As Election Nears, Japan's Politics Turn Sour

It has never been a secret that Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s gangster father was a yakuza who hailed from a social underclass that has often been discriminated against in past years. Newspaper and magazine articles have alluded to this without making much of an issue out of it. Until now. With Japan’s national elections looming in the not-to-distant future, the political atmosphere is taking on sensitive overtones.

The mayor, who aspires to turn his regional-based political party into a national force, went ballistic recently over a magazine article that he said delved unfairly into his family’s past using terms that in other countries might ban as “hate speech” on the cover. It was the first article in the Shukan Asahi magazine in what was to be a four-part expose of his background.

What riled Hashimoto was the magazine’s decision to print a variation of his name – Hashishita – on the cover. Hashimoto is a common Japanese name, but the Chinese characters that comprise the name are open to some ambiguity. The mayor was not upset that his name was misspelled but that the magazine deliberately used a variant associated with an outcast class.

The magazine printed the name in katakana, a Japanese alphabet, just to make sure that nobody missed the import of the name. Hashimoto loudly proclaimed the series character assassination and the term a kind of hate speech that might be banned in other countries.

The Shukan Asahi is a weekly publication of the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s three most important and widely read newspapers. Hashimoto has had a running feud with Asahi, which tends to lean to the left in its coverage while the mayor is mostly conservative. In this instance, the Asahi apologized for using the term and canned the series.

The burakumin are a class of Japanese stigmatized since feudal times because they engaged in work that Buddhists consider unclean or associated with death, such as being undertakers, executioners or leather workers. They were relegated to isolated villages (the term literally means “village people”) or to urban ghettos.

Hashimoto’s father reportedly was born in one such village near Osaka. Like so many in the stigmatized class, he drifted into the underworld of the yakuza. Later he committed suicide when Hashimoto was in the 2nd grade; he and his mother moved to Osaka. It is unclear whether their neighborhood was a burakumin ghetto.

The future mayor went to Waseda University in Tokyo, one of Japan’s most prestigious universities, obtained a law degree, became a television personality and a politician. He looks on himself, with good reason, as a person who pulled himself up by his own efforts. As mayor he has even promised to end some of the subsidies to burakumin that are made to compensate for prejudice against them.

Ironically, the burakumin are more prevalent in the Kansai area of Japan (Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe) which is also Hashimoto’s political base. Relatively few live in Tokyo or to the northeast. Over time, prejudice has abated; there are a couple burakumin in parliament, and one served as chief cabinet secretary in a previous government.

Hashimoto and his allies control the governments of Osaka and Osaka prefecture, and they plan to field some 200-300 candidates in the next general election, which must be held by the summer but probably earlier. Some pundits give them a chance to win 50 seats or more in their region denying the two major parties a majority.

But the mayor isn’t the only in intriguing new politician on the scene, if the term “new” can be applied to the 80-year-old Shintaro Ishihara. He recently resigned as governor of Tokyo after serving more than 13 years in the post. He said he wanted to enter national politics at the head of some new but as of now unnamed political party.

The two would seem to be natural allies. Both are conservatives as the Japanese understand the term, which mostly means such nationalist objectives as dropping the no war Article 9 of the constitution and promoting “values education” in the schools. They also have their bases in the country’s two largest cities.

Nevertheless, Ishihara has not shown great interest in merging his projected party with Hashimoto’s new Japan Restoration Party JRP). While both are nationalists, Hashimoto does not share the other’s visceral dislike of the Chinese. Indeed, as governor he has visited China several times and happily sponsored an Osaka exhibit during the 2010 World’s Fair in Shanghai.

The Tokyo governor opposes phasing out nuclear power, while Hashimoto is for a nuclear power phase-out (or at least he was; his views have modified, and some members of his party oppose the phase-out). But there may be a more fundamental reason why they won’t unite into a third force: Japan isn’t big enough for two enormous egos.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government continues to lose popularity according to opinion polls – a mere 17.8 percent say the government is doing a good job. It also continues to bleed members of parliament to other parties. Recently, two resigned to join a small splinter party headed by the Mayor of Nagoya.

That leaves Noda with a mere six-vote majority in parliament. Noda promised to hold an election “soon” to win opposition support for his move to raise the consumption (sales) tax. But “soon” was three months ago, and the opposition is getting restless. If Noda loses his slim majority, the opposition could force an election by winning a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

The current session of the Diet still has important tasks, including passing legislation authorizing the government to sell more bonds to cover the one half of the national budget that is financed through borrowing and to correct voter discrepancies in the electoral districts. The former is needed to keep the government solvent, the latter to prevent the results of the next election being nullified as unconstitutional.

Noda wants to stave off an election as long as possible, hoping that something develops to turn things around for the beleaguered Democratic Party of Japan. He is going to Moscow in December. He may come back with some concessions on the vexing territorial dispute over several islands north of Hokkaido occupied by Russia since the end of World War II.

Any real progress in the issue of the islands the Japanese call the Northern Territories could lead to a signing of a formal treaty ending World War II hostilities, and that in turn could open up lucrative business opportunities for Japanese companies in Siberia. That might be enough to give his government a much needed boost.