Osaka – Two months ago, it was all coming up roses for Hirofumi Yoshimura. The Osaka governor was praised nationwide for responding to the coronavirus with a set of easy-to-understand local numerical standards for whether to request that prefectural facilities and businesses close or reduce operating hours.
For a while, the “Osaka model,” as he dubbed it, kept infection rates low. But as was the case elsewhere, infections began rising in July. By the beginning of this month, daily cases in Osaka climbed to over 200 a day, record highs. Suddenly, Yoshimura looked less like King Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold, and more like just another politician made of fool’s gold.
It is possible the infection spike is temporary and will soon recede. But its rise now creates problems Yoshimura didn’t have in June, problems that will have to be dealt with this autumn regardless of the infection rate trajectory.
The most pressing issue is whether to go ahead with the Nov. 1 referendum on merging Osaka into four semiautonomous wards. This is Yoshimura’s key political goal. Failure to get it passed could mean the end of his career as governor.
A few months ago, this date wasn’t a big issue, as coronavirus levels were decreasing. But now, more Osakans are asking whether it should be postponed until after the crisis has passed, not only in order to ensure safety but also to allow more time to gauge how bad the local economic damage will be, and decide whether public money might better be spent on health issues raised by the virus.
Komeito, which works with Yoshimura’s Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) political group, has put the decision on the governor’s shoulders, saying that unless the prefectural threat level is raised to red (it's currently at yellow), the referendum should go ahead.
That’s a deft move by Komeito. Their Osaka chapter has never been wild about Ishin’s merger plan but is going along with a referendum for its own reasons. They have forced Yoshimura, and his party, to ask themselves just how badly they want it.
If Yoshimura raises the threat level to red, businesses face closure requests again and local tax money will have to be spent on financial assistance. The number of infections might decrease at a faster rate. But Komeito would have the excuse it needs to call for postponing the referendum.
If Yoshimura doesn’t raise the level to red and sticks with the Nov. 1 referendum, he risks continued high infection rates. That could lead to angry, worried voters, resulting in a low turnout that goes against the merger plan.
Yoshimura is well aware of what could happen. This may be why Osaka remains stopped on a yellow light, so to speak. The governor’s strategy looks to keep the threat level on yellow as long as he can while increasing the amount and variety of advice on voluntary precautions, regardless of how scientifically effective they might be.
This might explain why Yoshimura, in a bizarre, surprising move, talked about gargling with diluted povidone-iodine four times a day, citing very limited data, as a way to reduce the number of those who test positive for the virus.
He was roundly criticized from many quarters and forced to admit afterward it was neither a preventive measure nor a treatment for the coronavirus. But suggesting such a measure indicates he’s more nervous than he was back in June about controlling the virus, and perhaps even more concerned about how Osaka will react if businesses are asked to close.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.