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How did we end up here, in ‘Hashimotopia,’ 2022?

by Christopher Robinson and Ben Stubbings

Walking home the other night, I glanced furtively over my shoulder and clocked the notorious tattoo-enforcement police heading in my direction. I ducked into a nearby konbini and cursed that bad decision inked onto my forearm in the 1990s.

Ah, the ’90s, when all we had to worry about was a stagnant economy and bad music. And when television stations were allowed to show more than just the awful late-night “legal advice that people queue up for.”

As the danger passed, I cautiously resumed my walk. Upon arriving home my ankle monitoring bracelet buzzed, reminding me, as always, that it was time to stand and vehemently recite the anthem, Kimigayo. Rather than risk being sent to Kimigayo re-education school — a delicious irony for noncompliant teachers — I complied with a forced smile. At long last I sat down and couldn’t help but wonder how we ended up here, in “Hashimotopia,” in 2022.

Toru Hashimoto’s early years are shrouded in mystery, the Internet having been scrubbed clean of any mentions of his childhood. The Great Firewall of Osaka blocks any searches for “burakumin,” “yakuza” or “dōwa” within Japan, and Hashimoto’s officially sanctioned story begins in 1994, when he graduated from Waseda University and became a liar — ahem, lawyer.

While running his own law practice, he began to appear on television in the former Kansai region, most notably the prime-time “Gyoretsu no Dekiru Horitsu Sodanjo,” or “The Legal Advisory Office that People Queue Up For” (yes, that was unfortunately its real title — and still is).

Hashimoto’s hotshot television lawyer image caught the eye of the irredeemably drab Liberal Democratic Party, which decided to endorse him in the 2008 election for governor of Osaka Prefecture. He was elected to the position at a mere 38 years old, making most other politicians look practically geriatric. In 2011 he resigned as governor of the prefecture to run for Osaka mayor, to which he was also duly elected.

Even before he ascended to the newly created position of Lord Protector, Hashimoto was an eccentric, to say the least. Like any politician, he made promises and flip-flopped on important issues — like nuclear safety — but then there were frightening anomalies: He tried to deny unsavory historical events from Japan’s past, and maintained nothing short of an obsessive paranoia regarding his own family history.

His similarities with many despots of old were both striking and alarming. By the late noughties, critics had already begun alluding to his “dictatorial” behavior, although he remained wildly popular among his constituents right up until the late ’10s, when their votes ceased to matter. Hashimoto an actual dictator? That couldn’t be.

As governor of Osaka Prefecture it became clear that Hashimoto was also a reformist. In 2010 he founded his own political party, Osaka Ishin no Kai, known in English as the Osaka Restoration Association. Its main goal, now all too familiar, was called “One Osaka” — a plan to transform Osaka from an urban prefecture, or fu, into a metropolitan to.

Confusing suffixes aside, what Hashimoto claimed he wanted was to unify Osaka’s cities into a Tokyo-esque system, eliminating frustrating overlap between local governments. But what looked like the ideal plan to cut through bureaucratic red tape and help Osaka grow into an economic powerhouse was actually a sinister plot to hasten Hashimoto’s rise to power.

Hashimoto was an undeniably charismatic leader. Combined with his young age, this helped him stand out from the old guard of Japanese politicians. And Hashimoto did what charismatic types do best: He got people fired up.

“Hashimoto will be the center of a typhoon,” Shigeki Uno, a University of Tokyo social science professor, told The Washington Post in 2012. “It’s anti-establishment. Anti-Tokyo. Anti-anything.”

It wasn’t that he couldn’t avoid the spotlight; rather, he couldn’t seem to get enough of it. When he made obvious statements alluding to his ominous future direction, such as in June 2011, when he declared that “What Japan needs now is a dictatorship,” everyone assumed he was just ruffling feathers. And the comments about government workers being unworthy of privacy or other human rights? Apparently they weren’t a big deal either.

Even when he flexed his ultranationalist muscle for the first time, creating legislation that would require Osaka teachers to stand and sing whenever the Kimigayo was played, the public barely blinked.

Looking back, the signs were there: He had his own party, a book that served as the political blueprint for the decades to come, and a school to train new politicians — any number of indications that he desired as much power as possible. People didn’t quite know what to think of Hashimoto, but despite his negatives, they were strangely drawn to him.

“The mayor is intent upon changing the center of power, using Osaka as an exemplary base of radical reform,” wrote Roger Pulvers in a 2012 article on Hashimoto’s potential to one day become prime minister. “Radical” barely began to describe what he actually had in store.

It was toward the end of summer 2012 that things started to get serious. Spirits were high and the biz was supercool as people endured scorching weather in barely air-conditioned offices and homes and Japanese athletes returned from a successful Olympics.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and the Diet, however, were as humdrum as ever. Consumption tax this, economy that — same old, same old. The once-invincible LDP were a spent force, and having finally wrested power from that long-ruling party, Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan had failed to bring about the change Japanese people had craved. The 3/11 triple disaster of 2011 vividly exposed the cozy ties between business and the bureaucracy, and politicians’ inability to rise above petty partisan bickering to protect the interests of Japan’s citizens. With the legislature gridlocked, Noda was forced to call a general election.

Sensing the timing would never be more right, Hashimoto stepped in to control the narrative and fill the void. Hundreds of his little disciples had just graduated from his own Ishin Seiji Juku, or Restoration Political Institute, and were suited and booted to run for office. Nobody seemed to notice how ludicrously ominous Restoration Political Institute sounds, and in a shock result, the party won a slim majority in the Lower House.

As its first act, the “Hash Diet” approved the One Osaka plan, and all the surrounding cities were merged into one superdistrict. Hashimoto handed his ally former LDP Prime Minister Shinzo Abe his old job back as the puppet head of Japan Inc. while the Osaka mayor put the finishing touches to his dream for the country’s future capital.

Anyone from Osaka will tell you the city is clearly the best in Japan, but Hashimoto made sure it was fact. Actually, he made sure it was law, which is how Japan’s once-second city became known officially as “Osaka Daiichi,” or “Osaka No. 1.”

Over the next few years Hashimoto’s popularity went through the roof nationwide as voters outside Tokyo began to dream that their neglected backwaters could prosper in the same way Osaka had. Instead, however, regional power brokers took the opportunity to establish their own corrupt fiefdoms — all under the umbrella of Hashimoto’s Nippon Ishin no Kai, of course. By this point, not even the Constitution could stop him.

“Japanese people entertain a fascination with charismatic and decisive leaders,” says Mark Schreiber, who warned of Hashimoto’s dictatorial qualities in a now-prophetic 2012 article in these pages, “but as memories of World War II began to fade, they started to forget that all too often when such leaders took power, they followed them blindly over the precipice. Even in a democracy with an American-written Constitution, the rise of Hashimoto reinforces the view that given enough time, history really does repeat itself.”

When Hashimoto, with the help of his own party, dissolved the House of Councilors as part of his drive to cut wasteful government spending in 2014, nobody saw it coming. In 2016 elections, Hashimoto and his allies won a sweeping majority in the now single-chamber Diet.

Despite Hashimoto’s long and well-documented disdain for the old system, the population was caught off guard when he then went on to do away with the Diet altogether and appoint himself Lord Protector, with absolute authority over decisions made by Japan’s largely self-governing regions.

In seemingly no time, Japan had gone from an arguably over-democratic country, plagued by governmental gridlock, to a nation in the clutches of a “passive-aggressive fascist with a chip on his shoulder the size of Tokyo,” as one critic famously put it.

First came the surveys, endless surveys: Do you have any tattoos? Do you have any relation to yakuza? Have you ever been involved in political activity? Which part of town does your family come from? Do you enjoy cosplay? What kind of cosplay? Not answering was not an option.

As his paranoia and personal vendettas mushroomed, so did the number of policies and restrictions. No more television except for Hashimoto’s favorite legal advice that one queues up for — anything else was just wasted time, laziness.

The culmination of his decades-long fight with Nikkyoso, the leftwing Japan Teachers Union, came in 2014, when Hashimoto decreed that all educators would have to wear an ankle tracking bracelet that buzzed when it was time to sing Kimigayo. It was rumored that if you tried to resist you’d become a permanent contestant on one of the legal advice shows, seeking endless guidance on taxes and faulty loans, fed only on “Russian roulette takoyaki.”

Then came the great tattoo purge of 2016. If it wouldn’t have created such a mess, the streets would have been stained with smashed bottles of body ink.

It was decided that even a simple butterfly on your ankle, or the ever-popular tribal armband, might indicate a connection to yakuza, general thuggery or an undesirable family history, so everything had to go. If you had a tattoo, you covered it up or risked being sent away as an eager “activist” to the China-held Senkaku islands to demonstrate your national pride.

And so here we are, living in Osaka Daiichi, Hashimotopia. There are plans to turn Tokyo into the world’s largest red-light district and all of Hokkaido into a massive casino. Beyond that, nobody knows what the future holds. But my ankle is buzzing and I’ve got to go, so I’ll leave you with words of wisdom from our Lord Protector: “Unless we build a Japan in which people who sneak through the cracks in the rules are applauded, this country will not survive in the international society of the future.”

In other words, get sleazy and get to work — it’s for Japan.

Light Gist offers a humorous take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp