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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 September 2005, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
Japan post office's rural redoubt
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

The sub-post office in Onomichi, a small town near Hiroshima in southern Japan, opens on the dot of nine o'clock.

Worker at post office in Onomichi
Japan's Post Office is also one of the world's biggest banks
Three of its four staff sit waiting behind the counter. No security glass is needed here.

The postmaster Masao Okada stands at the door ready to greet his customers.

He has worked for Japan Post for 19 years - half his life.

His small office serves 100-150 customers each day and he knows most of them by name.

So does he tell them how to vote when it comes to election time?

It is not such a strange question.

As Japan prepares for a general election on 11 September, the fiercest debate has been over post office privatisation, with some commentators citing the power of postmasters in rural areas to mobilise the vote of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP.

It is true that often those who do this job are well respected and important members of their communities, particularly in the countryside. And in many cases the jobs are handed from father to son.

Bridge in Onomichi
Post Office savings are often used to fund questionable building projects

But Mr Okada denied that he had any influence over how his customers would cast their vote.

"I was just told to come to this office recently. I have no power," he said, adding, "I don't really want to talk about this."

Political commentator Tsuneo Watanabe said the real influence of rural postmasters "has been exaggerated, or perhaps misunderstood".

"They're not allowed to campaign in their post offices, but I suppose since they're kind of self-employed, they have a lot of time to campaign in the local area. And they are very conservative, much more likely to support the LDP."

Part of the post office's importance stems from the fact that money handed over by savers at its branches is added to a huge pile of yen which for years has been used by LDP politicians to bankroll public spending projects.

When times were good, they saw this as a way of sharing the benefits of Japanese growth with poorer areas. So in Onomichi they have built three huge bridges in the last 10 years. So far they are running at a loss of 1 trillion yen because the tolls are so expensive, few locals use them.
Tomoe Shinkawa
It's nonsense to fire all those good people
Tomoe Shinkawa

But this is why some local politicians are so attached to the present system.

It offers a pot of gold they don't want to lose.

Local service

Mr Okada's post office is not the only one in Onomichi. There's another one five minutes' walk down the road; there's a larger one slightly further down next to the railway station; and then another small one just beyond that.

Those who believe Japan Post should remain a state owned company argue that this kind of coverage provides customers with the level of service they have become accustomed to and need.

After all, the post office is more than just a mail delivery service. In rural areas especially, it is often the only place that offers banking and sells insurance. By some measures it's the world's biggest bank.

But Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi asks why the state needs to employ 260,000 post office workers.

He says he wants to bring the disciplines of the market to this bloated institution. So much money is deposited at small offices like the one in Onomichi that the Post Office is just too big and powerful, preventing proper competition.

Motohiro Taira
I am worried that there could be as much risk as there is with the banks if it is privatised
Motohiro Taira

But Onomichi resident Tomoe Shinkawa said she valued the current system.

"I am completely against Mr Koizumi's privatisation idea," she said. "You can trust public workers working for government since they have to go through a strict examination and background checks before they get those positions.

"It's nonsense to fire all those good people," the 78-year-old said.

Another customer, Motohiro Taira, was more circumspect.

"I don't mind if all post offices go," said the motorbike shop owner. "There are other alternatives. My customers and I use the Kuroneko mailing service more often than Japan Post. It's much more convenient."

On the other hand, he did not want to lose the banking services the post office offered.

"A lot of my customers have a Japan Post bank account and so do I," he said. "I am worried that there could be as much risk as there is with the banks if it is privatised. A lot of banks go bankrupt these days you know."

Entrenched interests

So how will this issue influence the vote here in Onomichi?

The fight is between Shizuka Kamei, a former LDP veteran who vigorously opposed post office privatisation, and a young millionaire internet entrepreneur, Takafumi Horie, running as an independent.

Ayako Yasuda
Ayako Yasuda wants things to change in Onomichi

Mr Horie has Mr Koizumi's backing, but such is the conservatism of the rural LDP heartlands, even those considering voting for him are reluctant to say so publicly.

"I can't speak openly," Ayako Yasuda, a restaurant owner, said. "It wouldn't be good for business."

Reluctantly, she admitted she wanted Mr Horie to win.

"We're tired of Kamei. He was good when the economy was doing well but now we're getting poorer I think we need a change in this town."

Mr Horie has a tough fight on his hands. Mr Kamei's powerbase seems pretty secure even though he no longer receives the backing of the LDP.

Evening found him addressing a well attended meeting of his women supporters in a local hotel. All of them used to support him when he was the LDP MP. All of them said they would continue to back him as an independent.

Mr Kamei looked relaxed. He was a vocal critic of Mr Koizumi's plans in the last parliament, and he said he had every intention of making trouble for his former boss in the next one.

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