Toru Hashimoto’s push to fundamentally reform Japan picked up steam Saturday with the opening of Ishin Seiji Juku (Restoration Political Institute), as criticism grows in Tokyo that the outspoken Osaka mayor is leading not only a national revolt against established parties but also a mass movement reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

More than 2,000 students attended the opening of the new institute, which is sponsored by Hashimoto and aims to train future political leaders. Over the coming months, students will receive lectures from guest speakers on tax and bureaucracy reforms, economics, and diplomacy and international relations.

Emphasis will be on how to empower local governments, eventually abolish the current prefectural system, and create a small number of super states that are quasi-independent from Tokyo.

“The prefectural system, which was put in place after the Meiji Restoration, has reached its limit. For over 120 years, we’ve had this centralized government in Tokyo. Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki are like central mainframe computers, trying to control everything. But we’re in a personal computer world now,” Hashimoto said.

“The only solution is to create strong local networks. We must make a clear division between the roles and responsibilities of local and central governments. Social security, diplomacy, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, national energy policy, reduction of nuclear power plants and Tohoku’s reconstruction can be addressed by Diet members. Remaining issues can become the responsibilities of regional governments,” Hashimoto said.

Over 3,000 people nationwide had applied to become students at the institute. By June, after about two months of classes, the top 1,000 students will be selected to go on to the next stage, which will include more practical training to prepare for running in the next Lower House election.

Hashimoto’s goal is to have 300 institute graduates run in the election and capture 200 seats in the 480-seat chamber.

If this happens, Hashimoto’s followers might constitute the largest single party in the Diet and would almost certainly be the largest party in any ruling coalition.

This prospect has frightened many established politicians and others in Tokyo, leading to talks of a grand coalition between the Liberal Democratic Party, the main opposition force, and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, even as Hashimoto’s opponents have recently launched verbal attacks comparing the mayor to the 20th century’s most notorious dictators.

“Saying, like Hashimoto does, that political parties are bad led to militarism in Japan in the 1930s. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini also emerged in this kind of atmosphere,” LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki said last week.

Comparing Hashimoto with Hitler and his supporters to Nazi Brown Shirts is not a new a tactic, but one long used by Hashimoto’s critics.

In the April issue of the influential monthly magazine Bungei Shunju, Yomiuri Group Chairman Tsuneo Watanabe, no stranger to criticism for being an autocrat, said Hashimoto’s declaration that elections are a form of wiping the slate clean reminded him of the tactics Hitler used to come to power.

Such rhetoric from established parties or powerful Nagata-cho insiders like Watanabe appears to be boosting Hashimoto’s popularity, allowing supporters and followers to paint him, and themselves, as outsiders who must “retake” control of Japan from greedy, corrupt Tokyo politicians and bureaucrats.

The 42-year-old Hashimoto enjoys particularly strong political support among Japanese in their 30s and 40s, men and women who came of age or entered the workforce after the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s, a time when postwar social norms like guaranteed lifetime employment were ending. For most of their professional lives, they’ve known only economic stagnation and a lack of strong political leadership.

Exit polls after last November’s mayoral election showed 75 percent of voters in their 30s went for Hashimoto, and that he is particularly popular with men.

Students in the new institute are largely in their 30s and 40s, and around 90 percent are male.

Yet for all of the emphasis of the institute on reform, the selection of guest lecturers suggests that, in certain areas like international relations, Hashimoto will firmly adhere to the conventional wisdom of the status quo.

Overseas attention on what direction Hashimoto’s foreign policy will take is growing, especially since the mayor has never publicly demonstrated a strong interest in international issues. There was concern, particularly among those involved with U.S.-Japan relations, that Hashimoto, who visited China regularly as Osaka governor, might downplay relations with America.

However, the institute will feature lectures on foreign policy and the history of Japan’s diplomacy by two well-known supporters of a strong U.S.-Japan security alliance.

One is former Foreign Ministry bureaucrat-turned-consultant Yukio Okamoto, who is well-connected in Washington, especially among Republicans.

The other is University of Tokyo professor Shinichi Kitaoka, a diplomatic historian who previously served in a number of government posts and is a former ambassador to the United Nations.

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