National / Politics | VIEW FROM OSAKA

In Osaka, leaders' bid to swap seats could spell trouble as region faces global spotlight

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

When Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and his sidekick, Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura, announced they would resign their positions to run for each other’s seats next month, local reactions ranged from disbelief to exasperation.

Osaka politics has always been, to put it politely, different from more predictable local varieties elsewhere. Still, the decision by Matsui and Yoshimura to cut their terms short — originally, elections were set to take place in November — and try to switch chairs as a way to gauge voter support for their municipal merger efforts is a strange move.

Matsui justifies it by saying another election would be required in November under the law if he and Yoshimura just resigned and ran again for the same posts. This way, if they run for, and win, each other’s positions, Osaka, Kansai and the rest of the country can enjoy four more years of the “Matsui and Yoshimura Variety Show.” Given talk among some LDP heavyweights of keeping Prime Minister Shinzo Abe around until 2024, why shouldn’t Matsui and Yoshimura also try to extend their time in office?

In Osaka, the LDP has been the major “opposition” party, because Komeito, until it broke with Matsui and Yoshimura’s Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) over the merger plan, cooperated with them to form majorities in the municipal and prefectural assemblies. Yet, except for also being against the merger proposal, Osaka Ishin and the LDP are practically soul mates.

At the news conference announcing his candidacy for governor, LDP-backed Tadakazu Konishi, failed to clearly articulate how his policies would be different from Osaka Ishin, other than his opposition to the merger. On a personal level, however, his views are said to clash not only with Osaka Ishin but also the LDP on certain issues of local importance.

For example, Konishi is reportedly not that keen on integrated casino resorts. As governor, he might try to slow down the rush to open one before or around the time of the 2025 World Expo, though it’s expected he’d go along with one if push comes to shove.

For the national LDP, Osaka presents a bit of a conundrum. Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga are close to Matsui, but if the national LDP decides not to back Konishi against Yoshimura, or back an LDP mayoral candidate against Matsui, that could create problems with the Osaka chapter of the party. Such a rift would be especially problematic when it comes time for the central LDP to rally support for Osaka-area LDP candidates in the July Upper House election.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, it appears the Japanese Communist Party will support, officially or not, Konishi in an “all anti-Osaka Ishin” effort. Keep an eye out for television footage and social media posts of the nearly unprecedented sight of senior LDP and JCP leaders in Osaka clasping their hands in a show of support for Konishi’s bid.

Yoshimura, on the other hand, must convince voters he knows the prefecture, not just the city. Though not a top priority, voters will be looking for him to display a high level of statesmanship during the campaign. As mayor, Yoshimura angrily canceled Osaka’s 60-year-old sister city relationship with San Francisco to protest its “comfort women” statues, but mostly showed little interest in international affairs.

But if he becomes governor, Yoshimura would be the area’s top local official and would have to smile, make conversation and shake hands with world leaders, the United Nations secretary-general, and international VIPs, including members of various royal families, when they arrive for the G20 summit in Osaka in June. After that, he would take the international stage as Osaka’s ambassador for the expo.

What could possibly go wrong?

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.