Education, fiscal reform fuel Osaka race


OSAKA — In a race with national implications, campaigning for the Jan. 27 Osaka gubernatorial election will kick off Thursday with three candidates.

Toru Hashimoto, 38, a lawyer and TV celebrity; Sadatoshi Kumagai, 63, a former electric power engineering professor at Osaka University; and Shoji Umeda, 57, a local attorney, are vying to replace Fusae Ohta.

Japan’s first female governor when she was elected in 2000, Ohta got tangled up in a series of financial scandals and announced late last year she would not run for a third term.

Education and fiscal reform will be the two biggest issues.

Osaka was shocked in October when an education ministry survey on academic standards showed its public schools ranked 45th out of the 47 prefectures.

Hashimoto said if elected, he would force the prefectural government to make drastic budget cuts.

“If Osaka Prefecture were a business, it would be bankrupt. It goes without saying that salaries and bonuses of prefectural officials have to be cut further,” he told a round-table discussion with Kansai business leaders Tuesday.

Kumagai also stresses the importance of restructuring the prefectural government, and has also pledged a thorough review of prefectural-led semigovernmental projects. He said he would like to privatize those that can be privatized.

“Keeping a safety net for the elderly, the physically disabled, and especially for children, in the form of prefectural assistance, is absolutely necessary. As governor, I’d make industrial revitalization as well as bureaucratic reform of the prefectural government a priority,” Kumagai said.

Umeda is meanwhile calling for cuts of what he says are useless prefectural construction projects.

Hashimoto, who is officially endorsed by the prefectural chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party, was a controversial choice of candidate.

He initially balked, saying publicly he was “20,000 percent” sure he would not run. But after pressure from senior LDP officials, including former Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama, who represents Osaka, Hashimoto changed his mind.

But his about-face created tension with LDP coalition partner New Komeito. Members of Soka Gakkai, New Komeito’s main support group, were angry after they learned Hashimoto had once said on TV he supported Japan acquiring nuclear weapons.

Local New Komeito members are also concerned that because Hashimoto is relatively young, he may not support the party’s position on social welfare issues, including care for the elderly. As a result of such doubts, New Komeito decided not to officially endorse him, though it will offer its support.

Unlike Ohta, Hashimoto also goes into the election without the official endorsement of the LDP’s central government headquarters, which has doubts about his ability to win.

Some LDP executives, including Makoto Koga, head of the LDP’s election campaign committee, also believe that official endorsement by party headquarters could harm Hashimoto’s chances, given public anger toward the ruling party over scandals like the lost pension records.

Kumagai, who has the backing of the main opposition parties, including the Democratic Party of Japan, Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) and the Social Democratic Party, was also a last-minute entrant, only declaring his intention to run in mid-December.

And in an ominous sign for the LDP-New Kometo ruling bloc, Kumagai has emerged as the clear favorite of Osaka’s senior business executives.

While the powerful Kansai Economic Federation and Kansai Association of Corporate Executives has declared they would officially remain neutral, leaders from both groups have praised Kumagai’s economic reform plans and several are serving as unofficial advisers to his campaign. Meanwhile, they have criticized Hashimoto’s reform policies as vague and unclear.

A victory by Kumagai would spell trouble for the ruling coalition, as it would increase pressure on Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House. It would also create questions within the LDP about whether a continued partnership with New Komeito, which has traditionally been quite strong in Osaka but weak elsewhere, is an asset or a liability.

The key to victory will be whether Hashimoto can garner enough support from not only New Komeito supporters but also younger, independent voters. With New Komeito less than enthusiastic about Hashimoto, local analysts agree he will face a tough campaign.

But while Kumagai has the quiet backing of many senior business leaders, it remains to be seen whether that will translate into votes. His low-key campaigning style and less than media-savvy image could also hurt his appeal among women voters.