National | View from Osaka

Can Osaka's governor inspire change before he gets 'hammered down'?

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was deciding to extend the national state of emergency until May 31, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura announced a set of local, independent standards for reopening businesses before then — standards that were met last week.

Since the end of the Golden Week holidays, a stranger to Japan following current affairs could be forgiven for thinking Yoshimura and a few fellow governors like Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki ran the country, with how often they have they been in the news.

Amidst all of the buzz surrounding Yoshimura, however, it’s worth remembering there are several reasons, some unique to Osaka and the Kansai region, that account for his popularity.

First, he enjoys a personal support rate that is not only high but also enthusiastic. Even Yoshimura’s critics admit he has handled the coronavirus crisis exceptionally well. People in Osaka may strongly disagree with him on other issues, but nobody thinks he is indifferent or out of touch. They admire his efforts. Unlike certain other governors, Yoshimura is neither a carpetbagger who sees the governor’s seat as a stop on the way to, or back to, the Diet, nor a veteran party hack who considers it a just reward for past services rendered at a national level.

Second, the local television media environment is quite favorable. Osaka commentators enjoy being very direct and animated with Yoshimura. That’s quite different to the respectful but somewhat stiff, dry tone one can hear when Tokyo commentators address Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. Yoshimura, in turn, clearly relishes the chance to explain his views at length to his fellow Osakans in the media. The downside is that commentators too critical or skeptical of a governor popular with the public can find themselves out of work, especially when local TV producers and editors favor commentators who show support rather than dispassionately, and persistently, act as a foil toward a governor who is great for ratings and circulation.

Third, Yoshimura has both youthful energy and outsider status. Traditionally, prefectural governors — and not just in Kansai — were elected precisely because they were not charismatic, not independent-minded and not interested in being media celebrities. They were often party lackeys, the brother-in-law or less academically gifted son of a rich, corrupt local construction industry titan, or a local boy (and they were all boys) who went to the University of Tokyo, landed a prestige job in the bureaucracy or as a Diet member’s secretary, and then decided to return home and get into local politics.

While Yoshimura, 44, has served as a loyal member of his local political group, Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka), none of the other stereotypes fit. In Kansai, he is the nail that sticks out among the other governors — mostly old men loyal to ruling parties in Tokyo, used to quiet consensus and who would never dream of doing anything unprecedented of which Tokyo might not approve.

Yoshimura may eventually get hammered down, not only by his Kansai colleagues but also the politicians and bureaucrats in Tokyo. But not, perhaps, before a new generation of younger, more independent-minded governors in Kansai and elsewhere comes to power and demands more autonomy in times of things like a pandemic.

That, in turn, could reduce the ability of the central government to pound its political and bureaucratic hammer on the prefectures as hard as it has in the past, or yank out those local political nails that refuse to get hammered straight into the board. In crisis is opportunity, and as Yoshimura and other governors like Suzuki have shown, the coronavirus is an unprecedented opportunity for something rarely seen at the prefectural level: bold, independent thinking and action.

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

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