OSAKA – Well, that didn’t take long. Less than 24 hours after finishing as Osaka mayor, Toru Hashimoto met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Dec. 19.
The purpose was to exchange views on security and diplomatic issues — areas Hashimoto knows little about but has lots of opinions on — and constitutional revisions, a goal both men share.
The question for Abe now is how to best use Hashimoto to help achieve constitutional changes. The question for Hashimoto, though, is what’s next? Local pundits and journalists, as well as various political aids in non-Ishin parties, are predicting four basic scenarios.
First, Hashimoto could enter the Abe Cabinet as an unappointed minister. Perhaps as internal affairs chief, the ministry that could help make Hashimoto’s goal of merging Osaka a reality. The advantage for Hashimoto as minister is that he would be on the inside and able to build the connections needed to go on to bigger things. The advantage for Abe is that Osaka Ishin no Kai would become a loyal ally on not only constitutional revision, but also other issues (security, diplomacy, education) that Abe wants to push.
Potential drawbacks? A high-profile failure. Hashimoto is widely distrusted by Tokyo bureaucrats. The wily Sir Humphrey Applebys in whatever ministry he goes to could turn Hashimoto into a hapless Jim Hacker.
And then there’s the money. Before entering politics, Hashimoto reportedly made ¥300 million annually as a television celebrity. As a Cabinet member, he would be under tough restrictions on taking outside cash, restrictions that might be a deal-breaker for entering the Cabinet.
The second option has Hashimoto as an outside Cabinet adviser or chairman of a useless but high-profile politically appointed panel.
Advantages? Hashimoto could hobnob with political insiders yet still rake in the yen with outside jobs, especially on TV. Public influence and visibility with fewer restraints on private income might sound good.
Disadvantages include how seriously he would be taken by political insiders, and whether being an adviser as opposed to a Cabinet member would insulate him better from his enemies.
The third possibility is Hashimoto remains out of politics until next year’s Upper House election, and then runs. He would win and that may boost Osaka Ishin’s election results. But does Hashimoto want to be an opposition party fish in the large pond known as the Diet? And if his friend Abe is replaced as prime minister, will he get eaten by the veteran sharks in the Liberal Democratic Party who don’t like him?
Finally, there’s the fourth option: Hashimoto stays out of politics. That seems unlikely. But the only thing predictable about Hashimoto, it seems, is his unpredictability. So nobody will surprised if he chooses a fifth option invisible to pundits in the bars of Osaka.