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Shades of Meiji surround provincial Hashimoto’s growing national profile

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

First of two parts

Can Toru Hashimoto — the controversial and complex, outspoken and aggressive 43-year-old mayor of Osaka — ever be the prime minister of Japan?

This week and next, in an attempt to answer that question, Counterpoint will put the photogenic Hashimoto’s meteoric career in perspective. However, as the term “meteoric” implies, that career may amount to no more than a radiant display that ends in a self-destructive plunge to Earth — or it could herald a new star in the making.

Mayor Hashimoto’s individual stance may be summed up by a statement he made to high school students on Oct. 23, 2008. He urged them to stand on their own two feet, saying, “Taking personal responsibility is the fundamental principle underpinning today’s world. No one’s going to save you.”

He may be a lone wolf, but his cries have not gone unnoticed in the wilderness that is Japanese politics.

When one ineffectual prime minister after another fails to come to terms with the major domestic and international issues facing Japan today; when basic, long-overdue reform in administration and policy is stymied by factions more interested in pleasing big business than the long-suffering citizens of this country; and when Japan’s prestige in the world as a leader in innovation and commerce is at its lowest ebb in half a century … this is when a populist reformer of staunch conviction — such as Hashimoto — shines most attractive.

But are grassroots popularity and near-celebrity attractiveness enough to get Hashimoto into the hottest seat in the land?

First, some background; and for this we must revisit events around 150 years ago.

It is obvious that Mayor Hashimoto believes Japan is at a major crossroad in its history — one no less significant than at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

In February this year, he released a set of proposed policies for the political party that he formed — a policy platform he titled “Senchū Hassaku,” which means “Eight Policies Composed on Board a Ship.” This title refers to a plan of the same name written by Ryoma Sakamoto, one of the great reforming heroes of the Meiji Restoration. And as if another clue to the mayor’s inspiration were needed, he called his party Osaka Ishin no Kai — using the word ishin (restoration), an unabashed reference to the Meiji past.

Actually, Mayor Hashimoto is very much a politician in the Meiji mode. Like a leader of one of the clans in that era — powerful groupings from the old provinces of Tosa, Satsuma and Choshu that led Japan into modernity — the mayor is intent upon changing the center of power, using Osaka as an exemplary base of radical reform.

“Radical” is the word to describe him, as he resembles the militant reformers of Meiji in style and intent, particularly Toshimichi Okubo, who became the most powerful politician in the new centralized Meiji government, and Masayoshi Matsukata, who went on to twice serve as prime minister. Both Okubo and Matsukata were in their mid-30s when the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown in 1867 and in the following year the provinces of Japan were united in a modern nation state with the Emperor as its head.

It is no mere exercise in historical comparison that prompts me to bring this up. For it was these two young feisty leaders of Meiji, among a handful of others, who set the pattern for the Japanese political polemic that remained in place until the nation was defeated in World War II in 1945. This pattern differs from the typical Western one; and this discrepancy has caused misunderstanding as to what Mayor Hashimoto’s stances symbolize.

The discrepancy lies in the delineation of right and left. In Meiji Japan, young ambitious leaders of a truly reformist (read leftwing) persuasion were also fiercely loyal supporters of the Emperor. By the turn of the 20th century, this loyalty had morphed into an unremitting imperialism. Leftist at home, rightist overseas — this was the pattern — individual freedom put to work for the moral strengthening of the nation.

A paradox? Not in Japan, where the building of a new strong nation took pride of place in the individual conscience.

In most Western democracies, the right has crowded out the patriots’ platform, leaving liberals open to the charge of not diligently defending the nation. In Meiji Japan, it was the liberalizers who donned the patriots’ cap, never failing to wave it, along with the saber, in the face of perceived enemies at home and abroad.

This is the cut of Hashimoto’s jib as he attempts to chart the difficult course between the Scylla of a rock-solid, reactionary bureaucracy and the Charybdis of a highly articulate, anti-militarist punditry. The former has declared the young mayor of Osaka its entrenched enemy; the latter has labeled his ideology “Hashism” — implying a dangerous coming together with fascism.

Since the war, the Meiji pattern of leadership and policy has been replaced by one more familiar in lesser democratic states than in a full-blown democracy. One big party, the Liberal Democratic Party, dominated all policymaking, foreign and domestic, for more than half a century until the Democratic Party of Japan, formed in 1996, took power 13 years later in a landslide election victory propelled by years of economic stagnation and a rare rush of popular support.

Even now, however, with the DPJ in charge, it is politics as usual: Let reform occur gradually and only when all factions are mollified; and continue to rely on the United States for Japan’s defense.

It is nearly impossible for a politician of truly reformist preferences to rise to power in this country and stay there — as exemplified by the DPJ’s Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan, who both found their tenures as prime minister short lived. The former was ousted for his lack of sufficient fawning toward Japan’s American mentors; the latter was compelled to resign in the face of an overwhelming campaign by pronuclear industries and their retainers in the media.

So here comes Hashimoto bursting on the scene, but not on the national level — not yet at least. His policies and ideas, which I will delve into next week, challenge the postwar political order.

The problem is that making the leap from prefectural governor to prime minister is not a recognizable pattern of recruitment to the highest office, as it is, say, in the U.S. (Hashimoto was governor of Osaka Prefecture before he became mayor.)

So, the prime question to answer is this: Will Hashimoto seek a seat in the Diet, a prerequisite for becoming prime minister in Japan’s parliamentary system, and go on to challenge the postwar pattern of “the politics of consensual mollification”?

My answer to this question is a resounding, “Yes, he will !” But there are deeply rooted conventions of political behavior and other issues looming over him as impediments to any ambition to become prime minister.

It is those conventions and issues — as well as his forthright philosophy on the wielding of power — that I will address in next week’s Counterpoint.