OSAKA – What’s in a name? If you’re Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and trying to form a new national party that will represent the region but could also become a powerful political player on issues of interest to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pretty much everything.
On Oct. 1, Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) co-founders Hashimoto and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, along with some 20 to 25 of the party’s Diet members, are expected to launch a new national party. The move effectively splits Ishin, with 51 members at present, between the Osaka faction loyal to Hashimoto and Matsui, and the faction led by Lower House lawmaker Yorihisa Matsuno.
Who will join Hashimoto, stick with Matsuno, or leave for another party has been the subject of intense speculation in and out of Osaka in the past few weeks.
At the moment, roughly two dozen Diet members have signaled they will follow Hashimoto. Another 22 originally joined Ishin as allies of Matsuno, a former member of the Democratic Party of Japan, while another 10 had joined as followers Kenji Eda, who led the small party Yui no To.
But the real question is what will happen to the dozen or so other members who don’t have strong loyalties to either faction. Their final decision is likely to rest not on the policies Hashimoto’s new party espouses, but on what it names itself. The clear front-runner and most likely choice is “Osaka Ishin no To,” with Osaka spelled in hiragana.
“I’m partial to ‘Osaka Ishin no To.’ We’re going to use ‘Osaka’ as a word symbolic of changing politics from the local level,” Hashimoto told supporters at an event earlier this month.
The only problem with that plan is that many other Ishin Diet members, as well as local politicians and political groups around Kansai allied with Hashimoto, do not want to see another new party called Osaka Ishin. Instead, they are hoping for a name that will reflect the region in a broader sense.
Ishin no To Diet members from other Kansai cities recently met in Osaka to express those concerns to Hashimoto, but he remained firm in his choice.
At present, Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) is the name of Hashimoto’s local party.
“If they don’t like the name ‘Osaka,’ they don’t have to join the new party,” Hashimoto said.
But Ishin Diet members not in “Hashimoto’s Dozen,” the nearly 12 lawmakers from Osaka, aren’t the only politicians concerned with names.
Over the past few years, Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga have strengthened their ties with Hashimoto and Matsui, who belonged to Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party before linking up with Hashimoto. Any new national party led by Hashimoto and Matsui will find itself being courted by Abe on issues ranging from educational reform to constitutional revision. This is especially likely if Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, takes big losses in next July’s Upper House election due to lingering resentment from its support base — Soka Gakkai, Japan’s biggest lay Buddhist group — over the security legislation the ruling bloc rammed through the Diet earlier this month.
“Abe understands how important promoting the integration of Osaka is to Hashimoto, but there are also concerns about whether an ‘Osaka Ishin no To’ would end up with enough winners in the Upper House election to make it a useful party to the LDP,” said one Hashimoto adviser who asked not to be named.
Even if “Osaka Ishin no To” is not the final choice, it’s clear the new party will not be called anything that sounds infantile, unnatural or silly when translated, or anything that makes headline writers at English-language news outlets groan or grin. Hashimoto is not the type to sign off on a name like Smile Party, People’s Lives First Party or Rise Up, Japan!
Yet the name could also turn into unwanted baggage if Osaka Ishin-backed candidates lose in a Nov. 22 double election for the Osaka governor and mayor. Such a loss would make an “Osaka Ishin no To” or even a “Kansai Ishin no To” a poor tool for recruiting candidates for the Upper House election.
“If we are defeated in either election (by a candidate from one of the established parties), we won’t be able to make a plan for integrating Osaka,” Matsui told reporters a couple of weeks ago.
That, in turn, would raise serious questions about whether either Hashimoto or Matsui could draw enough followers to a new party that states its primary goal at the national level is to integrate a city where political power is now in the hands of an anti-Hashimoto, anti-Osaka Ishin mayor.
As for a potential “Kansai Ishin no To,” even something like that could now have trouble drawing ambitious politicians who share Hashimoto’s goals for the region. In a clear bid to win back regional voters who gravitated toward Hashimoto because of his efforts to revive the local economy, Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP’s powerful general council chairman, recently unveiled plans to form a “Kinki Mega Region.”
Nikai’s plan centers around bringing about two rail projects near and dear to Kansai business leaders and bigwigs: extension of the magnetically levitated shinkansen line (now under construction) from Nagoya to Osaka, and of the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line to Osaka via Kyoto or another route.
As a former transport and economy and trade minister, a Diet veteran like Nikai has the connections and experience needed to make such projects happen. Hashimoto dismissed Nikai’s plan as a purely political ploy, saying that what’s been announced so far is vague enough to fit on a sheet of paper.
But if Abe is no longer prime minister during the Upper House poll, Hashimoto, even if he runs and wins, could find that voters elsewhere in Kansai prefer an LDP candidate over one of his own because they think Nikai’s plan is more politically realistic than Hashimoto’s, regardless of what his new party’s manifesto might promise — or what its name turns out to be.