Yesterday, the charismatic mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, announced he was forming a new national political party, and the race for Japan’s next government seemed to officially begin. Hashimoto’s unconventional entry into national politics has galvanized the Japanese media. But beyond his ambition of reforming Japanese politics, the policy agenda of this much heralded new Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) remains unclear.
Hashimoto’s popularity is attributable to several factors. First, Hashimoto is an energetic and articulate speaker, with a direct style and a flair for the cameras as well as social media. Hashimoto has a law degree and a previous career in broadcasting. More than just telegenic, he also is a master of the dramatic political gesture. He gave up the more prestigious Osaka governorship to campaign for the mayor’s office, a savvy move designed to reinforce his view that politicians must move closer to the interests of voters. Once elected, however, he immediately visited all of the major political parties in Tokyo to announce his arrival and demonstrate that his ambition was, in fact, to shake up their conventional premises of how to run Japan. The media, of course, loved it. Japan’s national party politicians were less enthused.
Second, he has taken direct aim at Japan’s national politics—and politicians—and the Japanese public is enjoying the show. Poll after poll in Japan shows diminishing support for the establishment big parties, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the once ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Despite expectations that they will make a comeback in the next Lower House election, the opposition conservatives, the LDP, are losing support as internal tensions spilled over into the public eye. The uncomfortable resignation of LDP party president Sadakazu Tanigaki this week only reinforced the notion that personal ambition rather than public interest would be the name of the game in the next election. The ruling DPJ is faring no better. Indeed their poll numbers are even lower, and the prime minister’s approval rating—like that of every one of his predecessors—runs only around 25 to 30 percent, depending on which newspaper you read.
Finally, after Japan’s “triple disasters” last year, more and more Japanese believe that their national political system just does not work. Hashimoto’s idea of reform is a fundamental restructuring from the bottom up. Local autonomy and bottom-up reform has a long tradition in Japanese politics, but Hashimoto’s deliberate appeal to the late 19th century transformation that reinstated the emperor and modernized the nation speaks to a broader aspiration in Japan for rejuvenation. The Meiji era idea of “restoring” good governance by drawing on the intellect and experience of Japan’s regions—rather than the corrupt and stalemated center of the Tokugawa Shogunate—brings an added dose of nationalist excitement to his campaign rhetoric. As he said when he announced his new national party, “Our glorious country Japan has fallen into a state of decline. Let’s fight together…to once again revive a glorious Japan.”
One thing is clear—everyone in Japan expects that Hashimoto and his new fledgling seven-member political party will have a strong influence on Japan’s next government. His success will lie in the ability to manage the mechanics of Japan’s electoral system. Can he field sufficient candidates? Many believe his party will elect candidates in the eleven proportional block districts (180 seats), where the brand name of his new Nippon Ishin no Kai will be sufficient. But can his new party compete in the remaining single member constituencies that sustain the DPJ and LDP advantage? Speculation abounds about his chances, with the media projecting he will win anywhere from 40 to 100 seats to become in effect Japan’s third major political force in the 480 seat Diet.
But the real question will be whether Japan’s voters want to experiment yet again with an unknown and untested reform party. Disappointment over the difficulties encountered with the DPJ government when it came into power in 2009 remains palpable. Expectations were high then, just as they are growing now. Hashimoto’s reform vision is even more intense: get rid of the Upper House, cut the seats in parliament in half, and have direct election of the prime minister by the Japanese public. He—like so many before him—argues for getting the bureaucrats out of the voters’ way in the policy debate, and ending what he calls the “ceremony” of elections that only protect the seats of incumbents in the parliament. Hashimoto argues that the only way to decide an issue where opinion is divided is through electoral contest, and he wants to make Japan’s elections count. Instead of “restoring” the emperor, his appeal is to restore Japan’s popular sovereignty.
As intoxicating as that sounds, however, his policy agenda remains as yet unformed, and at times fluid. More on that tomorrow.