OSAKA – History shows cities that flourish due to maritime trade have a reputation for some of the world’s most colorful, complex, and corrupt local politics. That includes the port of Osaka, which was trading with China and the Korean Peninsula more than 1,000 years ago.
So whatever else the April 7 elections might mean, there’s no doubt Osaka’s modern politics are at least colorful and complex.
But corrupt? Well, nobody is complaining about stuffed ballot boxes, voter intimidation, or hanging chads in the elections that saw the governor and mayor swap seats and their Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) followers score a majority in the prefectural assembly while coming up just short in the municipal assembly. There is no reason to view it as anything other than an election won fair and square by Osaka Ishin.
And that worries the group’s opponents. As you might expect of a merchant town, Osaka Ishin’s candidates were the better salesmen and women. They successfully peddled promises of a better future via their plan to merge Osaka’s 24 wards. They convincingly railed against the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, painting them as ossified political machines that waste the tax money of poor, hard-working Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary Osaka.
And it didn’t help the LDP and Komeito that their candidates sometimes looked stiff on television. Holding up detailed charts and graphs like a professor to explain your point in detail can win an academic debate — but it doesn’t win an Osaka election.
Of course, voters understood Osaka Ishin’s leaders are chummy with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. There are no deep philosophical differences between Osaka Ishin and the LDP, except for the former’s merger plan, which the local LDP and Komeito chapters oppose.
So, if you don’t have problems with the general LDP-Komeito world view and love your hometown, why not elect a local party that pushes an agenda based on local pride yet also fosters a strong relationship with powerful LDP members in Tokyo to make sure central government funding for big-ticket items, such as the 2025 World Expo, doesn’t dry up?
Of course, what works in Osaka hasn’t worked elsewhere. Pundits are quick to dismiss Osaka Ishin, calling it an “Osaka-only” movement. So far, that’s true.
But from Hokkaido to Okinawa, local governments face grave demographic issues. That presents an opportunity.
In the April 7 elections, nearly 27 percent, a record high, of prefectural and major metropolitan leadership and assembly seats went uncontested. For Sunday’s elections in smaller cities, towns, and villages, the figure was estimated by Kyodo and other media last week to be at over 30 percent.
How long will it be before disgruntled regional groups realize that — with minimal effort — they can establish their own local political parties based on Osaka Ishin’s philosophy of not challenging the LDP on national issues, and unseat tired old local LDP politicians by pushing their own local government merger plans as pathways to economic salvation?
That is especially true if merger pressure from Tokyo on those regions grows due to the ever-increasing number of uncontested local elections. Better to vote for our independent party’s merger and economic plans, anyone forming a new party will say, rather than casting ballots for those who have to bow to the wishes of their party elders in Tokyo.
If a newly energized Osaka Ishin realizes its merger plan, that could lead others to decide that, with fewer people and more local elections in their own region going uncontested, establishing a new regional party that challenges ruling party candidates in local elections but is mostly willing to support them in Diet elections is not impossible.
Yes, there is the potential for colorful and complex local politics, indeed. In Osaka now and perhaps sooner rather than later, other parts of Japan will climb aboard the same local political train, regardless of whether it’s on the same tracks as the ruling parties.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.