OSAKA – Assuming he does not once again change his mind and seek re-election, the curtain on Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s local political career falls on Nov. 22, when voters elect a new mayor and governor.
The two local races are, first and foremost, a test of whether the Hashimoto-led “Ishin” movement has the capacity to continue both at the local and national levels. The Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) local party holds pluralities in the Osaka Municipal and Prefectural assemblies, while Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), which Hashimoto and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui helped launch, is a major opposition force in the Diet.
But the two races are also expected to test the relationship between the local chapters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner Komeito and the two party’s respective national headquarters. Differences over how to handle the May Osaka referendum issue on merging administrative entities within the city of Osaka created interparty tensions within the ruling bloc.
Despite calls to run again, Hashimoto has remained adamant that it’s time for someone else to continue the “Hashimoto Revolution” in Osaka. The so-called revolution began in 2008 with his election as governor and, for all practical purposes, ended in May when he and his partner, Matsui, saw their efforts to administratively merge the city of Osaka with its namesake prefecture fail — just barely — in the referendum.
Since that vote, which the anti-merger, anti-Hashimoto camp won by just over 10,000 votes, speculation as to who from Osaka Ishin would emerge as the successor candidate in November has been growing.
Meanwhile, anti-Hashimoto forces, led by the local chapters of the LDP, Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, are seeking to ensure that when Hashimoto and Matsui leave office, the governor and mayoral seats are returned to someone with connections to an established political party.
For Osaka Ishin, various potential candidates have been debated in media circles, some only half seriously. The mayor, a former television commentator, himself suggested earlier this month that TV celebrity Kenji Tamura should stand for mayor, and that Yoshimoto Kogyo talent Koji Higashino should run for governor. While the suggestion was widely seen as a joke, Osaka Ishin members are concerned that without a charismatic, media-savvy candidate who is well-known to Osaka voters, they could lose.
While Hashimoto was likely joking about Higashino and Tamura, it’s less clear if he was being facetious when he suggested Matsui as a good choice for mayor.
At an Osaka Ishin meeting just before the Bon holidays in mid-August, a number of party members supported the idea of a Matsui candidacy, assuming that a suitable candidate, perhaps even a current Osaka-based Ishin no To Diet member, could be found to run for governor.
“I think Matsui would be a great choice to carry on the goals of Osaka Ishin,” Hashimoto said.
That would also allow Hashimoto to concentrate his attention on a planned new national political party consisting only of Diet members from the Kansai region, dubbed the “Kansai Ishin no To.”
The party, expected to be formally launched in the coming weeks, will likely consist only of local assembly and Diet members from the six prefectures of the Kansai area.
Matsui, however, is reportedly interested in running for an Upper House seat in next summer’s election.
After that, the picture becomes less clear. Friends of Hashimoto who work in local television, either as comedians or as newscasters, have previously turned down calls from Hashimoto to run for office. None has indicated a change of heart in terms of running in the November elections.
Meanwhile, the established parties that oppose Hashimoto and his merger plans — especially the local LDP and Komeito chapters — are hunting for a candidate who can be effective against Osaka Ishin’s legislative strength.
That’s likely to prove difficult since Osaka Ishin still controls 36 of the 86 municipal assembly seats and 43 of the 88 prefectural assembly seats. Without the cooperation of all the opposition parties, the formation of a majority to block Osaka Ishin’s proposals is impossible.
Yet as the referendum campaign showed, even the LDP and JCP — or at least their local chapters — will cooperate if it means stopping Hashimoto. To the consternation of their Tokyo-based party members, Osaka-based representatives from the LDP, Komeito, JCP and the DPJ even appeared together at public rallies and on TV to oppose the merger plan.
Whether that kind of cooperation among such disparate parties will be seen again prior to the November elections is questionable. Some LDP Osaka chapter members weren’t happy about being seen in public with their DPJ and JCP rivals — with many afraid of upsetting local business interests that backed the merger or fearful of angering party headquarters and jeopardizing their political futures.
For the mayor’s position, the LDP’s Osaka chapter is discussing municipal assembly member Akira Yanagimoto as its candidate. He has indicated he would be interested if the atmosphere were right.
The 41-year-old Yanagimoto, who represents the city’s Nishinari day-laborer district, was the public face of the merger opposition last spring, going head-to-head against Hashimoto in numerous television debates. He’s a former Kansai Electric Power Co. employee and the nephew of LDP Upper House member Takuji Yanagimoto, a particularly strong advocate for a new Constitution that protects privacy and environmental rights. For governor, the current mayor of Sakai, Osami Takeyama, also a strong Hashimoto opponent, has been mentioned by some local TV pundits, although he is reportedly uninterested.
“Yanagimoto and Takeyama are both good local politicians. But it’s unclear whether they’d be able to work well with Osaka Ishin or even some of the other opposition parties,” one prefectural opposition party member said on condition of anonymity. “Regardless, no matter what happens in November, some very serious compromises are going to have to be made by local leaders and all political parties in order to prevent the kind of gridlock Osaka has seen this past year.”
The push by all parties to formally tap candidates is likely to pick up steam next month, especially if Hashimoto’s new “Kansai no To” party becomes reality by mid-September.
Whoever ends up filling the shoes as mayor and governor will have two of the toughest jobs in local politics: guiding a city and prefecture still split, especially among assemblies, between embittered pro- and anti-Hashimoto forces to a new era for the city and the Kansai region.
Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.