Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, founders of Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), said Thursday they will leave the party to concentrate on local politics in Osaka, a move that is likely to considerably — if not critically — weaken the second largest opposition force.

Ishin has so far avoided seeing many Osaka-based lawmakers follow suit by exiting the party, as Hashimoto urged them to stay by sending a message by email to the party’s Diet members.

The party has been deeply split between its Osaka-based members who are willing to cooperate with the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Tokyo-based members who are trying to remain in the opposition camp in the hopes it will help them survive the next election.

On Thursday, Ishin president Yorihisa Matsuno called a meeting of the party’s Diet members, reading out the email message sent by Hashimoto. In it, Hashimoto urged party members to remain united to avoid a party breakup.

“(Hashimoto) said we should put an end to something like an internal struggle,” Matsuno said.

Hashimoto also wrote that he and Matsui will leave the party to concentrate on local political affairs.

Ishin’s crisis started on Wednesday as Matsui threatened to quit the party unless Mito Kakizawa, its secretary-general and a close aide to Matsuno, stepped down immediately. Matsui also said Hashimoto was likewise ready to quit.

Matsui and Osaka-based members have criticized Kakizawa for supporting a candidate backed by the Japanese Communist Party and the Democratic Party of Japan who is running in the Sept. 13 mayoral election in the city of Yamagata.

But in an apparent reversal, Hashimoto said in the email that Kakizawa should retain his current position — a proposal immediately endorsed by Matsuno.

A former Democratic Party of Japan member, Matsuno is believed to be a leader of the Tokyo-based party members who wish to remain in the opposition camp.

Matsuno has called for the creation of a new party that would combine lawmakers from various opposition forces, including Ishin.

The departure of the pair may weaken Ishin’s Osaka faction and lend momentum to Matsuno’s drive to combine opposition forces.

It would mean trouble for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has counted on Hashimoto’s pledge to cooperate with his government, including the drive to revise the pacifist postwar Constitution.

Some Ishin members voiced concerns Thursday that the departure of the party founders could considerably weaken Ishin.

Hashimoto, a polemicist and master of TV debates, has garnered strong support from numerous voters, in particular right-leaning, conservative ones.

Ishin executive meeting chairman Toranosuke Katayama said their departure will deal a blow to the party because they were the most prominent stars for Ishin.

“Hashimoto and Matsui are, in some ways, Ishin’s face itself,” Katayama told reporters after the meeting of Diet members in Tokyo.

Their departure “is really painful,” he said.

Matsui and Hashimoto have already formed a separate political group called Kansai Ishin no Kai, which consists of about 200 Ishin members from local municipal and prefectural assemblies.

This has fueled speculation that many Osaka-based Diet members of Ishin, too, may eventually leave the party and join Kansai Ishin no Kai.

Some Kansai-based members said Thursday they are still deeply frustrated over the Ishin leadership led by Matsuno.

“It’s really disappointing that the two founders will leave the party. I would like those people who created the cause to reflect” on what they have done, Nobuyuki Baba, an Ishin Lower House member who was elected in Osaka, told reporters at the Diet building in Tokyo.

During Thursday’s meeting, Kakizawa apologized to the party members for causing a stir, and pledged to devote his efforts to fulfilling his role as secretary-general. But he also said the internal feud should not have made public.

“I believe there were things that I should reflect on. But, on the other hand, I wonder if (it was a wise move) to speak about dividing the party or not,” Kakizawa said.

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