National | View from Osaka

Rage against the capital's (bureaucratic) machine

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

As the Dec. 14 Lower House election demonstrated, media analysis of political campaigning typically focuses on personalities and parties. In recent years, official manifests serve as TV talking points as pundits — be they boorish young comedians or serious, sober-minded, gray-haired fellows — debate at length each party’s stance on the economy, social welfare, constitutional revision, nuclear power, self-defense or the rural-urban divide.

Invariably, reams of data are presented as insightful analysis, while no reporter wishes to be thought of as being irresponsible for depriving the citizenry of their right to know how many terms the candidate has previously won, or failing to show how they are all striving equally hard to win. But while the media focus on politicians and elected parties address the who, what, where and when of Japanese politics, it can fall short of providing a road map to understanding the “why.”

That’s because, as any loyal Osakan will tell you, the country’s media tend to give the bureaucracy’s role in the political process something of a pass. One of the reasons Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) is hated in Tokyo so much is that, among other things, it proposes some fundamental reforms that strike at the heart of the nation’s bureaucratic kingdom, and the cozy relations that exist between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito and the bureaucracy.

It’s not just oft-heard demands such as cuts in civil-servant salaries that Ishin wants, but something much more frightening: accounting transparency. The Osaka lawyers and business consultant types who joined Hashimoto’s movement brought with them standards and practices from the corporate world that threatened the unwritten rules developed over decades of LDP cooperation with the bureaucrats. Osaka’s corporate world is hardly an international model of accountability. Yet, compared to the creative bookkeeping exercised by the central government and the Diet, it at least has a logic, and a clear goal — profit — that can be easily understood.

However, because Ishin handled one of its key issues, the integration of Osaka city and prefecture, so poorly, running up against entrenched local political and bureaucratic opposition that it has yet to be overcome, it was no wonder that many Osaka voters cast their ballots for the LDP or Komeito in single-district seats, even as the party finished first in Osaka Prefecture for proportional seats. Of course, the former requires more votes to obtain than the latter. But the message out of Osaka seems to be that, while voters in certain districts personally preferred LDP Candidate A to Ishin Candidate B, the number of votes cast for Ishin’s proportional seats means many in Osaka have not given upon on the dreams of either Hashimoto or Ishin to achieve civil-service reform and, eventually, more autonomy for local government. This is because a lot of younger, ambitious Osaka voters don’t trust the LDP to do much more than maintain a good relationship with the bureaucrats — namely, maintain the status quo and not move forward with fundamental reform.

Such an attitude could well be seen again in April, when voters go to the polls in local elections nationwide. Ishin does not have a majority in either the municipal or prefectural assemblies, and how the Lower House results will affect those campaigns is unclear. Of course, much of Ishin’s rhetoric about corrupt bureaucrats is just that, while what sounds like utopia to Hashimoto’s supporters sounds like dystopia to a lot of other people. But Hashimoto’s reform philosophy still resonates deeply in Osaka, even if voters went for the LDP this time due to Hashimoto’s personality and Ishin’s inability to translate rhetoric into reality.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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