National | View from Osaka

Doubt cast over Tomin First's national appeal

by Eric Johnston

“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.”

— Marshall McLuhan, in a 1972 interview

The resounding victory in the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election by Gov. Yuriko Koike’s Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) group was seen in and out of Japan as not only a crushing defeat for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party but also a “game-changer.” Some Japanese media pundits suggest a national “First” movement is at hand, while overenthusiastic foreign observers of Japanese politics hail the international media-savvy Koike and Tomin First as a “breath of fresh air,” or a sign that, finally, a “progressive,” “modern” political alternative to decades of LDP rule is at hand.

But in Osaka? Yawn. Thanks to Osaka Ishin no Kai, we’ve seen this movie before. Skepticism that Tomin First is about to become a powerful national movement is still the prevailing reaction among Osaka pundits and local politicians. And, by the way, in case anybody bothers to look, Koike was quick to step down after the election. Her successor has certain conservative and right-wing views so extreme even Osaka Ishin co-founder Toru Hashimoto, a sometime critic of Koike’s governing style, is worried.

In 2012, Kazusa Noda, who now heads Tomin First, suggested the current Constitution should be invalidated and that Japan should return to the pre-World War II Constitution. On a Monday television appearance earlier this month, Hashimoto, expressing the concerns of many in Osaka Ishin (and the ruling parties), said that kind of comment is grounds for being deposed.

Koike’s record shows a history of involvement with right-wing and conservative groups, individuals and ideas. So nobody should be shocked that she has associated herself with Noda.

But personal politics aside, Kansai political commentators, business leaders and politicians, based on the experience of Osaka Ishin, offer the following reasons why proclamations, especially abroad, of the Tomin First movement having national possibilities need to be taken with more than a few grains of salt:

First, the “Our concerns are not Tokyo’s concerns” theory. Tokyo has 13.7 million people. That’s equal to the populations of Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo, Fukuoka and Kobe combined. Political priorities in smaller cities start with battling depopulation and regional revitalization — not concerns a Tokyo-centered political party would seem to know, or care much, about.

Second, the “Tokyo’s concerns are not our concerns” theory. The more politically incorrect Osaka-based pundits wonder if Tomin First’s attempts to go national succeed, it could mean local assemblies where their allies have control might be forced to bow to the Tokyo-based central headquarters’ Tokyo-based political needs first, and their own local needs second. At that point, what’s the difference between Tomin First and most of the established national parties?

Third, the “lack of bureaucratic connections” theory. There is a difference between politics and governing. Tomin First might be good at the former if it goes national. But from Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui on down, there remains caution in Osaka about whether it would be effective in dealing with the central government bureaucracy. Can Tomin First-affiliated Diet members get things done for far off constituencies in the manner of long-established political parties that know all the written and unwritten rules and have deep connections to the bureaucrats who enforce them? Voters may be wary.

The above reasons are merely some basic ones why many in Kansai believe Tomin First may well end up like Osaka Ishin, a local movement with limited appeal outside its geographical base, a national party that ends up as a de facto Tokyo faction of the ruling LDP coalition, still influential but not exactly revolutionary, despite its current image in certain quarters.

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

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