and holding a public office.
He knows this, and acknowledges that the real goal of the campaign is to collect 24,000 signatures among registered voters. With those signatures in hand, he would then officially request the municipal government to adopt an ordinance permitting Kyoto residents to have a direct say in the political decisions regarding their city.
With Kyoto facing renewed corporate expansion, environmental degradation and the possible extinction of the traditional crafts world, he says, the time has come for Kyoto residents to take political power in shaping their own future.
“(Legislators) are supposed to be legislating on behalf of the people, and if they won’t, then the people should do it themselves,” he said. “From there, they can create freedom of information ordinances. They can create their own ordinances that modify the school law so that they can have elected school boards here like they do in Nakano-ku in Tokyo.”
He is also pushing for laws guaranteeing stronger freedom of the press, legalization of public referendums and initiatives, and a return to the jury system in court cases.
Kubiak, an instructor of mass media studies in the economics department of Ritsumeikan University, sees Kyoto as both a testing ground and substantial contributor to grassroots strategies in and outside Japan. The way he views it, people-power in Kyoto is just a logical extension of such liberation drives around the world.
“This is bubbling up everywhere,” he explains. “We’re not leading the charge — we’re basically just trying to spotlight a lot of Japanese groups that are working on it, that understand it and can explain it to Japan a lot better than I can.”
Kubiak has started a “Kyoto New Democracy Fund” to help finance his campaign, which he plans to publicize by setting up a volunteer-run radio station and making full use of computer networks.
And to help implement his ideas, Kubiak has written a book in Japanese entitled “Memes for a New Democracy” in which he presents a blueprint for political power once in the hands of the common citizens — “a sort of Punch and Judy for the provinces,” as he puts it.
Kubiak shares with many local residents a rising sense of alarm over the replacement of the Kyoto of yesterday by a new, more industrialized version that has little room for environmental concerns or for the traditional Japanese craftpersons who have deeply inspired him since he came here back in 1970.
“I don’t expect Kyoto ever to become a really beautiful city again — certainly not in my lifetime,” the American-born Kubiak says. “In the next 10 or 15 years, if there isn’t some motivated return to craft-based life...then Japan’s just gonna go through a desert for another 50 years. It’s gonna be like in the States and everybody’s gonna have to rediscover everything from the textbooks and start over.”
He nevertheless remains optimistic about the potential for change among Kyotoites, and is hoping that Japanese and foreign residents alike will heed his coalition’s call to get more politically involved.