“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

— attributed to Mark Twain

On Dec. 18, the “Toru Hashimoto Show” concluded its nearly eight-year run in Osaka with applause, tears and calls for an encore performance among its fans, and expressions of relief among its critics. With his tenure as Osaka mayor finished, Hashimoto leaves behind a supporting cast led by his faithful understudy, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, who finds himself ringleader of the political circus known as Osaka Ishin no Kai.

They love a good show in Osaka, especially if the act contains a good dose of fiery, populist (read: anti-Tokyo) rhetoric. Who in the cheap seats really cares if, behind the curtain, the script is penned by old men in the corporate world who see Osaka not as a municipality of citizens with democratic rights and individual freedoms, but as a business with troublesome employees in need of placating?

Over the years, I’ve often been asked by friends and strangers outside Osaka why Hashimoto remains popular despite the fact he is often contradictory and tactless. Given statistics showing Osaka’s overall economy hasn’t greatly improved under Hashimoto, they ask, what on earth keeps him — and his friends — in power?

The answers are complex. It’s difficult for outside observers to fathom the anger in Osaka with status quo politics when Hashimoto took office in early 2008. The region’s deep pride was heavily wounded in the two decades of decline Osaka experienced following the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s.

The under-40 crowd was particularly angry. Many were undereducated and not economically well-off. They wanted a leader who could find scapegoats in the bureaucracy for their lot in life. Others, especially younger doctors and lawyers, or business consultant types and smaller business owners, were also upset — not at being poor, but at not being super rich compared to friends in Tokyo. Nothing makes ambitious types earning ¥10 million a year in Osaka feel cheated more than hearing about similar types in Tokyo earning ¥20 million annually.

Hashimoto, a lawyer who sounded like a street fighter but raked in boatloads of money, appealed to both groups. Yet he was astute enough to understand he needed the support of conservative, right-wing, status-quo oriented old men in order to get what he wanted. And it worked. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was an early Hashimoto enthusiast (and still is) for his views on constitutional revision and patriotic education. Former Tokyo Gov. and right-wing octogenarian Shintaro Ishihara loved Hashimoto so much he got politically married to him for a while, before “irreconcilable differences” with Hashimoto led to a divorce.

And what of Hashimoto’s Ishin movement? It would be easy to write off separate efforts outside Osaka to form Ishin parties as doomed to failure. But given how weak local chapters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party often are, and the fact that younger residents in other parts of Japan are also anxious for reform, Osaka Ishin’s aggressive push for greater local autonomy has more support elsewhere than is commonly understood. Even if those other prefectures don’t want to be controlled by an Osaka-centric party.

Thus, the LDP and the established parties could eventually be forced to borrow, or at least improvise, Osaka Ishin’s hymns about local autonomy and deregulation for their own act in order to keep disgruntled younger voters from Hokkaido to Okinawa from booing them off the political stage in favor of local Ishin performers. Hashimoto’s greatest legacy may not be that he created the Ishin movement, but that the movement forced political performers in other parties to change their tunes.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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