Stunner: JCP skips Osaka mayor race

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The Osaka mayoral campaign took an unexpected turn over the weekend as the Japanese Communist Party candidate dropped out and called on voters to support current Mayor Kunio Hiramatsu over former Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto.

Koichi Watashi, 59, told reporters Saturday he made the decision out of a desire to stop Hashimoto, who is running for mayor to implement his plans to integrate the prefecture and city. JCP politicians in both the prefectural and municipal assemblies were the earliest, and most persistent, critics of the governor’s budget cuts and leadership style.

“Democracy means listening to minority opinions. But Hashimoto has no interest in them. Even if Hiramatsu and I together got a majority of votes, if Hashimoto were to finish with the most votes, it would mean the approval of fascist, dictatorial politics,” Watashi said.

Watashi’s sudden decision marks the first time since 1963 that the JCP has not fielded a candidate in the mayoral election. However, the party says that even if Hiramatsu wins, it will not discuss coordinating policies with him, and has no plans to join any sort of ruling party coalition. The JCP will also continue to support Shoji Umeda, 61, in the gubernatorial race.

A spokesman for Hashimoto’s local group, Osaka Ishin no kai (One Osaka), dismissed Watashi’s decision as old-fashioned party politics. With 33 of 86 seats, Ishin no kai is the largest group in the municipal assembly, but does not have a majority and needs the cooperation of one of the national parties in order to pass legislation.

The JCP has only eight seats, but its influence may be greater than the small number indicates. JCP mayoral candidates in the 2007 election and the 2005 recall election won 113,000 and 165,000 votes, respectively. Although that meant a third-place finish in both races, those figures were still much greater than the margin between the winning and runner-up candidates.

“Looking at the various predications for the election, our supporters are probably going to influence the outcome,” Katsutoshi Yamaguchi, head of the JCP prefectural chapter, said Saturday.

Watashi’s announcement came as Hashimoto and Ishin no kai are still reeling over highly critical media reports last month, first in a monthly and then in two weekly magazines. In addition to criticizing Hashimoto as a bully with fascist tendencies, they interviewed or reported unnamed sources who claimed that Hashimoto’s father was a gangster and that he was born and raised in a traditional “buraku” (outcast caste) or “dowa” area of social discrimination.

Initially, Hashimoto said little when the report in the monthly magazine Shincho 45 broke, only that it was mostly true. But over the past week, as it became clear that while the local mainstream media, with whom Hashimoto had an exceptionally cozy relationship, were only occasionally mentioning the reports, the Internet was buzzing with speculation that Hashimoto was connected to organized crime, possibly through his good friend, disgraced TV celebrity Shinsuke Shimada, who had to resign after his connections to organized crime came to light.

Meanwhile, several local Osaka TV variety programs began openly questioning whether the revelations will sink his campaign.

Answering his critics through Twitter postings, Hashimoto claimed he had never had any contact with mobsters.

While he did not deny that the stories about his father and his upbringing were true, he lashed out, in nearly two dozen Twitter posts, against the magazines, calling them stupid, journalistically irresponsible, and uncaring of the possible damage they could inflict on Hashimoto’s children.

The impact of the stories on the election remains unclear. Local media polls taken just before the reports came out indicated Hashimoto had a comfortable lead over Hiramatsu.

But since then, predications have been all over the place, with some poll results showing he was still comfortably in the lead but others indicating the two were running neck and neck.

The Osaka mayoral and gubernatorial elections take place Nov. 27. The gubernatorial campaign kicks off Thursday and pits former Ikeda Mayor Kaoru Kurata, an anti-Hashimoto candidate, against Ichiro Matsui, who is supported by Osaka Ishin no kai.

The mayoral race kicks off on Sunday.