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The method behind the brashness

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Osaka

While his inflammatory comments have made headlines and his combative, argumentative style has shocked and enraged those who take comfort in the traditional politician’s art of discreet ambiguity, there is method behind Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s perceived rhetorical madness.

Since coming to power in 2008 as the governor of Osaka, no Japanese politician has more effectively used TV and social media, especially Twitter, to his advantage. But whether the subject is municipal services, budget cuts or the policies of his Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), Hashimoto’s rhetoric often takes a recognizable path.

First, he makes his point even if it isn’t related to the question (“Well, yes, bureaucratic reform in Osaka Prefecture is important. But, ultimately, this is about the need to eliminate bureaucratic waste by merging the city and prefecture of Osaka.”)

Second, he identifies what he sees as the problem (“We’re in this mess because of lazy bureaucrats and greedy unions”).

Third, he makes the case for change (“We have to compete with Tokyo and change the educational system so generations of Osakans develop the skills needed to compete internationally”).

At that point, no matter the issue, Hashimoto will likely refer to the same basic set of pro-corporate solutions for bringing about change: budget and personnel cuts, union curbs and privatization plans, while of course demanding clear rules and a level playing field.

Such talk warms the hearts of not only Osakans worried about their city falling behind Tokyo and East Asia economically, but also corporate supporters and some in foreign business community who, until his “comfort women” comments in May made him an international pariah, saw the 44-year-old populist as the best hope for leading Japan into a new era of prosperity.

To get his message out, Hashimoto, a lawyer, uses news conferences to conduct trials in the court of public opinion so that he, the defense attorney (for the city), can do battle with the prosecution (the media, his enemies in the bureaucracy) using a direct debating style to win over the jury (the voters).

Thankfully, his remarks are usually free of the vague euphemisms that more senior politicians use, and spiced with an occasional bon mot that ends up in the news. A logical argument in clear, direct Japanese is the only way to convince voters, he says.

Hashimoto’s style also differs in that his rhetoric and media strategy are aimed at a new generation of Japanese who do not trust newspapers. The TV and Internet are his preferred media, and many of his appearances are online in unedited form.

This allows him to repeat his points endlessly in front of the cameras and revise them, knowing it will all be publicly available, especially if —after followup questions — he believes TV producers will use an earlier sound bite that he does not like.

Is this rhetorical style and media strategy working? Recent polls show Nippon Ishin has a popularity rating of about 1 percent. Yet the mayor himself still has a strong base, although many have doubts about his specific goals, like the city-prefecture merger.

As long as Osakans continue to understand what he says, it seems, he will always have a political home, regardless of what happens to his political movement.