Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto has become a TV icon with attacks on everything from bureaucracy to nuclear power and the political feuding that has stifled the economy. His success may be about to make things worse.
The 42-year-old lawyer, who has said the country needs a “dictatorship,” is building his One Osaka party to contest national elections that must be held by August 2013, tapping voter discontent with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and opposition Liberal Democratic Party that between them have overseen a 10 percent economic contraction in the past 14 years.
“It’s not that voters particularly want to support me or that they’ve looked carefully at what One Osaka stands for,” Hashimoto told reporters on May 29. “If the existing parties did their jobs properly, our support would drop instantly.”
Hashimoto aims to take as many as 200 of the 480 seats in the lower house, tapping voters who are fed up with Japan’s record debt and soaring pension costs. Political rivals estimate One Osaka could win as many as 50 seats, which could create a hung parliament and make it harder to enact laws.
“If Hashimoto is successful then they could be the swing vote and that could give him a lot of influence,” said Gerald Curtis, a professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University in New York. “That only would make the situation more complicated and chaotic.”
His party has yet to take a stance on the central economic issue in parliament: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s bill to double the 5 percent sales tax to fund welfare costs and rein in the world’s largest debt. Nor has Hashimoto detailed how he’d revive an economy that shrank three of the past four years.
Instead, he gained support by attacking unpopular policies and social ills. He first opposed Noda’s efforts to restart a nuclear power plant near Osaka, citing safety in the wake of last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, before last month agreeing to the reactivation of the reactors on a “limited” basis. He also banned municipal workers from having tattoos, traditionally associated with the criminal Yakuza gangs, and has forced public school teachers to stand and sing the national anthem over the protest of teachers’ unions.
A Mainichi newspaper poll published June 4 shows 28 percent of voters would back One Osaka, double the 14 percent support for Noda’s DPJ. The LDP, which was ousted from half a century of control in August 2009, had 16 percent. The newspaper surveyed 1,015 people and provided no margin of error.
The rise of One Osaka complicates a parliamentary system that has recently struggled to give one party a mandate to push through economic reforms. While the DPJ has two-thirds of the more-powerful lower house, it needs cooperation from the opposition-controlled upper chamber to pass most laws.
The LDP has delayed or blocked economic stimulus and budgetary measures, including legislation to fund the deficit with government bonds. The situation was reversed in 2007-2009, when the LDP controlled the lower house and the DPJ the upper.
Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a DPJ lawmaker from Osaka, compares Hashimoto’s popularity with that of the anti-tax Tea Party in the U.S. and France’s anti-immigrant National Front led by Marine Le Pen.
“When you have a painful fiscal situation and a stagnant economy, frustration builds,” she said. “People often turn to nationalism to relieve that frustration.” Hashimoto’s policies “are all old.”
That frustration is evident in Osaka, the commercial center of western Japan, which has a population of almost 9 million, about the same as Sweden, and a $490 billion economy on par with Malaysia. Hashimoto, the father of seven, sparked a debate in the region last year in his run for mayor, when he campaigned on a pledge to merge the job with his previous post as prefectural governor to reduce bureaucracy and save money. He won with almost 60 percent of the vote.
Now, his party wants to scrap the Diet’s upper house and hold direct elections for prime minister, both of which would require amending the 65-year-old postwar constitution for the first time.
“He has spotted his chance and used the media very skillfully,” said DPJ lawmaker Hajime Ishii, who estimates One Osaka could win 50 lower house seats. Hashimoto’s challenge is to gain national backing, said Ishii, who represents a constituency in Kobe, a 20-minute train ride from Osaka.
“While he has a lot of influence in Osaka, there’s doubt about how much he has in the rest of the country,” Ishii said.
Big Party Blues
Disenchantment with Japan’s biggest parties has helped the candidacies of other regional leaders. The governor of Aichi prefecture and the mayor of its biggest city, Nagoya, were elected as independents in February 2011 on pledges to cut income taxes. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, one of the country’s most prominent politicians, won re-election as an independent to a fourth term in April last year.
The two main parties began talks today on Noda’s plan to double the sales tax to 10 percent by October 2015 and differences over social security bills. While the LDP said it backs the prime minister’s timetable for implementing the levy, including initially raising it to 8 percent in April 2014, it wants him to withdraw welfare pledges in return for its support.
Hashimoto’s rise has been compared in local media to that of Ishihara, whose four-decade political career has been marked by controversial comments about China, the U.S. and immigrants. The Tokyo governor sparked an outcry in April by saying he wants to use public funds to buy a chain of islands that are also claimed by China. Last month Ishihara said Hashimoto was “a very wise person” who “analyzes his political situation in a very realistic way.”
Hashimoto was born in Tokyo and moved to Osaka as a child, where he was raised by his single mother. He graduated from Tokyo’s Waseda University, the alma mater of seven Japanese prime ministers, including Noda. Hashimoto became a lawyer in 1996, gaining a wider audience by appearing on TV shows to give legal advice, and won the Osaka gubernatorial election in 2008.
In March he opened a school to train politicians, attracting 2,000 candidates to attend lectures in preparation for running on the One Osaka ticket. He set a goal of fielding 300 candidates for the lower house.
Translating Hashimoto’s regional popularity into a national power base is beset with obstacles. He has pledged to fulfill his four-year term, which would keep him from running for parliament in the next election. He also has yet to show how he could work with the LDP or DPJ to pull Japan out of its economic slump, said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
“He is good as a challenger,” Nakano said. “At the national level you have to be much more of a team player, compromising, making alliances. His strength so far has been his iconoclastic style, challenging taboos, outspoken leadership, vilifying opponents.”