Osaka governor stays popular even as doubts mount


OSAKA — It’s only been one month since Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto’s landslide election victory Jan. 27. But for both his supporters and opponents, it feels a lot longer.

“Given that he’s made media headlines almost every day, it’s hard to believe the election was only a month ago,” said Ayumi Sakashita, a 33-year-old office worker in Umeda who voted for him.

During his brief time in office, Hashimoto, 38, has proved to be a divisive figure.

He was forced to abandon or revise public promises to stop issuing prefectural bonds or sell off prefectural assets to deal with Osaka’s financial crisis after running into stiff opposition within the prefectural bureaucracy and ruling parties.

The prefecture is nearly ¥5 trillion in debt, and Hashimoto campaigned by telling voters that Osaka would be bankrupt if it were a private company. He promised a thorough review of all prefecture-run facilities and said he would push to privatize those that are losing money.

What Hashimoto has managed to do is draw up a four-month provisional budget for the next fiscal year that will run from April to July. The extremely tight proposal, totaling about ¥1.2 trillion, funds only those public works projects and basic services that are deemed essential and does not include subsidies for local governments within the prefecture.

“A full budget will be submitted to the prefectural assembly as early as June, but only after various prefecture-run projects are reviewed and recommendations are made on what to cut or possibly sell off to the private sector,” Hashimoto said at his first news conference after taking office earlier this month.

Hashimoto’s determination to cut costs has met with stiff opposition within the bureaucracy, which is fighting back with public demonstrations and intense lobbying of prefectural assembly members.

The prefecture-run Dawn Center, which was set up as a meeting place for women’s groups and which Hashimoto is looking to privatize, is especially angry.

“Hashimoto has said that while he doesn’t want to close it until the temporary budget runs out in July, one possibility is selling it off, which is ridiculous. The Dawn Center is an oasis for not only women but also men and children,” said Shizuko Koedo, head of a Dawn Center support group that is fighting to retain funding.

Koedo wondered whether one reason Hashimoto wants to cut the center’s funding is because he opposes public funding of gender equality education, which is mandated by the central government. The group hopes to meet with Hashimoto soon to get his views on the matter.

There are signs that Hashimoto, a lawyer who became popular by appearing frequently on TV talk shows as an outspoken commentator, enjoys provoking a wide variety of people, and not just within the prefectural bureaucracy.

He got into a spat with NHK a few weeks ago after he felt his treatment by the public broadcaster’s Osaka bureau had been rude, and declared he would no longer visit NHK studios for interviews.

Meanwhile, local foreigners and human rights groups are dismayed by his open admiration of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who has a history of making racially insensitive comments.

Hashimoto has even managed to create controversy outside of Osaka. Prior to the Feb. 10 mayoral election in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Hashimoto criticized the former mayor, who opposed the relocation of U.S. service members and military aircraft from Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, to the base at Iwakuni.

The former mayor had pushed for another local plebiscite on the issue, which Hashimoto said was unnecessary and an abuse of local power.

Such comments appear to have had little effect on his popularity, which remains high. But with the prefectural assembly due to begin meeting later this week, both his supporters and opponents are waiting to see if the outspoken governor has the political skills necessary to accomplish the fiscal reform he has promised voters.

“The past month has been a public relations campaign, of sorts, for Hashimoto. But even within the ruling parties, there are growing doubts about him,” warned a senior LDP official, speaking anonymously, late last week. “He’ll have to proceed carefully now that the business of actually getting his reform plans passed is beginning.”