• SHARE

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto is many things to many people, but nobody doubts his skill in the art of provocation.

“There are 100 million voters in Japan,” he said recently. “What percent of them are protesting in front of the Diet? The number is insignificant. I’m not denying their right to protest. But it’s wrong for the national will to be decided by such a small number of demonstrators. If they don’t agree with the government, they should exercise their right to vote in the next Lower House election.”

Over the past few weeks, via his Twitter account and in verbal responses to questions about the mass demonstrations against the collective self-defense bills led in part by the young Japanese who form the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), Hashimoto’s attitude toward the role of public protest has been on display, provoking two sets of reactions among supporters and critics: The first most certainly intentional on his part and the second unintentional, but more revealing of his mindset.

The first, which he no doubt expected, was to invite criticism from the SEALDs movement and its supporters for being, well, for being “Hashimoto,” the mercurial, unpredictable maverick politician, the bully boy who has all the tact and humility of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, and who is an anti-democratic fascist in the guise of a populist.

The more thoughtful critics were quick to suggest that any criticism by Hashimoto of the demonstrators would bring a smile of gratitude inside the Diet bunker, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga were hunkered down with the Liberal Democratic Party, trying to ram the unpopular bills through.

Hashimoto, the old men and women in the LDP perhaps told each other, was the politically popular (at least in Osaka) smooth-talking, telegenic political leader who represented the “silent majority” of young people (the ones under 40 years old) who, if not exactly supportive of the bill, would at least not stand — literally — in the way of it being passed. The next Lower House election was a long way off, so plenty of time to smooth over ruffled feathers among all of those 18-to-20-year-olds who had just been given the right to vote.

The second response from both critics and supporters, however, was to once again highlight the fact that Hashimoto is Osaka’s “Teflon man” whose popularity means he can say what other politicians cannot. His fans often don’t seem to care if there is logistical consistency in anything he says — at least on issues that those supporters don’t really care about, such as political demonstrations in Tokyo.

This is because Hashimoto understands that in a world dominated by the white noise of constant Twitter remarks and endless television sound bites, and in an age when attention spans are shorter than ever, who among his supporters is really paying attention, let alone concerned, Alice-like, if they notice that what the Mad Hatter said a few moments ago contradicts what he’s saying now?

The result is that even when Hashimoto pursues genuinely noble causes, such as directly standing up to the hate group Zaitokukai, there’s always a sense of, “Is he serious or is this just an act for the TV cameras?”

For their part, though, Abe and his LDP allies are betting that, with his comments about the demonstrators, Hashimoto is, at the bottom of his heart, a fellow traveler who, after he enters national politics, probably next year, can be counted upon to use his modern media management skills to help them convince the majority of those 100 million voters to allow the Diet to revise the Constitution, regardless of how many vocally oppose it in front of the Diet or around the country.

Coronavirus banner