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With Osaka voters having said "no" for the second time to a merger referendum, Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) and its national party Nippon Ishin no Kai must find a new fundamental purpose or risk extinction.

The Nov. 1 referendum capped a five-year effort by Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura and Osaka Ishin leader and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui to turn the city’s 24 wards into four semiautonomous wards. Yet despite local polls showing Matsui, Yoshimura and Osaka Ishin itself remain popular, and despite the fact that the anti-merger faction won by only 17,000 votes out of over 1.37 million cast, the party and its movement are in trouble.

What happened, then, and what happens next?

On the first question, a combination of bad timing, poor tactics and arrogance on the part of Matsui and Yoshimura toward critics, which led to overconfidence that they would win, are cited by local commentators as reasons the referendum failed to sway in their favor.

Matsui chose the Nov. 1 date even when others were urging him to wait until the COVID-19 pandemic receded. His term doesn’t finish until April 2023. Plenty of time, so what’s the rush? Matsui never gave voters a thoroughly convincing reason.

Once that date was fixed, the tactics employed by Osaka Ishin and Komeito to convince voters were unwieldy at best. Overrelying on social media to get their message out, Osaka Ishin didn’t use appearances by popular Gov. Yoshimura as much as they might have. Worse, Komeito voters were badly split. Many of its Osaka members resented the top party leadership for forcing them to support the merger plan this time after opposing it in 2015.

Finally, there was the way Matsui, in particular, behaved. Sneering at critics in a manner reminiscent of U.S. President Donald Trump, he may have lost more support than he gained. In one televised appearance, he attempted to bully a commentator by saying that as she was from Tokyo, she couldn’t possibly understand why an Osaka merger was necessary.

But the commentator was asking the same questions as Osaka residents. At the time of that exchange, though, most media polls showed the referendum would pass. Matsui may have thought victory was in the bag and that he didn’t have to answer questions, or questioners, he didn’t like.

After the defeat, Matsui admitted he hadn’t done enough to persuade voters. But there was another explanation; it wasn’t the salesmanship, it was the product — the merger plan itself. Osakans were given hard evidence it would cost money with no guarantee it would save money. Sure, they thought, Yoshimura and Matsui are good guys and hard workers. But at the end of the day, voters in a city famous for its business sense pulled out their abacuses, tallied the figures and noticed they didn’t add up.

What’s next? Yoshimura is expected to take over the party but he’s got his own challenges, starting with a spike in COVID-19 cases in the prefecture. He also has to focus on preparations for the 2025 Expo. Matsui, meanwhile, must figure out how to pay for Expo-related municipal projects now that revenue from an Osaka-based casino resort he once hoped for will not materialize anytime soon, if ever.

But Osaka Ishin and Nippon Ishin members face a more fundamental problem, which is finding a new reason for their existence. Nippon Ishin could be in trouble when the next general election is called. Some members might run as independents or even join the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Matsui himself was once an LDP member.

If that happens, Osaka Ishin and Nippon Ishin, formed with a bang nearly 10 years ago, could go out with a whimper, serving as a cautionary tale for those elsewhere in Japan anxious to start their own local political parties.

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

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