West Wind from Osaka May Alter the Political Climate in 2012Politics
In 2012, amid efforts to reform Japan’s tax system and social security program, the political spotlight will be on the developments leading up to the dissolution of the lower house of the Diet. This year, however, only observing events in Tokyo will not be enough to gauge the political situation in Japan: Another important factor will be the political happenings in the Kansai region, particularly the actions of Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru.
A speech delivered by Hashimoto on January 20 at a party hosted by the Osaka Restoration Association, the local political party he represents, reverberated throughout the political world on the eve of the regular Diet session.
In the speech Hashimoto stated that a mere 5% increase in the consumption tax could not revitalize Japan and stressed the need for reform by shifting from the existing prefecture system to a system of regional blocs. Hashimoto also clarified his intention to establish a “political preparatory school” with as many as 400 participants, over which he himself would preside as principal; and he indicated a strong desire to field numerous Osaka Restoration Association candidates for the next lower house election.
Hashimoto, whose proposed regional system has been dubbed the “One Osaka” plan, was elected mayor of Osaka last November, defeating the incumbent mayor who had opposed the plan. In seeking election as mayor, Hashimoto vacated his office as governor of Osaka Prefecture, and an Osaka Restoration Association candidate capitalized on the movement’s momentum to win the mayoral election.
The Impetus for a Political Realignment
Japan’s framework for local government is a two-tiered system comprising 47 prefectures, which constitute large self-governing entities, and locally governed cities, towns, and villages. Established in 1890, the system has remained basically unchanged for more than 120 years. Hashimoto’s plan calls for Osaka Prefecture to be converted into a newly established Osaka Metropolis, which would exercise broad, unified administrative powers. The prefecture’s two major cities, Osaka and Sakai, would be divided into a number of locally administered municipalities, or special wards. This is intended to eliminate administrative overlap inherent to the existing framework, in which the city of Osaka and Osaka Prefecture are separate entities.
For Hashimoto’s plan to be implemented, Japan’s Diet would have to enact new legislation. By indicating his readiness to field candidates in the forthcoming lower house election, Hashimoto is pressuring the national parties to fall in line. Although he has denied any intention to enter the national political arena, he is a popular figure nationwide. In a public opinion poll asking people to name those considered best qualified to be leaders, 20% of the respondents put Hashimoto at the top of the list. For this reason alone, there is strong possibility that existing political parties will undergo a realignment if the Osaka Restoration Association enters a large number of candidates in many of the 300 elections for single-seat constituencies. In a television appearance, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko sought to forestall Hashimoto’s influence, characterizing his words and actions as “a bit theatrical.” This is one of several indications of how apprehensive the Democratic Party of Japan is with regard to the Hashimoto phenomenon.
The continued concentration of political and economic power in Tokyo has sapped the vitality of Japan’s outlying areas. The existing framework has always been highly susceptible to conflicts of authority between prefectures and major cities. Even without completely buying into Hashimoto’s personal political outlook, it seems necessary to recognize that Japan is entering a period of change marked by the need to restructure its regional system. (January 27, 2012)(Originally written in Japanese.)