OSAKA – No stranger to making headlines and raising eyebrows in politics, the fiery Toru Hashimoto did it again on July 4.
The Osaka mayor, leader of the Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) local lawmaker group and founder of the whole Ishin movement told nearly 100 members of Osaka Ishin at a closed meeting: “I’m always ready to create a national party in Kansai.”
That was followed by reports that the new “Kansai Ishin” party will be launched sometime in September — just a couple of weeks before the end of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Speculation has grown as to whether Abe will win another term, and thus remain prime minister, or whether he will be replaced.
Ten days later, on July 14, a meeting took place in Osaka with 80 Ishin-affiliated local politicians from around the Kansai region. While the agenda was officially about ways in which the various Ishin local groups can cooperate to revitalize the Osaka Bay area, which extends into Hyogo Prefecture, a closed meeting was held afterward in which attendees were sounded out about the performance of Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party).
Concerns about the party’s Diet members becoming too “Tokyo-centric” and ignoring or playing down the concerns of Kansai’s Ishin members about regionalization and decentralization were aired by the attendees, many of whom expressed tentative support for a new Kansai-based national political party where local concerns did not get “lost in Nagatacho” — a reference to the Tokyo district that serves as the national political hub.
“The attractive aspect of Ishin is that there is no strict hierarchy between national and local representatives,” said Hyogo Prefectural Assembly member Yugo Nakano after that meeting.
The next formal step toward a Kansai Ishin party might be taken on Aug. 8, when Hashimoto will speak at a gathering of Ishin representatives in Kansai. Of Kansai’s six main prefectures (Kyoto, Shiga, Nara, Wakayama, Osaka and Hyogo), at the local assembly level there are nine Ishin members in Kyoto, two in Shiga, 10 in Nara, three in Wakayama, 143 in Osaka and 35 in Hyogo. There are 15 Ishin no To Diet members, including 12 from Osaka and three from Hyogo.
And this, perhaps, is the greatest barrier to forming an “All Kansai” national party. The Ishin movement has always been centered on Osaka. There are no Ishin no To Diet members from Kyoto, Shiga, Nara or Wakayama prefectures, while Shiga has only two local Ishin members and Wakayama three.
The reasons for Ishin’s lack of ability to gain a lot of support throughout Kansai are political, social and historical.
First, both Osaka Ishin and the Ishin no To have stated that integration of Osaka City and Osaka Prefecture is a core issue. While that appeals to voters in Osaka, and to a certain extent in the urbanized parts of Hyogo Prefecture that are essentially suburbs of Osaka, the message resonates much less in rural Nara, Wakayama and Shiga.
In addition, Hashimoto’s clearly urban, corporate-friendly neo-liberal economic philosophy, while lauded by voters, economists and media in urban centers like Osaka, is seen as a threat in areas of Kansai where topmost worries include caring for the elderly via adequate social services while improving the economy.
The social differences between Osaka and the rest of the Kansai region also play a role.
Hashimoto’s combative rhetoric, in the manner of a good prosecutor, and his personal attacks and emphasis on “logic” to solve political problems, makes him a fierce debater and fun to watch on TV for a lot of Osakans (and the Osaka television media that, until recently, relied on Hashimoto’s appearances to boost their ratings).
But that kind of in-your-face political style, while par for the course in many countries, is welcomed less among many others in Kansai and the rest of Japan, who see not an amusing populist politician but an uncouth bully who is an embarrassment.
This is especially true in Kyoto, where Hashimoto is largely seen as an Osaka politician with an Osaka attitude, outlook and philosophy. And that, as anyone in Kyoto and Osaka will tell you, is not a compliment. Among Kyoto’s traditional elites, the Osaka mayor is considered something of a philistine, leading a group of politicians who seem to have all the answers, but really don’t, and who are loyal to nobody but themselves.
The final reason it may be more difficult than expected to build a strong, all-Kansai Ishin national party is simply due to long-standing historical rivalries in the region.
Despite constant attempts by organizations like the Kansai Economic Federation, Kansai Electric Power Co. and other (usually Osaka-based) organizations with “Kansai” in their name to convince outsiders that regional unity exists, it remains a fluid concept and, depending on the specific issue, a very contentious proposition.
The most intense historical rivalry is between the cultural capital of Kyoto and industrial Osaka. “Osaka drinks our toilet water” is an old Kyoto saying, expressing the fact water from Lake Biwa flows through Kyoto down into Osaka Bay. In more recent years, Osaka and Hyogo have often found themselves competing for new economic investment with programs that duplicate each other.
And even local Kansai politicians who favor an all-Kansai national political party worry that it will be too Osaka-based, and that, rather than representing the concerns of voters in less-populated areas, it will become, basically, the “Osaka-Kobe Ishin no To.”
For now, however, discussions about a new national party are continuing behind the scenes, even as Ishin no To wonders what its fate will be if a new Kansai party arises — especially at next summer’s Upper House election.
So Hashimoto may claim to be leaving politics after the November mayoral election. But the recent talk of a new Kansai-based national party indicates that neither Japan, nor the rest of the world, has seen the last of him.
Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.
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