Osaka governor rests but rough air on radar


OSAKA — After six months on the job, Osaka Pref. Gov. Toru Hashimoto will take his first extended vacation during the Bon holiday in mid-August.

The popular Hashimoto, who assumed office Feb. 6, becoming at 38 Japan’s youngest governor, takes his holiday after getting the fiscal 2008 budget passed last month. But he is already looking ahead to autumn, when two issues far more controversial and complex than the budget are expected to dominate his political agenda.

The first is the recently announced flight cutbacks at Kansai International Airport, which have been blamed on high fuel costs and slumping demand, and competition from nearby Itami and Kobe airports.

The second issue, which cuts to the core of local government, is the proposed restructuring of the prefecture system into broader, integrated regional blocs.

On July 23, the Osaka Prefectural Assembly passed a fiscal 2008 budget of ¥2.9 trillion, down 10 percent from the previous year. The reductions will come from the salaries and retirement pay of the 91,000 prefectural employees, including police and teachers, and subsidies for private kindergartens, night schools and prefectural-run projects.

For Hashimoto, who entered office by declaring a fiscal emergency and promising tough reforms, passage of the budget came after months of tough negotiations with bureaucrats, politicians and citizens’ groups seeking to protect their interests.

His efforts were welcomed by most voters, although concern over just what the cuts will mean is growing.

“Osaka’s situation is desperate. There is no choice. The cuts had to be made, and Hashimoto showed real leadership in making them,” said Toshio Akimoto, 62, a business man in the Osaka city area.

Local media polls showed Akimoto’s opinion was in the majority, although a growing number of voters now worry how the cuts will impact education, especially in a prefecture where the academic ability of elementary and junior high students was ranked by the education ministry as among the lowest nationwide last year.

“It seems like Hashimoto and his supporters in the ruling and opposition parties just took advantage of the governor’s popularity and pushed the cuts through. I don’t think he explained what the cuts are really going to mean to Osaka’s school system,” said Hiromi Kato, 28, an Osaka resident with a 5-year-old son.

Hashimoto insists passing the budget did nothing but staunch Osaka’s fiscal bleeding and vowed to pursue further reforms this fall.

But just as he announced his summer vacation plans, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways and StarFlyer said they plan to suspend or reduce up to 20 flights at Kansai International from this autumn, particularly to the Tohoku region and Hokkaido.

ANA will halt its Guam service and reduce flights to Okinawa and Tokyo’s Haneda airport, as well as Sapporo, Memanbetsu and Hakodate, all in Hokkaido.

JAL will end its London flights as well as those to Hakodate, Sendai, Akita, Fukushima and Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture. It will also reduce flights to Sapporo, Fukuoka and Okinawa.

StarFlyer announced plans to stop flying to Haneda.

The suspensions and reductions are due to the rising cost of fuel, the airlines say.

Hashimoto went to Tokyo last Thursday along with senior airport officials to meet with central government officials and discuss how to bring in more flights to Kansai and how to better integrate the region’s three airports.

When Hashimoto visited the transport ministry in June, he was told to wait until the price of fuel began to drop and the economy improved before pressing airlines to increase flights to Kansai International.

Angered, he accused the central and local governments of avoiding the problem. Last week’s meeting was an attempt to mend fences with the ministries and push discussions forward. That attempt, however, probably failed in the short run.

After his visit to the transport ministry, Hashimoto told reporters that the central government had no national airport strategy and that he would put closure of Osaka’s Itami airport on the agenda for discussion in the prefectural assembly this fall.

But the popular Itami airport, about 30 minutes from central Osaka and handling only domestic flights, is run by the central government. Hashimoto has no authority to close it.

The governor’s announcement drew immediate opposition from Kansai-area officials and business leaders. But the strongest criticism came from former transport minister Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, who said Itami would not be shut down and Hashimoto’s comments on an issue the prefecture has no authority over show he’s an amateur.

Increasing international flights, though, remains problematic given the price of fuel, which gets passed off to customers as a surcharge.

In addition, while flights to nearby Asian destinations, especially China, continue to be the focus of Kansai International’s promotion efforts, Kansai-based travelers to Europe and North America are finding it is sometimes easier, cheaper, or both to fly out of Itami via Narita, or to go through Seoul’s Incheon airport than to book a direct flight from Kansai.

“I had a choice of flying out of Kansai to San Francisco directly, or flying via Narita. My travel agent told me it was actually slightly cheaper to use Narita. Furthermore, when I booked the Narita flight, I was able to choose an exit-row seat. That option didn’t exist for the direct Kansai flight, I was told,” said Rick Sutherland, an Osaka-based American English teacher.

Hashimoto’s efforts to play salesman for Kansai International, though difficult, are not nearly as politically risky as his efforts to fundamentally restructure the local government in line with a grand, national scheme that, if achieved, would overturn a prefectural system that has been in place for more than a century.

The idea of a Kansai regional bloc was first floated by senior industrial leaders in the late 1990s as part of a national review of the prefectural system and a search for ways to reduce local-level bureaucracies and make them more efficient for residents and responsive to the needs of business and industry.

In 1994, six major Kansai business organizations, along with government officials from nine prefectures and three major cities, announced plans for gradual integration of various local government functions currently carried out by towns, cities and prefectures.

The idea, however, has been greeted with skepticism and opposition by many prefectural residents who doubt consolidating local bureaucracies will attract corporate investment and will instead spell a loss of easy access to vital social welfare services.

Because of the opposition, few Kansai politicians have aggressively pushed the idea. Hashimoto, however, has indicated he supports the integration.

To study further integrating the Osaka bureaucracy, as a first step toward the eventual creation of an integrated regional block covering all of the nine-prefecture Kansai region, Hashimoto set up a project team last Friday that will study both the way tax money is distributed to local governments and the structure of the bureaucracies themselves.