Taichi Sakaiya, 78, the man credited with persuading Osaka Mayor and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) co-leader Toru Hashimoto to trade the world of television punditry for the world of politics, has been appointed as an adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.

The appointment of Sakaiya, a key backer of several now-ailing Osaka-area public works projects, comes ahead of the late-September election of the mayor of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture. The outcome of that poll could decide the fate of a major goal of Sakaiya and Hashimoto: merging the administrations of the city and prefecture of Osaka. The fate of Hashimoto’s party may also be in the balance.

Sakaiya, who was named a Cabinet adviser last week, has long been one of the most influential behind-the-scenes political and corporate advisers in Kansai.

He first gained recognition as a bureaucrat involved in the planning of the 1970 Osaka Expo. Since then, he has served as an official and unofficial adviser to numerous local governments, politicians, corporate leaders, and Kansai-region corporations and business lobbies.

In recent years, Sakaiya is best known as the man who brought Hashimoto into politics, rallying the support of senior Kansai business leaders and politicians on his behalf and mentoring him on both politics and economics.

Most of Nippon Ishin’s economic and bureaucratic reform goals originated with Sakaiya or met with his approval.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Sakaiya was appointed because of his economic expertise. Sakaiya supported numerous Osaka-area public works projects in the 1990s that are now deeply in the red. The idea of building a public swimming pool in Osaka’s Dotonbori River, which has run into logistics problems and local opposition, is one of his pet projects.

Expectations are that Sakaiya will serve as a bridge between the Abe administration and Nippon Ishin, especially in areas where the two parties agree, such as the desire to amend the Constitution.

“He aims to play a critical role as a direct link between Nippon Ishin and the prime minister’s office,” Hashimoto said.

Sakaiya begins his new job as his, and Nippon Ishin’s, dream of the Osaka city-prefecture merger faces its toughest test yet.

In what is being billed as the defining moment for the merger plan and Hashimoto’s political career, voters in Sakai will cast their ballots Sept. 29 for either Mayor Osami Takeyama, 63, or Katsutoshi Nishibayashi, 43, a member of the municipal assembly.

Takeyama is against the merger. He is expected to receive at least unofficial support from the local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, as well as the Japanese Communist Party, all of which oppose the merger idea. Nishibayashi is the Nippon Ishin candidate.

New Komeito, allied with the LDP at the national level but with Nippon Ishin in the Osaka Municipal Assembly, will be the key. However, Nippon Ishin and New Komeito have clashed recently over local issues as well as Hashimoto’s May comments about the wartime sex slave system, and constitutional revision.

For the Sakai poll, the party is mulling whether to stay neutral.

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