Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s bid to reorganize the city into five special districts was voted down in an unprecedented referendum Sunday. The failure of the project on which Hashimoto bet his political fortunes and his declared exit from politics when his term ends in December are expected to have major repercussions that extend to national politics, including the future course of Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), which he co-founded.
But that aside, the key question posed by the aborted project — whether the current administrative structure in western Japan’s largest city serves the local residents’ interests — should continue to be discussed. The narrow victory for the opponents in the vote — 694,844 for and 705,585 against in the city of 2.1 million voters — indicates that a large portion of Osaka residents are not happy with the city’s status quo.
Sunday’s referendum was the first of its kind in which local residents voted on the future shape of a major city. Hashimoto’s project, modeled after Tokyo and its 23 wards, called for breaking up the city of Osaka into five special districts that would come directly under the umbrella of Osaka Prefecture.
The mayor, who first entered politics as governor of Osaka in 2008 and pushed for the city’s reorganization since 2010, argued that the dual structure of the city of Osaka and Osaka Prefecture has led to duplicate administrative services and wasteful spending, which he blamed for Osaka’s long-term economic decline and fiscal woes. He and his local group, Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka), said abolishing the city to enable a division of labor between the prefecture, which would take care of region-wide development and infrastructure projects, and the special districts, to be tasked with day-to-day services for local residents, would contribute to reviving the local economy. Opponents charged that breaking up with the city would make matters worse for residents and that inefficiencies and duplicate services can be eliminated without changing the administrative structure at a huge cost.
It is not clear if local residents had enough information about the project to make a sound judgment. The referendum had the aspect of a vote of confidence in the mayor, who made it clear that he would retire from politics if the project is voted down. Hashimoto admitted Sunday night that his explanations about the project had been insufficient.
In the end, Osaka voters may have felt that administrative reorganization would not be a cure-all for the city’s problems. But that does not mean that keeping the status quo is the best solution. Local politicians — both those who championed and criticized the project — should continue to explore what’s then needed to reform the local administration.
Hashimoto, who confirmed that he would retire when his term ends in December, has been a unique presence in Japanese politics. While Hashimoto’s main agenda remained Osaka’s administrative reforms, his popularity and aggressive style drew lawmakers from other parties, and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Renovation Party), which he created prior to the 2012 Lower House election, developed into the third-largest force in the Diet — even though he never won a Diet seat himself. After a breakup and further realignment with other forces, Ishin no To is the second-largest opposition party.
While the Osaka chapter of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party led the campaign against Hashimoto’s bid to reorganize the city, some key members of the Abe administration were more supportive of the project — in the apparent hope that if the project gets the go ahead, Hashimoto, who is close to Abe on many policy issues, and Ishin no To would make a crucial ally in Abe’s push to amend the Constitution. Now with the Osaka project voted down and Hashimoto set to exit from politics, there is a chance that Ishin no To may move toward an alliance with the top opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan — a prospect that Hashimoto disfavors, citing the support the DPJ gets from labor unions. The “Ishin” brand political force — which has come to occupy a sizable presence in national politics — is also at a crossroads.