Confrontational, outspoken, feisty and highly focused, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto is a self-made man determined to redraw the loci of power in Japan. He is clearly using the local platform from which to spring into the national arena. The question on everyone’s mind is: Will Hashimoto ever be the prime minister of Japan?
Last week in Counterpoint, I discussed the relevance of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) leadership to his stunning career — particularly in so far as he envisages himself a reformer in that mold. Radical reformation of an outmoded system is combined in him with a fiercely nationalistic agenda. In the Meiji Era, that very agenda propelled the country into a spiral of self-destructive militarism.
In Mayor Hashimoto’s case — or at least as he would argue — the issue is pride in the nation, a pride lost in defeat in World War II and rubbed in by the spit-shined boots of Allied Occupation soldiers.
“Not being able to have a war on its own,” he has said, “is the most pitiful thing about Japan.”
Such a statement would have been par for the course in the early 20th century. But now we are 100 years wiser … or are we.
Hashimoto first stood for public office in the Osaka Prefecture gubernatorial race in January 2008, which he won with 54 percent of the votes and duly assumed office on Feb. 6. Then, in November 2011, he became mayor of Osaka, while a close political ally stepped into his shoes as governor.
Now aged 43, he is the politician with the most celebrity-style charisma in Japan. But who, exactly, is Hashimoto — and what does he stand for?
He was in the second grade when his father, a construction worker and a member of a yakuza gang, took his own life. He has almost no recollection of his father, who had been violent at home. His mother took him and his little sister from Tokyo to Osaka and brought him up with strict values. His belief in the importance of family is evident in the fact that he and his high-school sweetheart wife have seven children.
He made his way to prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, where he played rugby and studied law. In a tweet on Oct. 29, 2011, he admitted that he wasn’t popular in school and did not take his studies seriously. “There were lots of teachers who hated me,” he wrote.
But Hashimoto soon made up for it when, having become a lawyer, he appeared on a popular TV show offering people legal advice.
It was only a minor step from there to politics for this straight-talking communicator and original thinker who declared his mission as being to overhaul Japan. First Osaka, then the nation.
“Overhauling” meant striking at the heart of the nation’s inefficient, entrenched bureaucracy. He declared war on the trade unions that organize municipal employees. Now, as mayor of the city of Osaka, he is bent more than ever on amalgamating the prefectural and city governments into a single administrative unit. This, he argues, will put Osaka on the investment map as a major Asian hub.
He also intends to do away with school zones and let “free competition” among schools decide which ones survive and which ones do not.
On the national front, his agenda includes abolishing the Upper House of the Diet, reintroducing conscription and — although he has been somewhat circumspect in his vocal support for this, allowing Japan to possess nuclear weapons.
The tallest barrier to his ambition to be prime minister, however, is the one put up by the system of decision-making that has been in place since the end of World War II.
Successful prime ministers have been dealmakers adept at inducing others to scratch their backs in exchange for a comfortable berth they’re able to offer just down the road. Politicians who dictate their agendas and make powerful enemies in the bureaucracy, with its snug ties to industry and media, do not fare well.
Yes, you need to be tough; but you also need to be a consensual mollifier. So far, Hashimoto has not displayed this soft-touch skill.
Can he knit together a national network that strengthens the position of his allies while at the same time either mollifying or marginalizing his enemies?
Allying himself, as he has, with the aging rightwing chauvinistic Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara may make him more foes than friends.
His stance against restarting nuclear power plants will undoubtedly gain him popularity — but it will also turn the near-monopolistic energy industry against him. His offer to share the physical burden of accommodating U.S. bases with Okinawa may bring heart to some in the Pentagon; but brash independence is a quality that the U.S. is most apprehensive of in Japanese. They prefer their Japanese politicians meek, mild and too weak to stand up to them.
His statements about Japanese nationality, that “the precondition of our national character is our blood,” and his compelling of teachers at Osaka schools to stand and sing the national anthem or face dismissal, put him at loggerheads with the articulate liberal intelligentsia — a body whose influence in Japan is not to be underestimated. His plan to bring corporal punishment back into schools will hardly ingratiate him to those in progressive educational circles.
In his book published in May, author and scholar Yoichi Komori claims that Hashimoto’s educational reforms are a ruse designed to control the minds of young Japanese.
The theme of that book, titled “Hashimoto Ishin no Kai no Teguchi o Yomitoku” (“Decoding the Modus Operandi of Hashimoto’s Ishin no Kai”), is that his party, Ishin no Kai, is a barely camouflaged vehicle for rearming Japan.
His opponents in academia and the media oppose his black-and-white approach to problems, labeling his ideology “Hashism” — an amalgam of Hashimoto and fascism.
On the other hand, there are many in Japan who are sick and tired of a politics of endless consensus, logrolling and interest balancing. They find these new polemics, as fired up by Hashimoto, refreshing — even if they are wary of where he might be leading them.
He has attacked wasteful spending in the public sector and has even gone so far as to slash support for the elderly. With this he hopes to re-energize Osaka and stimulate opportunities for the young. He is planning to invest ¥3 billion to set up new nurseries in order to reduce the number of children waiting for daycare.
And he has attacked the top brass of Japan’s energy industry.
“The managers of our utilities,” he said on NHK’s “News 7″ on June 27, “cannot be trusted. They haven’t addressed the risks involved in restarting reactors.”
“What Japan needs now,” he stated on June 29, 2011, “is dictatorship. This can be checked by the legislature, elections, the media. Politics must be by dictatorship within this balance.”
This statement alone bucks the code of political recruitment and behavior established after World War II, a code of backroom deals and compromises that take into account all pressure groups and factions large and small.
Assuming that Hashimoto successfully makes the move onto the national stage by becoming a member of the Diet, and assuming he retains his popularity among both left and right in the populace for his radical ideas — then the jury is still out on whether his confrontational “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach to “dialogue” will prevail over the mainstream political culture of postwar Japan.
If he does succeed in occupying the highest office in the land — and I doubt that he will — his rise will set in motion a swift current not unlike that which flowed throughout the nation a century ago, a current that eventually drowned out all democratic opposition.
Can the Japanese populace really rely on the independence of the legislature and the media to check the power of a self-proclaimed “dictator”?
If he doesn’t succeed, it will be a victory for the mainstream political culture of Japan: steady as she goes, sans captain, sans navigator; down the river and out to sea.
Japan today may be facing its first lose-lose option of the postwar era.