He’s young, photogenic, energetic, brash, bold, intelligent — and, almost oxymoronically, a politician, one of very few in Japan within living memory who come close to fitting such a description. He has many ideas, all of which boil down to this: “Nihon no kuni wo ichi kara risetto shite, mōichido tsukurinaosu” (「日本の国を一からリセットして、もう一度作り直す」”Reset Japan’s central government from scratch, make it over”). That’s how he put it at a kōenkai (後援会, political support group gathering) in January.
His name of course is Toru Hashimoto, former Osaka Prefecture governor, current Osaka City mayor, and future … what? Prime minister? Catalyst of Japan’s resurrection? He’s only 42. Regarding the next national election he has said, “Watashi jishin ga kokusei ni deru koto wa arimasen” (「私自身が国政に出ることはありません」”I myself will not be involved in politics at the national level”) — but the group he founded and leads, Osaka Ishin no Kai (大阪維新の会, One Osaka), is poised for very prominent involvement indeed.
That Japan is in sad if not tragic straits is generally acknowledged. If ever a country needed a government empowered by public support, this one does. If Japan’s salvation depends on such support, though, the future is dark. A recent Asahi Shimbun yoron chōsa (世論調査, opinion poll) shows why. To the question “Ima, dono seitō wo shiji shite imasu ka?” (「今、どの政党を支持していますか」”Which party do you now support?”), the response was: Minshuto (民主党, the Democratic Party of Japan, which heads the governing coalition): 19 percent; Jiminto (自民党, opposition-leading Liberal Democratic Party): 12 percent. Eleven minor parties each garnered support ratings of 2 percent or less. Fifty-three percent of respondents said, “Shiji seitō nashi” (「支持政党なし」 “There is no party I support”).
Osaka Ishin no Kai is not yet a national party. But asked whether it is desirable for the group to win enough Diet seats to influence national affairs, 54 percent said yes. Hashimoto’s personal support rating was a stellar 65 percent.
Why are established parties and politicians so dismally unappealing to the citizens they were elected to represent? DPJ Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi at a press conference last month acknowledged the problem and said, “Genshuku ni uketomete shinrai kaifuku ni sennen wo shinakereba ikenai” (「厳粛に受け止めて信頼回復に専念をしなければいけない」”We take it very seriously and must focus on regaining the public’s trust”) — exhibiting in saying so the very heart of the problem, namely politicians’ penchant for using words to say nothing. Hashimoto, like him or not, cuts straight to the point. “Zettai muri” (「絶対無理」”absolutely impossible”), was his description, in an interview with the Asahi, of trying to govern effectively under ima no Nihon no tōchi kikō (今の日本の統治機構, Japan’s current government set-up.)
His name and at times his manner invite a devastating pun: “Hashism.” Last summer he declared, “Ima no Nihon no seiji de ichiban jūyō na no wa dokusai. Dokusai to iwareru gurai no chikara da” (「今の日本の政治で一番重要なのは独裁。独裁といわれるぐらいの力だ」”What Japanese politics needs today above all is dictatorship — at least the power of a dictatorship.”) It is surprising, interesting and perhaps revealing that that remark made few waves. It made some, though. Japan Communist Party chairman Kazuo Shii went so far as to compare him to Hitler: “Hitler mo tōsho, taishita jinbutsu de wa nai to omowarete ita” (「ヒトラーも当初、大した人物ではないと思われていた」”Hitler too, in the beginning, was considered harmless.”)
Commentators tend to compare Hashimoto not so much to Hitler as to contemporary conservative populists such as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. Hashimoto himself, however, prefers to be associated with a more remote, more mysterious, more heroic figure — Ryoma Sakamoto (1835-1867), one of the architects of the modernizing Meiji Ishin (明治維新, Meiji Restoration [of 1868]) — which historic milestone his party’s name evokes.
Sakamoto was an exponent of sonnō jōi (尊皇攘夷, revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians — namely, the Western powers who were forcing their way into Japan against a tottering Tokugawa Shogunate helpless to resist them.) Shortly before he was assassinated he drew up a document called Senchū Hassaku (船中八策), an eight-point program for Japan’s future government under the “restored” Imperial reign.
Hashimoto too has issued a program he calls his 船中八策. Its main theme is decentralization — a devolution of power from Tokyo to the regions. Particularly controversial are his calls for shushō kōsensei (首相公選制, the direct election of the prime minister) and sanin no haishi (参院の廃止, scrapping the Upper House of the bicameral legislature).
He stirs strong and complex emotions, from admiration to disdain to fear. On one point there is general agreement: for better or worse, he is a man to watch.