OSAKA – Over the past few weeks, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, who also serves as acting leader of Osaka Ishin no Kai, has gone from being a locally liked politician known as a team player to a national media darling, admired by the public for his strong individual leadership and communication skills in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Here’s a look at a governor now the subject of speculation over where his future may lead.
How has Yoshimura dealt with the coronavirus and why has he suddenly become so popular nationally?
Yoshimura, 44, became the nation’s first governor to announce a plan with three numeric standards that could be used to judge whether or not to lift, in stages, the request on local businesses to remain closed.
Those criteria are: fewer than 10 new infections daily where the infection route is not clear, a positive infection rate from polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing of less than 7 percent and less than 60 percent of prefectural hospital beds being used by seriously ill coronavirus patients.
If, over a seven day period (ending later this week), the targets are met, some businesses will likely reopen — albeit under strict sanitary conditions. As of late last week Osaka prefecture was meeting all conditions, but a decision will be made on May 15.
The “Osaka model” for lifting the requests, and Yoshimura’s communication of it, won national media praise for being the kind of bold leadership Japan needs. Former Osaka mayor and governor Toru Hashimoto credited Yoshimura’s tireless media appearances, especially television media appearances, to explain what he is doing as a major factor in his popularity. So much so, that many of those who admire him expressed concern he wasn’t getting enough sleep.
In addition — and unlike Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Hashimoto says — Yoshimura speaks off-the-cuff and doesn’t use a teleprompter, giving him a better impression as a leader with viewers and viewers.
The results have been an unprecedented boost in Yoshimura`s popularity. He now has over 908,800 followers on Twitter, more than Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. A Mainichi Shimbun poll last week and a Nikkei poll over the weekend showed he was the most highly evaluated politician in the country in terms of response to the coronavirus. Koike finished in second place in both polls, and Abe a distant third place in the Mainichi poll.
Yoshimura’s popularity has also translated into increased national support for his party. While the Kyodo poll found a 35 percent support rate for the Liberal Democratic Party, Nippon Ishin had an 8.7 percent support rate — one of its highest ever, and greater than ruling coalition partner Komeito (5.3 percent) or the three main opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (6.9 percent), the Japanese Communist Party (3.2 percent) or the Democratic Party for the People (1.2 percent).
What was Yoshimura’s route to becoming Osaka governor?
Yoshimura entered politics in 2011 at the encouragement of Hashimoto and the late entertainer Yashiki Takajin. Hashimoto and Takajin had been close friends, and Yoshimura had served as Takajin’s lawyer and had shown an interest in politics.
Yoshimura joined Hashimoto’s local Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) political group and won a seat on Osaka Municipal Assembly. The group’s national branch, then known as Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) and now known as Nippon Ishin no Kai, asked him to run in the 2014 Lower House election. He lost a district seat but got in as a proportional representative.
After Osaka Ishin’s efforts to merge the city’s wards were defeated in a May 2015 referendum, Hashimoto, then Osaka mayor, announced he would not seek re-election. Yoshimura was asked to run for mayor in the November election as his designated successor. He won easily, defeating a candidate backed by the local chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party. Ichiro Matsui, a former LDP member who is head of Osaka Ishin and Nippon Ishin and close to Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, served as Osaka governor and announced that he wanted another referendum on the issue.
But with opposition to the merger from the LDP in the city assembly, and with Osaka Komeito — which was working with Ishin to secure a majority in the assembly — also opposed, Matsui and Yoshimura decided to take a gamble. In early 2019, both men resigned their positions in order to have the mayoral and governor’s races held at the same time as the assembly elections in April. They then ran for each other’s post, saying the results would be a de facto judgment on their merger plan.
It worked. Yoshimura and Matsui easily defeated their LDP-backed opponents. Osaka Ishin once again ended up just shy of a city assembly majority but won a majority of prefectural seats. Their wins, and LDP losses, forced LDP and Komeito to announce they would not block a second referendum on the merger. A vote is still tentatively planned for November 1, depending on the coronavirus situation.
What is Yoshimura like and how is he different from Matsui and Hashimoto?
Politically, Yoshimura shares the views of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on many national issues. He favors revision of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution and supports the prime minister’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine.
On the other hand, Yoshimura opposed the 2014 Specifically Designated Secrets Act, which Abe strongly supported.
He has won praise, even from political opponents, for supporting local efforts to ban hate speech against different ethnic groups. And he opposed revision of the 1994 Kono Statement on the “comfort women” issue. “Comfort women” are women who provided sex to Japanese soldiers in wartime brothels. They were forced or coerced into sexual servitude under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty.
But in 2018 Yoshimura made international headlines when he terminated Osaka’s six-decade sister city relationship with San Francisco, after the latter city relocated a “comfort women” memorial and plaque on public property despite his requests and those from the Japanese government not to do so. Yoshimura’s view was that the move would be seen as anti-Japanese and representative of the public will of San Francisco. His decision to terminate the relationship had no impact on his or Osaka Ishin’s popularity among voters.
Hashimoto left office popular with the Osaka public but disliked by established local party leaders and bureaucrats. His reputation for being confrontational, for using social media to personally attack his critics — often with strong language — produced results in terms of cutting prefectural costs, but failed to get the merger plans through.
Yoshimura is seen as less confrontational than Hashimoto, and more willing to listen. But until the coronavirus, he had been seen as something of a younger imitation of Hashimoto in terms of rhetoric and beliefs, though without the same charisma or political and media skills.
Is Yoshimura a potential future candidate to become prime minister?
Despite current media speculation that he might be interested in the possibility, in a May 10th television interview Yoshimura denied any intention to become prime minister. Media popularity can be fleeting, and Yoshimura’s Nippon Ishin is still a largely Osaka-focused party that votes with the LDP in the Diet on many issues.
Appealing to voters outside Osaka by distinguishing itself from the LDP policies has always been a challenge. Being a successful governor with an independent streak and a high media profile does not make it easier to become prime minister, as Hashimoto, former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, and current Tokyo Gov. Koike have learned. All were, or still are, touted as future prime ministers.
Whether Yoshimura has the political skills and luck he needs to sustain and expand his current popularity into the long-term political influence that would give him a realistic shot at the prime minister’s office remains to be seen.