National / Politics | KANSAI PERSPECTIVE

Time running out for Osaka leaders seeking to push city-prefecture integration plan

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

When Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura left for Paris early last week for one final lobbying effort for the 2025 World Expo, they left behind a city and prefecture that remain deeply divided over their most basic political goal — the integration of Osaka Prefecture and the city of Osaka.

Earlier this month, the two leaders and their local political group, Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka), had hoped a joint prefectural and municipal committee of elected officials from all political parties would discuss a report prepared by researchers at Tokyo-based Kaetsu Gakuen.

Their conclusion was that if the city of Osaka abolished its 23 wards and integrated itself into four semi-autonomous zones, the economic effect over a decade would be more than ¥1.1 trillion, much of that from savings due to a more streamlined local bureaucracy. But it was a conclusion that the local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner Komeito, which have long opposed Osaka Ishin’s integration plan, scoffed at.

“This figure is fake. All the governor and mayor are trying to do is make things up, and we have no desire to get on board with them,” Osaka Prefectural Assembly member Mitsuyoshi Hanaya, of the LDP, told reporters on Nov. 12.

An angry Yoshimura defended the figures.

“It’s clear these are not arbitrary but objective. Unlike the previous effort (in 2015) to draw up a plan, the economic and statistical results are explained,” he said.

Komeito, with which Osaka Ishin must cooperate to form a majority in the municipal and prefectural assemblies, is also skeptical of the ¥1.1 trillion economic effect, saying that the report offered no clear proof. The party, along with the LDP and all of the other opposition parties, boycotted a mid-November meeting set up to discuss the report, drawing anger from both Osaka Ishin leaders.

“The opposition parties should listen to the opinions of the experts and debate the issue, but that didn’t happen with parties who say that there’s no economic effect from integration,” Matsui said after the meeting, which was cut short when only members of Osaka Ishin showed up.

Matsui had originally wanted to hold a referendum on the plan by this fall. When that became impossible, he pushed the goal to May 2019.

“That’s still the target. It hasn’t changed,” he said in early November, before the boycott of all other parties to discuss the report of a purported ¥1.1 trillion economic effect.

The problem for Matsui, Yoshimura, and Osaka Ishin is that their effort to hold the referendum is dependent on next year’s political events. Despite last week’s win of the 2025 World Expo, a victory that could strengthen Osaka Ishin’s political hand, opposition among LDP and Komeito members remains strong.

In April, elections for the prefectural and municipal assemblies take place. The Osaka integration project is expected to be the main local issue in both elections. But without clear progress, voters could rebel against Osaka Ishin.

Further losses of the party’s plurality in April would make it even more reliant on Komeito. It’s even possible that, if the LDP were to pick up enough seats in those elections, the local chapter of Komeito would abandon Osaka Ishin for good and cooperate with the LDP to form a majority in one or both assemblies, a prospect that would be welcomed by the national leaders of both parties. If that were to happen, it’s unclear how well Matsui and Yoshimura’s national party, Nippon Ishin, would fare in the projected July Upper House election.

Setbacks in April and June would then leave Matsui and Yoshimura in a weak position come November 2019, when the gubernatorial and mayoral elections are expected to be held. While both men can enjoy the strong wind at their backs now because of the 2025 Expo bid victory, their merger efforts are likely to continue to face rough weather in 2019.

Kansai Perspective focuses on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.