Osaka's Bombshell Mayoral Vote

The colorless politicians in the Nagata-cho, Japan’s Capitol Hill, can only look on the recent landslide election of Toru Hashimoto as mayor of Osaka with a mixture of envy and dread – envy of his obvious voter appeal and charisma and dread that his special election magic won’t stay bottled up in his Kansai area bailiwick.

Hashimoto was elected mayor of Japan’s second city with a 60 percent majority on Nov. 27 against an incumbent mayor who enjoyed the support of both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A close political ally was similarly elevated to become governor of the surrounding prefecture.

If this were South Korea and Hashimoto had been elected mayor of Seoul so resoundingly, he would immediately be considered a front-runner to become president. That is the case with the independent activist Park Won-soon, following his surprise election victory in South Korea’s capital. He too triumphed against the country’s entrenched political establishment.

Japan has a parliamentary form of government, so it is not so easy for a prefectural governor or mayor to move to the top job, no matter how popular. If Hashimoto entered parliament with one of the two main parties, he would be relegated to the back benches and slowly work his way up to prime minister through the various ministries.

Or conversely he could form his own political party and contest national elections as its leader possibly emerging as a balance-of-power kingmaker or even as premier himself. For the moment, he heads his own regional group is called the Osaka Restoration Association. It would be easy to substitute the word “Japan” for “Osaka” from the party name and go national.

He has already said he would consider fielding Restoration Association candidates in the upcoming national elections, which must be held by the summer of 2013 when the current government’s term of office ends. Already several smaller parties in the Diet would be happy to tap into the voter discontent Hashimoto demonstrated so convincingly. At the same time, some kind of alliance would give Hashimoto’s regional party a foothold in the national parliament.

For the moment, however, Hashimoto has a more parochial objective, which is to merge the city of Osaka with 32 surrounding cities to form a city-prefectural government entity similar to Tokyo. The old “City” of Tokyo was abolished in 1943 as a war measure and merged with the surrounding territory.

Such a merger, he argues, would give Osaka the kind of heft that would allow it to compete on more equal terms with the capital. Osaka has 2.6 million people inside the city limits and about 8 million in the prefecture. Add Kyoto and Kobe and the figure comes to about 20 million. Tokyo has 13 million in its prefecture and 33 million in the surrounding metropolis.

Moreover, Osaka has been lagging behind Tokyo in terms of economic development despite the presence of such major companies as Panasonic and Sharp. The March 11 earthquake and nuclear crisis also prompted some companies to move their headquarters, at least temporarily, to Osaka. Unemployment in the city is about 7 percent compared with less than 5 for the nation as a whole.

With control of the city and the prefectural governments plus many allies in the prefectural assembly, Hashimoto has most of the tools he needs to affect the changes. His merger would still have to get approval of relevant ministries at the Tokyo level and the parliament, where at the moment he has no followers. That could change.

It might be hard to get national okay, not just for parochial interests but because the government may not want to hand Hashimoto a success. They are fully aware that the voters are restless and critical of both national parties. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s approval ratings at 44 percent are holding up pretty well, but the two previous DPJ leaders’ numbers fell into the teens before they were unceremoniously ousted from power.

In Noda, Japan has as a leader a man who self-effacingly described himself as a “dojo” or a mud slug. The party might like to appropriate for itself some of Hashimoto’s charisma. Moreover, the Democratic Party presented itself as a “reform” party in the 2009 landslide election but, in fact, hasn’t done much reforming in its two and a half years in power.

The election in Osaka eerily duplicated a similar political upheaval that took place in Nagoya, central Japan’s third largest metropolis, earlier this year when Takashi Kawamura swept into the mayor’s office with 70 percent of the vote. A key ally, Hideoki Omura, took over as governor of the surrounding Aichi prefecture.

In some respects Kawamura’s views resemble those of the Tea Party in the US in that he campaigned for cutting pensions and salaries for city employees. While the politicians in Tokyo argue endlessly over whether to raise the national sales tax (currently 5 percent) to fund social programs, he advocates cutting a percentage point, His political party calls itself Tax Cut Japan.

Hashimoto is a lawyer by training and a former television commentator. He had gained prominence when he won the Osaka prefectural governor’s office nearly four years ago. He resigned that position to run for the seemingly lower post of mayor. Aged only 42, he has a long political career ahead of him and plenty of time to effect any changes he wants to make and move on to other reforms.

One of the frustrating things about Japanese politics is how the voters often elevate attractive and capable figures to head local governments (which unlike the national government are subject to direct elections, much as American states). But they tend to end their careers at that level since there is no easy path from prefectural to the national government.

The results of local elections in two of Japan’s main population centers, however, show that voters are dissatisfied with the kind of choices – or non-choices – that they have at the national level. Recent parliamentary elections have been subject to wild swings, and it by no means out of the question that Hashimoto could lead a major realignment.