In the fall of 2007, Osaka’s political leaders faced a problem.
For nearly seven years, Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta, Japan’s first female governor, had made completing Kansai airport’s second runway her top political goal.
Now that it was a reality, she looked forward to another term in office when elections were held in early 2008.
But during Ohta’s stint, the prefecture’s finances had worsened to the point of near bankruptcy.
Political and business leaders, no longer interested in supporting Ohta now that the second runway was built, looked around for a candidate who would slash the prefectural budget, curb workers’ unions and promote their long-term goal of unifying Osaka, and then the Kansai region.
With just weeks before the election, Ohta got caught up in a minor financial scandal and bowed out of the race.
After several others said no, local business mandarins and Liberal Democratic Party members in the Diet threw their support behind a young, brash, television celebrity and lawyer named Toru Hashimoto, who said there was a “20,000 percent” chance he would not run, before he changed his mind.
Hashimoto’s fame, populist rhetoric, made-for-TV speaking style and use of social media quickly won him the election. He became a spokesman for a “lost generation” of Osakans — particularly men who came of age after the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s.
Younger, working-class Osakans admired his criticism of Tokyo and Osaka’s older generations. Wealthy younger Osakans hoped Hashimoto’s reforms of the local bureaucracy would allow them to make the kind of money their wealthiest friends in Tokyo were getting.
The Hashimoto movement grew, prompting him to form a local political party, Osaka Ishin no kai (One Osaka), to fundamentally restructure Osaka Prefecture and, eventually, the Kansai region. Dozens of local LDP lawmakers bolted to Hashimoto’s new group. They included Ichiro Matsui, Hashimoto’s right-hand man, who would later succeed Hashimoto as governor.
The movement went national when he and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara teamed up to form Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) in 2012, after Hashimoto became Osaka mayor. There was talk his next step would be to run for a Diet seat and, eventually, become prime minister.
Hashimoto’s economic views were in tune with Kansai’s largest corporations, while his political views were generally right-wing and conservative. But he won qualified praise from more liberal and progressive Osakans on two issues: nuclear power and hate speech.
On the former, Hashimoto announced in 2011 he wanted Osaka to get out of nuclear power. He made some effort to do so, although he said no to a local referendum on the issue, creating suspicion that he wasn’t serious. He and Ishihara, a pro-nuclear advocate, would also clash over this issue.
In addition, Hashimoto came out in favor of curbing the anti-Korean group Zaitokukai, which held rallies where its members hurled racial epithets and threats of violence, even murder.
An angry face-off with Zaitokukai head Makoto Sakurai last year over those attempts saw him speaking about the rights and dignity of Korean residents and against inflammatory speech.
On the other hand, Hashimoto ignited an international firestorm in 2013 after saying Japan’s wartime “comfort women” system had been necessary at the time, and suggested American violence toward Okinawan women might be reduced if U.S. soldiers were allowed to use sex salons.
Such inflammatory remarks damaged his and his party’s credibility greatly.
Nippon Ishin did poorly in the 2013 Upper House election, while in Osaka Prefecture, opposition to integrating the prefecture into one political entity grew and Hashimoto-backed candidates lost several local mayoral elections.
This forced him to change tactics and stake his reputation, and his party’s existence, on at least integrating the city of Osaka.
On May 17, that, too, failed by the thinnest of margins (10,000 votes out of 1.4 million), and the question now is whether Hashimoto is truly done with politics, as he says, or whether, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character, he’ll be back.
Speculation was growing earlier this week that he might become a political adviser to the government, especially if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is re-elected president of the LDP this fall and reshuffles his Cabinet.
Most wonder if he will run for a Diet seat in a few years, especially if he finds powerful people who are willing to fund him.
In the meantime, he’s most likely to go back to being a television celebrity, though questions abound about whether he can still command the kind of money he made before entering politics. But he has said he will definitely pursue his other former career.
“I have my pride as an attorney, and want to return to that,” Hashimoto said after the referendum results came in Sunday.
Whichever direction he goes, it’s doubtful Japan has heard the last of Hashimoto as a political actor, whether in front of the television camera commenting upon local and national affairs, as an outside adviser to the government, or as a future Diet member.
Of that, it seems, there is a 20,000 percent certainty.
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