National / Politics | DECISION 2016

Osaka Ishin struggling ahead of Sunday's Upper House poll

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Just before the Upper House election campaign kicked off on June 22, Osaka Ishin no Kai leaders were plotting their schedules for the days leading up to Sunday’s poll.

The national party, which was formed last November, was in trouble, having lost a Lower House runoff election earlier this year and unable to gain much traction outside its Osaka base. It was without its charismatic leader and co-founder, Toru Hashimoto, who had left local politics last year after stepping down as Osaka mayor. Osaka Ishin candidates hoped Hashimoto would come out of his self-imposed retirement and help them campaign.

Instead, Hashimoto was in the United Kingdom, following Conservative Party MP Boris Johnson, the U.K. Independence Party, and the faction that wanted the U.K. to leave the European Union — a move he appears to have supported after they won the referendum last month. On his return to Osaka, Hashimoto said he had no interest in actively campaigning for Osaka Ishin candidates.

For a Hashimoto-less Osaka Ishin, the Upper House election may be the party’s last chance to prove it can be viable outside the Osaka region.

Of Osaka Ishin’s seven Upper House members, only two are up for re-election. But the party is fielding 29 candidates, including 11 in electoral districts, while another 18, including several who are also standing for single seats, are running as proportional representation candidates.

Four of the 11 electoral district candidates are in Osaka, Hyogo and Nara prefectures, while former Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka is running with Osaka Ishin’s backing in Tokyo.

Leadership of Osaka Ishin after Hashimoto’s departure has fallen to Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, who has seized upon voter anger over the taxpayer funds scandal involving disgraced former Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe to gain support for the party’s Upper House platform.

Osaka Ishin is promising voters it will seek to reduce the number of Diet seats by 30 percent and make public its travel expenses.

“The Osaka governor’s salary is the lowest in Japan. The problem with Tokyo’s municipal government is that the rules are loose, so you end up flying first-class overseas or staying in hotel suites. The rules need to be changed, like the way Osaka Prefecture changed its rules regarding expenses,” Matsui said last month in Tokyo during a stop to support Tanaka.

One of the main election issues is constitutional revision, especially the war-renouncing Article 9, and whether the ruling coalition can secure a two-thirds majority in the Upper House to change it.

Though the article is not specifically mentioned in the party’s platform, Osaka Ishin broadly supports revision, but is trying to entice younger voters in particular with promises of a new Constitution that includes the right to free education, including university study or specialized technical training.

“According to our calculations, the amount necessary to accomplish this goal would be ¥3.7 trillion. However, if there were a change in the government, people would have concern as to whether the education system could be free. Therefore, we are supporting an amendment to the Constitution in order to achieve this,” Osaka Ishin Secretary-General Nobuyuki Baba, the party’s lone Lower House member, told reporters last month.

There has long been debate within the party over how, exactly, to rewrite Article 9.

If Osaka Ishin’s votes were needed to form the necessary two-thirds majority in the Upper House, it would give the small party leverage to negotiate over its other policy goals, which is why senior leaders are somewhat vague when asked about their support.

“Osaka Ishin does not believe it is necessary to immediately amend Article 9,” Baba said.

But the party remains deeply unpopular with voters. The latest NHK poll shows its support rate at just over 2 percent, making Osaka Ishin’s future uncertain unless it wins big, which seems difficult without charismatic leadership that has national appeal.

“Toru Hashimoto created Osaka Ishin, but he’s gone, and continuing what he started has proved difficult,” said an Osaka Liberal Democratic Party member speaking anonymously.

“The party’s attempts to convince voters outside the region that ‘Osaka’ is a brand name representing change instead of the name of a city or prefecture, is not working.

“Unless they increase the number of Upper House seats, they’ll be forced to change their name, and their approach.”