Third in a series

One year ago, Toru Hashimoto was the toast of the nation’s media, with many predicting the outspoken Osaka mayor, who was then laying plans for a new national party, would become prime minister after the next Lower House election. Politicians ranging from Shinzo Abe and Ichiro Ozawa to Shintaro Ishihara were feting him and wooing him for a postelection coalition.

What a difference a year makes.

Despite winning 54 seats in December’s House of Representatives poll and his party becoming the third-largest in the chamber, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) enters the July 21 Upper House election bruised, battered and divided, with predictions it will only win half a dozen seats and growing speculation that Hashimoto, its founder and co-leader, will resign afterward.

Over the past two months, the fallout over Hashimoto’s May comments that Japan’s wartime sexual slavery system had been necessary at the time and his suggestion that U.S. service members in Okinawa should frequent more local sex establishments have massively harmed Nippon Ishin’s popularity.

The comments have also brought to the surface long-simmering tensions between the party’s original Osaka faction of Hashimoto supporters, who mostly have no experience in national politics, and the Tokyo faction led by Ishihara, comprising the ultraconservative former Tokyo governor and older Diet veterans.

Media polls show voters now see Nippon Ishin as a party on the verge of implosion.

A poll by Kyodo News conducted in late May showed only 4.2 percent of voters support the party, while a Nihon Keizai Shimbun survey revealed a support rate of about 3 percent. In early June, an NHK poll showed just 1.5 percent of voters support it.

Yet Nippon Ishin’s star had been waning since Ishihara and Hashimoto tied up prior to the Dec. 16 general election, disappointing the mayor’s supporters, who worried the party would be hijacked by the Ishihara faction to pursue a very different agenda than the one that brought Hashimoto to power in Osaka.

Ishin’s platform, they feared, emphasized constitutional revision at the expense of decentralization and the realization of a regional block system, long a dream of Hashimoto and many in the Kansai business community.

Nor has Nippon Ishin generated much national support for its big business-friendly deregulation and privatization policies, which were popular with urban voters during Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s stint but are now out of fashion in the age of “Abenomics” and its emphasis on public works projects.

However, Hashimoto’s “comfort women” controversy in particular made it difficult for Nippon Ishin to find willing candidates to run in the House of Councilors election. Whereas senior members once hoped that a mixture of experienced Diet lawmakers and popular public figures would run under the Nippon Ishin banner, the most famous name to emerge as a candidate is former pro wrestler and Upper House member Antonio Inoki.

The party is fielding 44 candidates nationwide, comprising 14 district and 30 proportional representation candidates. Currently, Nippon Ishin has just three seats in the upper chamber.

While party executives originally hoped to bag at least 10 seats, Nippon Ishin Diet group chief Takeo Hiranuma said last month that maintaining those three seats is now the minimum goal, and that discussions about leadership changes will be held if the final tally is less.

Party members, pundits and even Hashimoto himself predict Nippon Ishin will win between three and seven seats. Regardless of the results, however, Hashimoto has not ruled out resigning as co-leader after the vote.

“I really feel as if we are not getting the level of support we received in the last election. But our mission is now to stop the ruling coalition from gaining a supermajority,” Hashimoto said in late June, during a series of appearances in Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Kagoshima to drum up support.

Nevertheless, Nippon Ishin will continue to push for such long-held goals as the end of the prefectural system and the introduction of regional block administrations, as well as the merging the Upper and Lower houses.

As a first step toward realizing those goals, the party backs revising Article 96 of the Constitution to reduce the number of Diet votes needed to amend the charter from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority.

Revising Article 96 is also a key goal of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and Nippon Ishin is expected to support postelection efforts by the Abe administration to achieve this goal. However, a formal tie-up between the LDP and Nippon Ishin, at least in its current form, is highly unlikely, although many of the party’s members used to belong to the LDP and would consider returning if Nippon Ishin breaks up.

Nippon Ishin’s economic policy platform remains little changed from December’s election. It calls for lowering the income and corporate taxes and for turning the consumption tax into a local levy, similar to state taxes in the United States.

The party is trying hard to distinguish its platform from the LDP’s three-pronged mix of radical monetary easing, public works and economic reforms called Abenomics.

“We’ll aim for an economic strategy that is different from expanding public works projects,” Nippon Ishin promises, saying its policies will lead to a growth rate of at least 3 percent.

But on foreign policy and defense, the party is very much following the LDP playbook, with calls of support for setting up a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council, revising the nation’s ban on weapons exports, and eliminating restrictions on engaging in collective self-defense.

However, in a move unlikely to win many friends in Washington, or in the Foreign and Defense ministries for that matter, Nippon Ishin is also calling for revising the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, even as the party, like the LDP, supports the current relocation plan that would keep the air station expected to replace Futenma in Okinawa.

“While unfortunate, the people of Okinawa need to accept the Henoko (replacement) base,” Hashimoto told reporters in Osaka last month of the planned airstrip to be built farther north on Okinawa to replace Futenma. “But the rest of Japan needs to think about ways to help reduce their burden, which is why we should consider using Osaka’s Yao airport for U.S. Marine training exercises involving (MV-22) Osprey aircraft (deployed to Futenma).”

Nippon Ishin also backs Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, and is vowing to fight two politically powerful groups dead set against it: farmers and medical professionals.

Like the few farmers who favor the TPP because they believe the high quality and food safety standards of Japan’s produce will appeal to affluent consumers in East Asia, Nippon Ishin supports internationalizing Japanese agriculture. Ishihara and Hashimoto have clashed in the past over the TPP, with Ishihara skeptical of the initiative and Hashimoto and his supporters firmly for it.

But the two have always strongly supported casinos as a way for local governments to gain new revenue, and the party’s campaign platform includes a pledge to start the development of “integrated resorts,” essentially a euphemism for casinos.

And in a sign that Nippon Ishin will not back down from the very controversy that has created its recent problems, it promises to seek out the truth of Japan’s wartime sex slave system even as it vows to protect the nation from outside criticism.

“We will make clear the truth behind the so-called comfort women problem and protect the honor and dignity of Japan and the Japanese people,” the party platform reads.

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