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Final season for ‘Toru Hashimoto Show’?

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Is “The Toru Hashimoto Show,” the long-running Osaka political drama — which some might call a farce and others a tragedy — entering its final season?

That’s the question Osakans of all political stripes are asking with the mercurial mayor set to leave office at the end of this month, only to stand for re-election March 23 for reasons not even Hashimoto’s most ardent supporters can fully explain.

Officially, his resignation was prompted by anger at the lack of progress a committee of local politicians made in discussing his and his Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) political group’s goal of integrating the city of Osaka with Osaka Prefecture by April next year.

The snap election is unlikely to change anything because Osaka Ishin does not have a majority in the municipal assembly and all other parties oppose Hashimoto’s integration schedule. Integration plans must be approved by the city assembly before a referendum can be held.

But that has not stopped the mayor from deciding that the only way to bring about a citizen’s vote on a final plan, scheduled for October, is to hold an election now.

“This election is about whether Osaka should be given the chance to vote this autumn in a referendum on an integration plan that needs to be finished by summer,” Hashimoto said earlier this month.

In 13 committee meetings, four plans have emerged. The one favored by Hashimoto consolidates the city of Osaka’s 24 wards into five large districts. Each will enjoy much more power, especially of the purse, while Osaka City Hall would cease to function in its current capacity.

That is just the first step toward integrating the rest of the prefecture into a single political and bureaucratic entity similar, in many respects, to Tokyo.

Then, Hashimoto hopes, the stage will be set to achieve his ultimate goal, a “republic of Kansai” that would turn the region into a large, powerful entity akin to a Swiss canton, a Canadian province or a U.S. state.

All of these ideas have long been greeted with varying degrees of opposition by the central government’s ministries in Tokyo, which are loathe to cede any financial or bureaucratic control over the local governments. But what prompted Hashimoto to resign earlier this month was not the resistance in Tokyo, but in Osaka, especially from then-ally New Komeito.

When New Komeito, which forms a majority with Osaka Ishin in the municipal and prefectural assemblies, opposed combining the four integration proposals into one at the late January meeting, it was, for Hashimoto, the last straw. He launched a verbal tirade against New Komeito.

In a remark aimed at the party’s Buddhist support group Soka Gakkai, the mayor implied that New Komeito politicians were behaving like religious followers.

He also charged that New Komeito’s opposition broke an agreement with Osaka Ishin made before the 2012 Lower House election to support the Osaka integration plan in exchange for a promise from Hashimoto that his national Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) would not field candidates against New Komeito in six districts.

All six New Komeito candidates won. But the party says it remembers what it promised Hashimoto quite differently. Regardless, it was clear long before 2012 that New Komeito’s Osaka branch had doubts about the integration plan, particularly the timetable that was attached to it.

“What’s important is not to adhere to some schedule for integration but to deepen discussion of creating a system by looking at a variety of angles. We want to continue careful talks on the matter,” New Komeito Osaka prefectural assemblyman Yoshito Shimizu told the joint city-prefecture committee, a comment that angered Hashimoto and led to his resignation.

Since then, the rift between New Komeito and Hashimoto has become a chasm, with Hashimoto threatening to personally run against New Komeito candidates in the next Lower House election and creating worries in Osaka that the lack of trust between the two now means that little or nothing will get done in the municipal and prefectural assemblies until local elections next year.

In Tokyo, some Liberal Democratic Party members sense an opportunity, and are hoping the party’s Osaka chapter work out a deal with Osaka Ishin. Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui was with the LDP before he defected to Hashimoto’s movement.

Matsui continues to stay in touch with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s team and briefly met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in mid-February. The meeting was ostensibly about legislation for a casino proposal.

But Matsui and the fellow LDP lawmakers who joined him in defecting to Hashimoto’s movement must also be wondering if it isn’t time to consider a rapprochement with their old party.

In mid-February, polls by the Yomiuri and Sankei newspapers, normally Hashimoto’s strongest media allies, showed that more than 60 percent of Osaka voters disagreed with Hashimoto’s desire for a snap election. And the percentage of Osakans who backed Hashimoto — once between 80 and 90 percent — had dropped to under 50 percent.

Yet despite Hashimoto’s sinking popularity and a growing sense of disappointment over his actions, no political party is currently challenging him in the election, slated for March 23. The likely exception, as of last week, might be Makoto Tonami, aka “Mack” Akasaka, leader of the Smile Party.

A 10-time candidate in various elections, including the recent Tokyo gubernatorial election, the 65-year-old Akasaka has appeared in campaign commercials dressed variously as an angel (while wearing a “Hooters” T-shirt), Superman or a Gandhi look-alike. He advocates a healthier lifestyle through “smile therapy” and gets up to dance during staid NHK campaign videos. He advocates complete unarmed neutrality for Japan and mandatory voting.

Hashimoto claims to welcome Akasaka as an opponent, even as he criticized the established parties for sitting out the election. But as one observer said jokingly, given the state of Osaka politics today, perhaps Akasaka’s most appropriate campaign poster might just be a photo of him grinning madly in an outrageous costume under a caption that reads: “Don’t Vote for the Fool in This Election.”

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.