Japan's Hashimoto Practices Unconventional Politics

December 2, 2015Political Economyby East Asia Forum

Can Hashimoto's Osaka victory translate nationally?

The results of the November 2015 ‘double election’ for the Osaka Prefectural governor and Osaka City mayor are in. The regional Osaka Ishin no Kai candidates won both positions with huge margins, defeating their rivals — including those supported by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and other national political parties.

It is rather exceptional in Japan that both the governor of a prefecture and the mayor of a city within that prefecture represent a regional political party.

Incumbent governor Ichiro Matsui returned to his four-year term as governor, and newcomer and former parliamentarian Hirofumi Yoshimura won the mayoral election. Yoshimura replaced the founder of the Osaka Ishin no Kai, Toru Hashimoto, who previously also served as governor of Osaka prefecture.

Hashimoto is by no means a conventional Japanese politician. Japanese politicians normally come from a political family, start their political career as a secretary to an established politician or enter politics after retiring as a high-ranking bureaucrat endorsed by a major political party.

Hashimoto is an engaging lawyer who became a national figure through his television appearances.  Hashimoto won the Osaka gubernatorial election in 2008 at 38 years old with a landslide victory. Hashimoto represented a new force in Osaka whose economy as well as national status was spiralling downwards. He came with a mission to fix Osaka’s economy and regain its status as Japan’s number two nationally.

As a political strategist, he first relinquished his position of governor and was replaced by Ichiro Matsui — a key supporter of Hashimoto. Then Hashimoto got himself elected as the mayor of Osaka city in a move to carry out his controversial, signature idea of reorganising Osaka along the lines of the Tokyo Metropolis. This, according to Hashimoto and his group, would cut costs, avoid duplication of functions, streamline administration and bring Osaka’s economy back on track.

Although a local leader, Hashimoto became a national figure. He even attracted international attention for his questionable views on issues such as the Japanese constitution, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, territorial disputes with Japan’s neighbours and Japan’s wartime activities in China and South Korea.

Yet Hashimoto’s most important task was the reorganisation of the administrative jurisdiction of Osaka prefecture and Osaka city. To his surprise, a local referendum in mid-2015 rejected his plan, only a few months before the double election.

With this defeat, even though it was only by a tiny margin of less than one per cent, political commentators had almost written off Hashimoto as a force in Japanese politics. Hashimoto himself had announced his intention to retire from politics and go back to his legal profession. However, Hashimoto is a great political fighter and survivor. He was the key campaigner for both the gubernatorial and mayoral candidates in Osaka, even though he himself was not running for any office.

Due to these landslide victories of Hashimoto’s party in the twin elections in Osaka, it is now highly unlikely Hashimoto will retire from politics. Nor is he likely to abandon his Osaka Metropolis plan. After all, he has launched a new national party, although with the same name (Osaka Ishin no Kai). The party will run candidates in the crucial forthcoming House of Councillors elections to be held in July 2016.

Hashimoto is notorious for forming and breaking party alliances, the most recent breakup is with the Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party, JIP), which he had created only a few years ago. JIP was hugely successful at the national level, making it the second largest opposition party after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Hashimoto’s split with the JIP and the creation of the Osaka Ishin no To as a national party opens the possibilities for a range of new party alignments at the national level.

Currently there are 40 lower house and 6 upper house JIP members in the national parliament. How many of the current JIP parliamentarians would return to Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin no To is unclear.

The JIP leader Yorihisa Matsuno is apparently close to the DPJ and its current leader Katsuya Okada. Together they could be an effective opposition at the national level. Now with Hashimoto forming a new national party, not only will the JIP weaken, but also the influence of DPJ is also likely to diminish.

This opens the way for the LDP to seek a parliamentary alliance with Hashimoto’s new party. Although the LDP ran candidates in opposition to Hashimoto’s candidates for both the gubernatorial and mayoral positions, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself did not go to Osaka to campaign for the LDP candidates.

National level politics today stands at a crossroads. Part one of the political drama arising from the Osaka elections is likely to be staged at the time of the House of Councillors election in July 2016. Depending on how events unfold from there, part two may be staged at the general election, which can occur any time before December 2018. Japan watchers must keep a close eye on Hashimoto’s political tactics and manoeuvrings.

What the Osaka elections mean for national politics in Japan is republished with permission from East Asia Forum

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