After more than a year in office, Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto enjoys approval ratings Prime Minister Taro Aso can only dream of, and he’s wielding his popularity to push budget cuts and sweeping fiscal and economic reforms on the way to what he eventually hopes will be a semiautonomous Kansai region.

At the same time, Hashimoto, a lawyer who gained popularity through his withering comments on TV talk shows before winning office in January 2008, faces growing scrutiny among those who wonder if he isn’t going too far too fast.

The prefectural bureaucracy and the political opposition are warning that Hashimoto is not an independent populist but a tool of conservative business leaders and politicians who want to merge Kansai’s local governments into one entity semiautonomous from Tokyo but less accountable to local residents than the current prefectural system.

Now, as the Osaka Prefectural Assembly begins debating the fiscal 2009 budget, Hashimoto continues to court controversy, pushing hard to relocate the prefectural headquarters and fighting with the central government over its management of Kansai airport.

Local media polls earlier in February showed support rates of anywhere between 65 percent and 80 percent. He spent his first year forcing through unprecedented budget cuts in an attempt to stave off what he says is certain bankruptcy.

The prefecture is more than ¥5 trillion in debt. Thanks to his efforts, it was able to trim ¥110 billion off the 2008 fiscal budget.

Over the coming weeks, the assembly will debate Hashimoto’s 2009 budget proposal, which calls for refusing to assume nearly ¥3.8 billion in liabilities for projects and enterprises directly controlled by the central government.

This initially included a refusal to pay nearly ¥700 million for the connecting bridge to Kansai International Airport, which is underused and bleeding red ink because, Hashimoto says, the central government had no vision for the airport, which opened in 1994 as what was supposed to be an Asian hub.

“All those (Tokyo) bureaucrats think about is keeping their own jobs. They don’t take responsibility. The only thing the transport ministry is thinking about is expanding international service at Narita and Haneda airports,” Hashimoto told reporters prior to a trip to Tokyo last week.

The central government made verbal promises late last week to create a vision that includes Kansai airport as part of an Osaka Bay super hub area of cargo facilities and free-trade zones. Details remain unclear, but the announcement apparently changed Hashimoto’s mind. On Monday, he indicated he would include the money for the bridge in the budget.

Such criticism of Tokyo from Hashimoto is common, though, and he is moving forward on trying to end state control over any number of Osaka-area projects.

He has been crystal clear about the ultimate goal.

“Decentralization of authority and financial resources to regional governments and the realization of a regional bloc system are necessary,” Hashimoto said in early February.

The regional bloc system has long been pushed by Hashimoto, the Kansai Economic Federation and others who want a streamlined bureaucracy and political system they argue will use tax money more efficiently than the current prefectural system.

Yet public opinion polls show not many Osaka residents are as enthusiastic. One prefectural poll last August found that only about 20 percent of respondents were in support of the idea, while another 40 percent were opposed or were skeptical.

Hashimoto is also pushing hard for relocating the Osaka Prefectural Government from its current location next to Osaka Castle in Chuo Ward to the municipal-run World Trade Center building in the Osaka Nanko harbor district in Suminoe Ward, nearly 45 minutes by train from JR Osaka Station.

The idea has the strong support of local corporate leaders, and the three major business organizations in Kansai took the unusual step last week of making a public appeal to support the move.

But while Hashimoto is promoting the move primarily as a cost-cutting measure, some say there is more to the story.

“Hashimoto and the Kansai business titans want the prefectural offices in the WTC for a couple of reasons. They believe it’s one way to show Tokyo they’re sincere about turning the entire Osaka Bay area, from Kansai airport on the southern end of the bay all the way over to Kobe, nearly 20 km away, into an integrated port and cargo hub. Moving the prefectural office, they hope, will help persuade Tokyo to provide funding for this idea,” a senior Osaka prefectural bureaucrat said on condition of anonymity.

“Second, they see the move as an important step toward realizing an integrated Kansai and, eventually, a regional bloc system. Many people have grave doubts about what this will mean for local democracy,” the official added.

Despite doubts about some specific policies, however, most voters still praise Hashimoto’s energy and efforts to fight the bureaucracy, especially the one in Tokyo.

As he has entered his second year, Hashimoto enjoys a level of support making it easier to push through a variety of drastic reform proposals that, if realized, will reshape not only Osaka but the entire Kansai region.

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