Villagers watching Aum, not election


The Yomiuri Shimbun/April 21, 1999

NAGANO -- Candidates for mayoral office and assembly seats in towns and villages throughout the country started their official election campaigns Tuesday to drum up support for Sunday's elections.

But there was little fanfare among the candidates in Kitamimakimura, Nagano Prefecture, who are vying for election to the 16-seat village assembly. They have been too preoccupied maintaining their vigil against members of the Aum Supreme Truth cult.

In fact, official electioneering got off to a quiet start -- literally. The farming community of about 5,500 was spared the traditional loudspeaker-equipped campaign car canvassing.

On Tuesday, when the local election administration committee had ceased registering candidates, only 16 people had declared their intent to stand for the 16 assembly seats.

All of these 16 therefore will be ushered into office unopposed, something many of the villagers had wanted anyway.

"Those of us living here have to protect the village from the cult by joining hands with each other," one candidate, who is seeking his third four-year term, told a group of about 40 supporters at his campaign office Tuesday morning.

The candidate stayed at his office all day long. He said, "Of course, I would have been in the campaign car if this were a normal election campaign."

Only two candidates did the rounds of the village in their campaign cars. The other candidates adopted low-key campaign styles -- sending postcards to villagers for support and quietly greeting supporters.

One candidate said, "A campaign car could provoke the displeasure of villagers this time." Another candidate said, "If I were to stage an election campaign using a car, it would not be possible for me to join the villagers in forcing the cult members out."

Villagers are worried that a two-story wooden dormitory in Kitamimakimura, sited in premises previously owned by a steelmaker, could become a new base for the cult.

Cult members began moving basic necessities into the dormitory in early January.

The villagers responded by digging a two-meter-deep moat and laying barbed wire around the premises.

About 400 people, including residents of neighboring areas, started a round-the-clock watch at the end of last year to prevent cult members from entering the dormitory. Even now, they maintain the vigil, mounting four shifts a day, each comprising 15 people.

Village assembly members have been spearheading local opposition to the cult. They stand more watches than average villagers -- one every three days. They have also petitioned the Nagano prefectural assembly to lobby the national government to establish a law to suppress the cult.

Reflecting this, the village has not been in the mood for flamboyant events. For example, nearly all the reservations for New Year parties at a restaurant in the village were canceled. A village-sponsored athletic meeting in February was also called off.

The association of district heads in 23 districts of the village forwarded a written request in March to the village election administration committee asking candidates to voluntarily restrain from using campaign vehicles.

"Canvassing with vehicles is allowed by law. The request from the association is for voluntary restraint, not mandatory restraint," said Hisao Watanabe, 60, president of the association.

"But I would feel sorry for the people from neighboring areas who join us in our vigil if our local candidates were to put all their energy into canvassing."

The village assembly members have stood down from the vigil on the cult since early April to give them time to prepare for the election. Most of them complained that they would have little preparation time.

In addition to worries about the cult, some candidates have been less enthusiastic about mounting campaigns because many of their supporters are busy tending their farms in spring.

Therefore, there has been a growing consensus in the village for a vote-free election.

A 72-year-old farmer who continues to stand watch on the dormitory said wearily: "Sorry, but I have little interest in the election. I am more concerned about what will happen to my fields."

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