In Japan, a sprightly 94-year-old fights election battle

TOKYO Thu Dec 13, 2012 3:28am EST

1 of 2. Ryokichi Kawashima, a 94-year-old parliamentary election candidate, speaks in front of his election campaign poster on a street during an interview with Reuters in Hanyu, north of Tokyo December 12, 2012. Kawashima took 3 million yen ($36,400) from the sum saved for his funeral and just three hours before the deadline, he became the oldest contender for Sunday's election to the lower house of parliament. Picture taken December 12. To match story JAPAN-ELECTIONS/CANDIDATE

Credit: Reuters/Ruairidh Villar

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TOKYO (Reuters) - When Ryokichi Kawashima burst into a Tokyo city office to register as a candidate in Japan's parliamentary election, the woman behind the counter first froze, then stuttered: "Are you serious?"

He was. Kawashima had just taken 3 million yen ($36,400) from the sum saved for his funeral and at 94, and just three hours before the deadline, he became the oldest contender for Sunday's election to the lower house of parliament.

"I just felt that now it was my turn," said Kawashima, proudly pointing at his poster on a board in Hanyu, a sleepy town tucked away among rice fields on the fringes of the sprawling Tokyo metropolis.

"It occurred to me when I watched a TV debate between the major parties," he said, speaking in Japanese. "I just couldn't stand how fragmented and disorganized they have become. They have no grip on reality."

The silver-haired Kawashima is an independent, self-financed and his campaign team is mostly family. He acknowledges he has little chance of winning a constituency that is also being contested by candidates from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The LDP is heavily tipped to win the most seats in the election.

But Kawashima, born in the year that marked the end of World War One, represents the most-talked-about and fastest growing part of the Japanese society: the elderly.

Japan has aged at an unprecedented pace over the past three decades and at little over 30 million, those aged 65 or older make up a quarter of the country's population, stretching Japan's annual social security bill to 100 trillion yen.

There is a general consensus among political parties that the benefits must be reformed, with more of a focus on an "all-generation" system rather than the current emphasis on the elderly.

But Kawashima, who is using posters, flyers and flags in his campaign, is not making benefits for the elderly an issue.

Instead, he drives around in his white Suzuki pushing a staunchly anti-nuclear and anti-nationalist stance.

Relations with China are a hot campaign topic after long simmering tensions over a disputed island chain flared up in September when Japan bought the rocky islets from a private Japanese owner, triggering anti-Japanese protests.

"I fought in the Sino-Japanese war for seven years and the Chinese helped me survive in the tough post-war years, so I know them well," said Kawashima.

"That whole dispute over the islands and talk that they will invade us is just pure fear-mongering. Their rulers may say such things, but I know they would never do anything like that."

Kawashima, a widower, lives on his own and looks eminently capable of looking after himself. His driving license is valid for another three years, he only needs a stick to help walk, and does not use spectacles.

He stayed on in China after World War Two, working with trading companies. When he returned to Japan he became a salesman for Japanese kamado cookers, travelling around on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Later, he retired to Hanyu where he ran a securities company.

Kawashima's decision to contest the election was taken after a family gathering attended by his 62-year-old daughter and three younger siblings: two brothers aged 85 and 76, and a little sister who has just turned 80.

"All of my friends are dead, so I organized a family gathering and asked them for help," he said in an interview in his living room that had a Buddhist family altar in the corner, while his son-in-law poured coffee and answered calls.

Kawashima then waved to his grandson and his friend who were walking into the backyard in rubber boots to pick up the next stack of election posters.

"Thanks very much and stick them out nicely!" he shouted out to them. ($1 = 82.3900 Japanese yen)

(Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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