Will Tokyo become Hashimoto's Wonderland?

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

— Alice Liddell from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

Six months have passed since Toru Hashimoto announced that when his term as Osaka mayor ends next month, he would retire from politics. Few believe him, but the utterance was in character, reflecting Hashimoto’s penchant for surprising allies and enemies.

With the double election for mayor and governor now one week away, the question is whether Hashimoto will, like the Cheshire Cat from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” vanish from Osaka, only to reappear with a grin elsewhere (the prime minister’s office? The Diet?) in some other guise.

Will he enter national politics if, as some media are speculating, next summer sees Upper and Lower House elections? Will he be appointed a nonelected member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet after the new year, or at the very least chairman of some blue-ribbon government reform panel? Or, will he become an influential courtier, pontificating on the state of Japan on television by day, and slipping in and out of smoke-filled rooms and expensive nightclubs for private conversations with senior politicians at night?

Answers vary, but where Hashimoto ends up next depends upon three things: the results of the Nov. 22 double election, his support in Tokyo and, perhaps most importantly, his own financial situation.

A loss by Hashimoto’s hand-picked successor for mayor, Hirofumi Yoshimura, to Akira Yanagimoto, who is backed by the local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party and Japan Communist Party, would likely create concerns about whether Hashimoto can still be a major political force, especially with the new national party, Osaka Ishin no Kai, he is creating.

In politics, where power is often perception, Hashimoto could find his phone calls to senior LDP figures unreturned if a sense grows that his ability to expand the Ishin movement, with its LDP (or, at least, Abe) friendly views on constitutional revision, has waned.

That leads to the second unknown, which is Hashimoto’s support base in Tokyo. Sure, he and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui can pop by for tea and crumpets with Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga whenever they are in town. But the LDP remains a series of factions and not all of them are as anxious to court Hashimoto as Abe, or at least Suga, sometimes appears to be.

Mayoral candidate Yanagimoto is the nephew of Takuji Yanagimoto, an Upper House member from Osaka who belongs to the faction of Wakayama-based Toshihiro Nikai.

He, in turn, has proposed a plan to revitalize Osaka that Hashimoto has criticized as vague, hinting it’s merely a political ploy by a Yanagimoto ally to win votes in the Osaka races.

But if the younger Akira wins the Osaka mayor’s chair, the Nikai faction wins an ally and Abe and Suga have to think more carefully about how to handle Hashimoto.

Finally, money. Hashimoto was a well-paid private attorney and television commentator before going into politics. Becoming a Diet member not only means spending lots of money, it also means stricter laws governing things like payment for television appearances. Does Hashimoto want the financial risk that comes with entering national politics, or will he take the safer route and remain in private practice, where he’s sure to add to his bank account?

Perhaps Hashimoto himself does not know. He may attempt to reinvent himself after he leaves office, to convince the world he is not the same person he was yesterday. And that leads to the most important question of all: After seven years in the political limelight, who is he really? Ah, that’s the great puzzle. Curiouser and curiouser, indeed.