When 800 residents camped out on the floors of City Hall after Japan's killer earthquake last Jan. 17, officials here posted notices asking the refugees to pack their belongings and leave so the bureaucrats could resume their normal duties.
The ensuing uproar was widely reported, and the notices were removed.
Controversies like this one have put the spotlight on Japan's bureaucrats and their widely criticized management of quake rescue efforts. And the Ashiya incident is threatening the reelection efforts of Harue Kitamura, the country's only woman mayor.
Former Mayor Koroku Yamamura, 73, cites the incident in making his case that the rival he admits he underrated when he lost to her by 1,773 votes four years ago can't handle the city's bureaucrats or crisis management.
Kitamura, 66, remains philosophical.
"In any election after a natural disaster, it's always tough for the incumbent," she said.
But she took a swipe at the national government's handling of the crisis, saying it was "very regrettable" that local officials were not given an opportunity to accept help offered by U.S. troops stationed in Japan.
"Here, at the scene, we didn't know about that offer. When the (Japanese) Self-Defense Forces came, there was a feeling of relief that help was at hand. Everyone was very grateful. If we had known that the U.S. forces had made such an offer, we would have snapped it up immediately," she said.
With transportation paralyzed and communication lines cut to the Hyogo prefecture government, Kitamura said she was reduced to telephoning "friends and acquaintances," such as the mayors of Osaka, Izumo and Beppu, to ask for food, water and relief.
Operations were also hindered by the inability of city staff to get to work, she said.
Refugees who are still sleeping on blankets at City Hall--including some outside her office--provide Kitamura with a daily reminder of her biggest problem as mayor.
"By the end of April, we will finish construction of 3,500 temporary homes. That will be enough for nearly all of the homeless, although there may be a few refugees left," she said.
Ashiya, a city of 86,800 people, is the only municipality of 16 damaged in the quake that is equipping its rent-free prefabricated homes with heating and cooling units, she noted. Its first batch of prefabs was turned over to refugees faster than anywhere else--23 days after the quake, she said.
Bureaucracy, nonetheless, is shaping up as an issue in post-quake rehabilitation as well as rescue efforts.
Kitamura, for example, said she wants to preserve Ashiya's distinctive greenery. But the city lacks the authority, and its staff lacks the ability, to carry out its own urban renewal and can only supplement plans approved by the prefectural government, she said.
Although she has slept in her City Hall office every night since the earthquake--pausing only on the day of the disaster to take her husband, who had broken his hip, to the hospital--Kitamura has been criticized for failing to seek out residents' ideas on rehabilitation.
Plans that city bureaucrats submitted to the prefecture to redesign sections of the city have sparked widespread opposition.
Katsuhiro Miyamoto, representative director of Atelier Cinquieme Architects, said Ashiya's urban renewal battle will be fought between those who stress the city's residential environment and those who emphasize commerce.
"Our first woman mayor has become just a decoration. I have no expectations for her," Miyamoto said. "The real power in Ashiya is concealed in a 'black box' controlled by the bureaucracy."
Kitamura said she regrets that she remains the only woman mayor in Japan.
"I thought my victory might encourage other women to run, but the wall against women is still thick. Unless a community itself is bustling with women's activities, it's hard for women to run as candidates. Women can't easily run for office when men run the political campaigns," she said.
She said her candidacy, which came after 12 years on the city's Education Commission, was possible because women have been active in Hyogo prefecture for many years.
Takako Doi, the first chairwoman of a major political party in Japan--the Socialists--and who is now Speaker of the lower house of Parliament, comes from Hyogo.
Still, prejudices and preconceptions continue, she said.
In December, she announced that she would seek another term "because if I resigned after only one term, people would say, 'It's because she is a woman,' " she told the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.
In an interview with The Times, she complained that criticism of her handling of the quake aftermath has included "that's-all-you-can-expect-from-a-woman" barbs.
But Yamamura, the former mayor, charged that Kitamura was falsely accusing her critics of prejudice against women to solidify her support from women voters.
Times' Tokyo Bureau researcher Megumi Shimizu contributed to this report.