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The world according to Toru Hashimoto

A look at some of the Osaka mayor's more influential, and inflammatory, comments

by Eric Johnston

Loved by his supporters for his fiery rhetoric — which often involves bashing the Tokyo-centric status quo, overpaid local bureaucrats, utility executives, teachers’ unions or, indeed, anybody who disagrees with him — Hashimoto’s critics charge that he’s a dangerous rightwing demagogue seeking a fascist dictatorship, and a political amateur who will destroy the country.

Listening to his various comments, Japan’s mainstream media, and some Tokyo-based foreign pundits, attempt to affix some generic political label to Hashimoto. Or, they dismiss his rise and that of his Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) as a joke, pointing to media polls showing that he enjoys very little support, especially in the Tokyo area.

But there are two fundamental mistakes Hashimoto’s critics make. The first is to assume his words and ideas are merely his own or those of a tiny minority, and do not reflect the views of a growing number of voters who live in the “real” Japan — the one that exists beyond Tokyo’s Yamanote Line. The second is to ignore the fact that Hashimoto’s comments and policies sound like independent populism at times but are often supported, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, by powerful members of the economic and political status quo Hashimoto is seemingly bashing.

With the exception of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, with whom he is fairly close personally, no other politician in Japan is as outspoken as Hashimoto. And, unlike the octogenarian Ishihara, the 43-year-old Hashimoto knows how to get his message across through social media, especially Twitter. Between January and August, Hashimoto personally tweeted or retweeted almost 15 times a day on average, starting as early as 7:30 a.m. and often continuing past midnight. That comes on top of two daily media briefings, which can be as long as an hour each (and are open to non-press club members), plus a once-a-week press conference that can last almost two hours, as well as appearances on local and national television.

Thus, keeping track of Hashimoto’s statements is a 24/7 job. No top 10 list of quotes could ever hope to capture his philosophy. Nevertheless, some comments he has made since becoming a politician, as well as long-ago things he said as a lawyer turned television talent, offer a beginner’s guide to the world of Toru Hashimoto.

1. “Japan should have nuclear weapons”: Hashimoto made this argument on several television shows before becoming Osaka governor in 2008. During questioning by the prefectural assembly that same year, just after becoming governor, Hashimoto insisted this was only his private opinion, and he has said nothing on the subject since. Nor is it a part of the JRP’s platform. But the political company Hashimoto keeps includes not only Ishihara but also former prime minister and current Liberal Democratic Party chief Shinzo Abe, Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan) head Takeo Hiranuma and a host of others who support, to various degrees, this same goal.

2. “What’s needed in the politics of today’s Japan is a dictator — power to the extent you’ll be called a dictator”: This comment, originally made at a party in June 2011 while Hashimoto was still governor, has been repeatedly quoted by critics who warn that he’s the most dangerous man in Japan (despite the fact they mostly ignore similar or wose statements from Ishihara, who is forming his own national political party).

This comment launched a thousand debates and made national and international headlines. Hashimoto has spent much time and effort attempting to explain that he was not advocating an end to democratic rule. But it caused many media and ordinary citizens to start digging into his past comments. It didn’t take long to find Hashimoto’s 2006 book “Mattou Shoubu,” in which he writes that as long as there are no regulations with clear rules, it doesn’t matter what happens, and that it was important to bend the rules to succeed. Self-responsibility, or Hashimoto’s version of it, was the key, he said.

Bending — or breaking — the rules to succeed can be interpreted in many ways. Hashimoto’s critics warn that it’s the thin end of the wedge, and what follows would be anarchy, followed by a crackdown, with Hashimoto the dictator leading the charge. But in the merchant town of Osaka, and in many places where Japanese see the nation’s fundamental problem as being an overabundance of bureaucratic rules (often imposed by Tokyo), Hashimoto’s message has a certain appeal.

3. “These shitty boards of education”: Hashimoto made this comment in September 2008, while governor, on a local radio station, launching a battle with education officials and teachers’ unions that continues today. Angered that school officials refused to divulge test scores to local authorities, Hashimoto has since made fundamental education reforms (read: breaking up the teachers’ unions and instituting school vouchers) a major plank of the JRP platform. He has also successfully pushed through local legislation that forces teachers to stand, face the Hinomaru flag and sing the national anthem at school ceremonies.

This war against the liberal education establishment won the praise of prominent conservatives and national politicians like Abe. It also attracted a group of supporters to Hashimoto that gets little mention: owners of private schools, many of which emphasize training as opposed to education. They see lots of potential students, or rather customers, among those who are not satisfied with state schools.

4. “You can’t imagine the average politician doing this. It’s a decision and a course of action only Ishihara can take.”: That was Hashimoto’s reply to reporters on April 17 when asked how he felt about Ishihara’s announced intention to have Tokyo purchase the Senkaku Islands, and it appeared to cement his relationship with the Tokyo governor. Talk immediately began of a Hashimoto-Ishihara political tieup.

However, the recent confrontation between Japan and China over the Senkakus, and the central government’s purchase of the islands, saw Hashimoto taking a stance that angered those conservative and nationalist supporters who applauded his April 17 remark.

During a September debate in Osaka as head of the JRP, Hashimoto told journalist Soichiro Tahara that he did not favor sending the Self-Defense Forces to occupy the Senkakus. Given Hashimoto’s reputation in Osaka as particularly China-friendly (he visited the nation several times while governor, approved an Osaka pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo despite massive cutbacks in the prefectural budget, and hosted Chinese president Hu Jintao), his let’s-not-be-hasty approach to the Senkakus now that a crisis has erupted is perhaps not too surprising. But the perceived flip-flop has created greater skepticism among hawkish supporters who increasingly wonder if, while Hashimoto might be OK for Osaka, he and his party have the skills needed at the national level.

5. “At the moment, I’m opposed. You can’t just (restart) with one stress test. If the Oi reactors are restarted, nothing will change. If we want to change things, this is our chance.”: Hashimoto on April 1, explaining why he opposed the restart of the nuclear reactors in Oi, in nearby Fukui Prefecture.

6. “I chickened out over fears about power outages”: Hashimoto explaining to reporters on June 8 why he switched positions and approved a “provisional” restart of the Oi reactors.

7. “There is little need to spend vast sums of money to simply ask about whether or not to operate nuclear power plants. The result of last fall’s mayoral election (in which Hashimoto promised to seek to phase out nuclear power) showed that people wanted to phase out nuclear power. What the referendum is seeking has already been expressed by local citizens.”: Hashimoto in a formal reply in February to a citizens’ group seeking a municipal referendum that would oblige the city to abandon nuclear power. The referendum proposal had more than the required number of signatures from local residents but was later voted down by the city assembly.

The above three quotes demonstrate the confusion over Hashimoto’s true commitment to getting out of nuclear power. But they also reveal divisions within the JRP and among Hashimoto’s supporters over the issue.

On one hand, Hashimoto, while governor, announced he was in favor of phasing out nuclear power, and he opposed the restart of the Oi reactors. Furthermore, on Oct. 23, he announced that getting out of nuclear power by 2040 will be a JRP campaign pledge.

On the other hand, he not only caved in to a restart of the Oi reactors but also opposed a citizen-led drive on the issue. The jury is still out on whether Hashimoto is truly serious about implementing policy measures to get out of nuclear power.

8. “People who like noh and kyogen are degenerates”: This comment, which came to light in July, was a private remark Hashimoto made while still a television talent. It not only reflects a dislike for noh and kyogen but also is behind his opposition to municipal support for traditional bunraku puppet theater.

Needless to say, the comment and the battle with the bunraku theater have stirred fears among Japan’s cultural elites that the Osaka mayor is a philistine who, if he were running the country, would pull the plug on government support for the traditional arts (or at least those not making a profit) and force them to operate solely as private concerns, which many clearly cannot.

9. “We’d be better off without the Asahi Shimbun. It’s just a foolish talk-shop institution. I hope it goes out of business soon. The paper seems to think it’s OK to badmouth authority.” Hashimoto made this comment in 2008 after an Asahi editorial criticized his stance over a court case in Yamaguchi Prefecture he’d spoken about while a television talent.

Since then, the left-leaning Asahi and Hashimoto have clashed over numerous issues ranging from education to bureaucratic reform. Relations between Hashimoto and the paper are particularly bad now, due to a recent report in the weekly Shukan Asahi magazine that delved into his personal background. Even Hashimoto’s critics saw the article as a hit piece that crossed the line into social discrimination based on Hashimoto’s buraku background.

Hashimoto announced he would refuse to take questions from Asahi reporters until an apology and explanation by the magazine were presented, which they did on Oct. 23. However, the long-running feud between Hashimoto and the Asahi continues, and his conservative, nationalistic supporters, both in Osaka and the Diet, share his contempt for the paper.

10. “There is a 20,000 percent chance that I will not run.”: In Osaka, this is arguably Hashimoto’s most famous quote. It was made in November 2007 while he was still a television talent and after senior members of the local LDP approached him after failing to find a candidate to stand in the 2008 Osaka gubernatorial election.

Most local media were convinced Hashimoto would not run and were surprised when he threw his hat into the ring. But the comment is often referred to today when Hashimoto declares he will, or will not, follow some specific policy. The quote is seen, variously, as a sign he’d change his mind if necessary, as overblown rhetoric that was merely a negotiating tactic to get what he wants, or as proof that, despite Hashimoto’s image as a populist, he’s really just another politician.

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