After months of preparation, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s new political party, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), was formally inaugurated at a mid-September gathering that drew more than 3,000 supporters.

The country’s only national political party based outside of Tokyo aims to field between 350 and 400 candidates in the next general election.

Defended by supporters as a much-needed populist uprising against Tokyo-based policies that have failed the country for decades and blasted by critics as a collection of amateurs pursuing a discredited neoconservative corporate agenda, Nippon Ishin no Kai is likely to play a major role in national politics over the coming months, either directly or through more subtle means.

Who comprises Nippon Ishin no Kai?

Hashimoto is head of the new party and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui serves as secretary general. As of late September, nine Diet lawmakers had either joined or declared their intent to become members, and another 20 were said to be exploring the possibility.

What are the party’s policies and philosophy?

Nippon Ishin no Kai’s political platform sets out its views and goals in eight key areas: basic governance; finance, administration and political reform; civil service reform; education; social welfare, including pensions, social security and medical insurance; economic, employment and taxes; diplomacy and security; and constitutional revision.

The party’s philosophy stresses the concept of “jiritsu,” which usually translates as “independent,” “self-reliant” or “to stand up for oneself.” The party promises to create a self-reliant state, communities and individuals, and a democracy able to make decisions and take responsibility for its actions.

What are Nippon Ishin no Kai’s specific proposals?

The party’s proposals are designed to realize its ultimate goal of ending the prefectural system and dividing the country into semiautonomous regions with far greater independence from the central government, especially over how to spend their tax revenues and what economic policies to pursue.

In short, it aims to create a highly decentralized nation in which the national government’s powers are greatly curtailed, except for defense, foreign policy and a few other areas.

To accomplish this goal, Nippon Ishin no Kai proposes that the number of Lower House members be halved to 240, that an effort be made to abolish the Upper House, and that the prime minister be directly elected by the people.

In addition, it wants the consumption tax to be turned into a regional levy and to abolish the manner in which local tax revenues are currently distributed by the central government.

Like neoconservatives, libertarians and the tea party movement in the U.S., does Nippon Ishin no Kai see big, centralized government as the problem?

To a certain extent. But much of its platform indicates the party believes a government is best managed like a private concern.

The word “sessatakuma,” which means “to be involved in friendly rivalry,” crops up three times in reference to the system Nippon Ishin no Kai hopes to create among competing regions, undefined social security reforms and an education voucher program that parents could use for their children’s tuition at a private school of their choice.

In addition, the platform calls for strengthening the labor flow between the public and private sectors, and for political appointees from outside civil service to assume high-level positions.

What about its foreign policy?

There are statements in the platform about the need for the entire country to draft a new road map that would reduce Okinawa’s burden from hosting the bulk of the U.S. military bases.

The security alliance with Washington is seen as the cornerstone of efforts to strengthen freedom and democracy, similar to rhetoric one finds in the Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, as well as the foreign- and defense-related bureaucracies in both countries.

But there is no mention of how Nippon Ishin no Kai would manage relations with China, Japan’s largest trading partner that recently overtook it to become the second-largest economy in the world.

Rather, the platform emphasizes relations with nations Nippon Ishin no Kai believes share common values with Japan, particularly democratic values. The party is paying special attention to South Korea and Australia for this reason, and the platform calls for bolstering relations with both.

What is the party’s stance on issues like the Senkaku Islands dispute?

Its official position is still evolving because of internal divisions over how to respond to the Senkaku flareup, which was sparked by Japan’s nationalization in September of three islets in the group.

Hashimoto does not favor sending Self-Defense Forces personnel to the East China Sea and stationing them on the islets, but other members back a more robust approach.

How does the party see relations with the U.S. evolving?

The short answer is that the party’s official views on specific issues related to the U.S.-Japan security relationship remain unclear.

Asked if he believes it is necessary to revise the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement to give local authorities more power over American military personnel stationed in their backyard, Hashimoto replied by saying that essentially the time is not right to address the issue.

However, Fumiki Sakurauchi, a Diet member and one of the founding members of Nippon Ishin no Kai, has proposed that all foreign troops leave Japan by 2045.

Given the party’s philosophy of self-reliance and Hashimoto’s belief in local autonomy, there are questions as to what extent it might support Washington’s plans to increase its Asia-Pacific presence over the coming years if this means basing more U.S. troops in reluctant Japanese municipalities.

Hashimoto has a reputation for being against nuclear power and in favor of renewable energy. What is the party’s position?

There is a line in the platform about leading advanced industrial countries in creating a system to get out of relying on nuclear power, but nothing that calls for zero nuclear plants by a certain year.

Many of the party’s financial backers fundamentally support nuclear power, and Osaka media, Hashimoto’s political opponents and even some of his supporters claim his antinuclear stance is just a pose to boost his popularity.

Who drew up Nippon Ishin no Kai’s policies?

Two groups played crucial roles. The first consists of members of the Osaka Prefectural and Municipal assemblies who have supported Hashimoto since he created Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) back in 2010. Virtually all of Osaka Ishin no Kai’s membership is comprised of former LDP members aligned with the party’s more conservative elements.

The ideas in Nippon Ishin no Kai’s platform are similar to the defense, foreign, economic and education policies that past LDP prime ministers, such as Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, supported.

The other group is a loose collection of Kansai Economic Federation-affiliated corporations, small businesses, academics, former bureaucrats and management consultants, some of whom studied U.S. business school methods or worked for U.S. consulting firms.

They are nominally led by former Economic Planning Agency head Taiichi Sakaiya, one of Hashimoto’s most influential advisers and supporters.

How did Hashimoto rise to power so quickly, and can his popularity carry Nippon Ishin no Kai on the national stage?

Contrary to proclamations by some Tokyo-based pundits, Hashimoto’s rapid ascent was not unexpected, at least not in Osaka. Those who have followed him for years agree he came to power because of long-term local and national problems.

Osaka’s economy has stagnated for more than two decades, and the younger generations have been hit especially hard. People who came of age after the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s continue to struggle amid high unemployment rates, the end of lifetime employment guarantees and far less job security than what the postwar baby boomers enjoyed.

The local economic difficulties along with the national political paralysis helped create a generation of angry young voters — especially men — who now form the vast majority of Hashimoto supporters.

By capitalizing on that anger and his fame as a TV celebrity, and picking his advisers wisely, Hashimoto won the governor’s seat in early 2008 with approval ratings in excess of 80 percent. His main point was that the root of not only Osaka’s but also the nation’s woes lies in an antiquated Tokyo-centric political, economic, and social system.

His popularity grew further during his time as governor, as he was seen as a strong, decisive leader and also proved extremely savvy in manipulating both traditional and more recent media forms to get his message across.

But two public debates in September with Nippon Ishin no Kai representatives and supporters were heavily criticized by the public and media as lacking substance.

The inexperience of Hashimoto and Matsui in dealing with tough questions about their plans, especially over social security reform, was clearly evident, leading to a rapid drop in support ratings in media polls.

The jury is still out as to whether Nippon Ishin no Kai will become the center of a national federation of like-minded, locally based parties that can seize control of national politics, or end up as just a one-off, regional minority party.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

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