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In-depth The New Political Forces Emerging in Japan
From Local Juggernaut to National Leader—Can Hashimoto Make the Leap?

Machidori Satoshi [Profile]


Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru is one of several dynamic young local leaders bent on building a national organization capable of making a splash in the next general election. Analyzing this phenomenon in the context of Japan’s dual political system, Machidori Satoshi asks whether the charismatic, confrontational style that has served Hashimoto and his ilk so well at the local level can translate into success in the national arena.

Regionally based political movements are fast emerging as the focal point of Japanese politics. The entrenched national parties can no longer ignore the momentum of local groups like the Osaka Restoration Association, led by Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru; Genzei Nippon, the tax-cut party led by Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi; and Genzei Nippon’s sister party Aichi Is Top of Japan, headed by Aichi Governor Ōmura Hideaki.

Of all these dynamic local leaders, the most closely watched is undoubtedly Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru, whose rise has been truly meteoric. It was just four years ago, in January 2008, that Hashimoto was elected to his previous position as governor of Osaka Prefecture, winning his very first election. And it was only in April 2010 that he established his own organization, the Osaka Restoration Association, as a major force in the prefectural assembly. Today Hashimoto is the most popular political figure in Japan, and his party has begun grooming candidates for the coming general election. In a country where local executives rarely make the leap to national politics, the prospect has captured the public’s imagination.

The First Regional Parties to Make Inroads on the National Scene

To be sure this is not the first time local politicians have influenced national politics. The central government’s move to embrace stronger social and environmental policies in the 1970s—under the rule of the fundamentally conservative, pro-business Liberal Democratic Party—was in large part fueled by the election of progressives to key local executive offices (the best known example being Minobe Ryōkichi, who was first elected governor of Tokyo in 1967). Hosokawa Morihiro, leader of the eight-party coalition that briefly ousted the LDP in 1993, developed his ideas on political reform as governor of Kumamoto Prefecture. Similarly, Takemura Masayoshi, another reform politician who played a pivotal role in that 1993 “coup,” was elected to the Diet after serving as governor of Shiga Prefecture.

Given this history, we should not be too surprised to see dynamic local politicians like Hashimoto and Kawamura making a splash at the national level. The public’s frustration and disillusionment with national politics has deepened further because of the prolonged gridlock in the National Diet and the disappointing performance by the Democratic Party of Japan since it broke the LDP’s grip on power in 2009. The voters thirst for a hero, and local leaders like Hashimoto answer that need with their charismatic individualism and appealing policy ideas. A similar national mood paved the way for the Hosokawa government in 1993 and the cabinet of LDP maverick Koizumi Jun’ichirō in 2001.

But Hashimoto, Kawamura, and Ōmura all differ fundamentally from the examples cited above in that they are all founders of regional political parties that they are now using to expand their influence nationwide. It is not unprecedented for a mayor or prefectural governor to form his or her own local party or other political grouping; one might point to current Shiga Prefecture Governor Kada Yukiko as a recent example. But there is virtually no precedent in post–World War II Japanese politics for what Hashimoto, Kawamura, and Ōmura are attempting to do—namely, expand their local parties into nationwide organizations capable of making rapid inroads in national politics. And there is a growing sense that they may well succeed.

How can we explain the sudden rise of local political celebrities who seek to use their regional organizations as a springboard for larger national ambitions? Can they succeed in their quest? In this article, I hope to answer these questions by analyzing the existing political systems and changing political circumstances that have set the stage for the Hashimoto phenomenon.

A Systemic National-Local Disconnect

For a nation with a unitary, or non-federal, system, Japan is notable for the stark difference between its national and local political systems. While the central government is structured as a parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature, local governments have unicameral legislatures and are organized on the principle of the separation of executive and legislative powers.

This difference is the product of post–World War II reforms that left in place the basic framework of prewar government. At the national level, the postwar Constitution inherited the prewar parliamentary system while clarifying the cabinet’s responsibility to the Diet. The bicameral system was also a legacy of the Meiji Constitution, with the House of Councillors replacing the old House of Peers. Local government under the Meiji Constitution revolved around prefectural governors appointed by the central government (mayors were chosen by the home minister and the executives of towns and villages by their municipal assemblies), together with popularly elected local assemblies. After the war, this system was replaced by one predicated on the separation of executive and legislative power, in which local executives and legislative assemblies alike were popularly elected in separate ballots. The result of this historical process was a systemic disconnect between local and national government.

One outcome of this disconnect can be seen in the fact that the LDP, which held the reins of national government virtually unchallenged from 1955 until 1993, frequently found itself in the opposition in local politics, particularly in the major metropolitan areas. The Japan Socialist Party and other left-leaning parties, consigned to the perennial opposition in the National Diet, were able to make the most of direct mayoral and gubernatorial elections by fielding charismatic candidates with strong voter appeal. In many cases, this resulted in a divided government, since the local assembly was often dominated by conservative politicians. But local executives have several advantages over the prime minister in such a situation. First, the system affords them considerable power, including the sole authority to submit the budget. Second, because local assembly members are elected mainly from medium-sized or large multiple-member districts, party cohesion and discipline within the assemblies is relatively weak (rival LDP factions often compete within a local assembly). And finally, the bureaucrats responsible for the administration of local government are all essentially members of the mayor’s or governor’s staff; as a result, progressive and independent executives were usually able to achieve at least some of their policy goals.

At the same time, Japan’s central and local governments had strong administrative and political linkages that created considerable interdependence despite the systemic disconnect. Administratively, the central government engaged in networking and exchange with local government personnel largely through the Ministry of Home Affairs (since absorbed into the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications), while also providing funding for local governments by approving the issue of local government bonds and distributing tax revenues via the local allocation tax and various grants. Politically, Diet members were obliged to maintain close ties with local politicians in order to sustain a strong support base back in their constituencies. During the years when lower-house members were elected from multiple-member districts, several LDP politicians typically competed with one another in each district, which meant that party support alone was insufficient to secure election. LDP members of the prefectural assembly were expected to deliver votes in return for the “pork” that LDP Diet members delivered to the constituency in the form of funding for local projects.

For many years this administrative and political interdependence limited the autonomy of local governments and minimized the gap between national and local policy despite the discrepancy between the two political systems. But in the 1990s, that began to change.

The Center Cannot Hold

Electoral and administrative reforms that have been implemented since the 1990s have eroded the nonsystemic linkages that formerly helped keep local government in step with the central government. Personnel networking and exchange have continued unabated, but other administrative linkages have weakened considerably as a result of decentralization policies adopted incrementally, beginning in the early 1990s. These reforms have transferred more political authority and fiscal resources to the prefectures, permitted prefectural governments to issue bonds without pre-approval from the central government, and expanded the authority of local governments to impose their own taxes. The mechanism of political interdependence also began to break down as a result of electoral reforms that replaced the lower house’s multiple-member districts with a combination of single-member districts and large-bloc proportional representation, beginning with the general election of 1996. This had the effect of increasing the relative importance of the national party organizations in general elections while reducing the role of individual campaign organizations and local politicians. In addition, a new round of municipal mergers implemented around 2000, together with administrative reforms carried out at the local level, drastically reduced the number of local assembly members, making it difficult for those who remained to double as agents and campaign organizers for Diet members. And finally, when the LDP fell from power in 2009, this system of mutual back scratching—part of the apparatus that kept the LDP in power for so long—lost its raison d’être.

As the nonsystemic linkages between central and local government weaken in this manner, the systemic discrepancies are making themselves felt to a greater extent. Nowadays, prefectural and municipal executives have greater latitude than ever to pursue their policy priorities, and those priorities are more likely to conflict with the policies of the ruling parties that make up the national government and the expectations of the central bureaucracy.

This trend received an added push around the end of the 1990s, with the appearance of “local manifestos”—political platforms independent from those of the national political parties. Ever since Matsuzawa Shigefumi was elected governor of Kanagawa Prefecture in 2003 on the basis of his local manifesto, such documents have been a popular and potent tool among local executives seeking to drum up popular support for their reforms. But the power of the local manifesto goes beyond voter appeal. It can also strengthen the leadership of the executive in the policy-making process at a time of when economic and demographic trends are creating a serious fiscal crunch in many localities, forcing local governments to make tough choices and set policy priorities. Local assemblies, which typically lack the party unity and resources to formulate systematic policies of their own, can do little to resist a popular executive with a strong manifesto.

The upshot is that recent years have seen a trend toward both greater autonomy in local government and a more dominant role by the executive within the government. These tendencies are nowhere more evident than in Hashimoto’s meteoric career. Hashimoto also issued a manifesto when he ran for governor of Osaka Prefecture in 2008, but what best distinguishes his leadership style is the way he dealt with the prefectural bureaucracy and assembly after his election. Determined to tighten control over the prefecture’s civil servants, he exercised his personnel authority to the full and ordered huge pay cuts. Hashimoto won the 2008 election with backing from the Osaka prefectural chapters of the LDP and New Kōmeitō Party, but after his victory there were cases where he came into conflict with veteran LDP assembly members. Ultimately he succeeded in establishing his own ruling party, the Osaka Restoration Association, with the help of a significant number of LDP defectors.

Hashimoto Tōru (center) flanked by Kawamura Takashi (right) and Ōmura Hideaki (December 20, 2010; photo: Sankei Shimbun). Kawamura was first elected in 1993 to the House of Representatives as a candidate for the Japan New Party (founded by Hosokawa Morihiro). In April 2009, while still in his fifth term in office, he resigned his position as a Diet member to run for mayor of Nagoya on a platform that included the pledge to reduce by 10% the city residential tax. Following his election as mayor, his tax reduction bill was approved by the city assembly in November 2009, but the assembly, in March 2010, passed a revised bill to limit the tax cut to just one year. Kawamura was at loggerheads with the city assembly, as a result of his effort to make the tax cut permanent and to reduce salaries of assembly members, and to overcome their opposition he spearheaded a petition drive to dissolve the assembly and hold a recall election. After gaining enough signatures for the recall election, Kawamura resigned his post as mayor in order to “seek the people’s mandate.” In February 2011, a “triple election” was held—a mayoral election, a referendum on whether to dissolve the city assembly, and the regularly scheduled Aichi gubernatorial election. In the election, the Genzei Nippon party headed by Kawamura fielded a candidate for governor, Ōmura Hideaki, who resigned his position as House of Representatives member for the LDP. Ōmura won the gubanotiral election, Kawamura was elected mayor, and the referendum calling for the dissolution of the Nagoya city assembly was approved by voters. In the assembly election held the following month, the Genzei Nippon candidates won the largest number of seats, surpassing the number of seats won, respectively, by the LDP, DPJ, and New Kōmeitō candidates.


Can the Local Parties Succeed Nationally?

In the foregoing I have argued that a key factor behind the recent emergence of dynamic locally based politicians and political parties is the erosion of nonsystemic linkages between national and local politics, starting in the 1990s, which has allowed the systemic disconnect between central and local government to manifest itself more clearly. Local governments have never been simply outposts or agents of the national government, but in recent years they have realized more fully than ever before their potential to function independently, and today their distinct identity as local entities is unmistakable. Hashimoto and Kawamura are able to promise bold, sweeping policy changes and make progress toward fulfilling those promises precisely because they have been directly elected to powerful executive positions at a time when political authority and financial resources are shifting from the state to the local governments.

Still, the legacy from an earlier era, when nonsystemic linkages between central and local politics were much stronger, lives on. This is why many politicians and members of the media are inclined to portray regional development as harbingers of national trends to come. In the days of one-party LDP rule, there was a fairly widespread notion that the election of anti-LDP or independent politicians to top executive offices in local government “sent a message” to the central government, and this is also how progressive and independent local executives viewed their own role. In the final analysis, those holding this view erred in minimizing the unique political factors and dynamics specific to each locale. Much of the commentary surrounding Hashimoto’s Osaka Restoration Association and Kawamura’s Genzei Nippon derives from the same outdated thinking.

Of course, by insisting on interpreting the statements and actions of politicians like Hashimoto and Kawamura as leading political indicators for the nation as a whole, Diet politicians and the Tokyo-based media have nourished high hopes among voters for these movements and have in effect augmented their political impact. However, if it is true, as I have suggested, that the success of these local juggernauts is rooted in the power of their offices and the growing political autonomy of local government, it follows that they are likely to have a hard time duplicating that success at the national level, where the systemic structures that have created such political opportunities simply do not exist.

Let us examine this proposition more closely. The key elements that distinguish the political system at the national level from that at the local level are the parliamentary system and the bicameral legislature. Under a parliamentary system, the prime minister is designated by a majority vote in the Diet (in practice, the House of Representatives) and must continue to command majority support in the lower house to remain in office. As a rule, the only Diet member who can secure the support of the majority of lower-house members is the head of the majority party. The electoral system adopted in 1994, which replaced the old multiple-member lower-house districts with a combination of single-member districts and large-bloc proportional representation, strongly favors the two largest parties and makes it quite difficult for smaller parties to mount a challenge in the House of Representatives.

The House of Councillors (which is critical for pursuing any kind legislative agenda, if not for forming a government) is an even tougher nut to crack. Upper-house members are elected for six-year terms, with half the members up for election every three years, a schedule that prevents any massive shift in party makeup as a result of a single election. The electoral system for the upper house is a complex mix of single-member districts, multiple-member districts, and nationwide open-list proportional representation.(*) All of this makes it virtually impossible for an upstart party to quickly seize a majority of seats in the upper house.

This means that the only conceivable way in which Hashimoto could form his own cabinet as head of the Osaka Restoration Association (or some other new national party) would be by first forging a coalition with either the DPJ, the LDP, or both. And because of the relatively high degree of party discipline in the Diet, as compared with local assemblies, as well as the intense scrutiny of the public and the media, negotiating an agreement between parties is an arduous and time-consuming process. A coalition, by its very nature, can only take action on policies that have the support of all its constituent parties. Moreover, in a coalition between a new party and an established party, the former will inevitably find itself at a disadvantage in terms of experience and available talent. The ORA has already begun to show signs of inconsistency and fragmentation in its policies—a problem frequently seen in new parties. As a national party and a member of the ruling coalition, it would be subject to unrelenting challenges from opposition parties and the media on each point. Under these circumstances, it seems highly unlikely that a politician like Hashimoto Tōru could continue to display the bold leadership and prompt action that won him such a following as governor and mayor.

Perhaps this is why the ORA’s policy manifesto “Senchū Hassaku”—named after the famous eight-point plan issued by Sakamoto Ryōma (1836–1867) calling for a new form of government in Japan, leading to the Meiji Restoration that toppled the Tokugawa shogunate—proposes the direct election of the prime minister by popular vote and abolishment of the House of Councillors. These reforms would bring national politics closer to local politics from a systemic viewpoint and presumably make it easier for the prime minister to control the policy process—the way prefectural governors do at the local level—even under the current lower-house electoral system.

However, even supposing for the moment that such a drastic overhaul of the system is feasible, its consequences would be hard to predict. Popular election of the prime minister in particular carries major risks. In Israel, which has a multiparty system and elects members of the legislature by party-list proportional representation, direct election of the prime minister was adopted in 1992 in hopes of producing more stable governments, but the reform failed in its objective. Even with a unicameral legislature, it was impossible to form a stable government without entering into a coalition with various other parties, and this placed tight constraints on the prime minister’s leadership. When popularly elected prime ministers are obliged to enter into coalitions, they find it difficult to fulfill their popular mandate, and when that happens, the voters are apt to lose faith in the prime minister and the political process as a whole. There is no guarantee that Japan would not find itself in a similar situation. This is the risk of a popularly elected prime minister in a multiparty system. In a two-party system, meanwhile, popular election of the prime minister would be little more than a confirmation of the outcome of the majority party’s internal elections and would have little meaning.

The Limitations of Charismatic Leadership

I began this discussion by pointing out that the dynamic new political forces currently capturing the spotlight in Japan are locally based parties that are attempting to develop into nationwide organizations capable of influencing national policy. I then explained why this transition is likely to be a difficult one owing to crucial differences in the central and local political systems.

Whether or not one finds politicians like Hashimoto and Kawamura to one’s taste, the power of their personalities is undeniable. Nor are they mere rabble-rousers; they offer clear-cut policy alternatives that make a certain amount of sense and resonate with many voters. This combination of personal charisma and clarity of policy makes for highly effective leadership in local government, with its strong, unitary executive and unicameral legislature. But the fundamentally different structure of national politics—built on a parliamentary system and a bicameral legislature—does not lend itself to the same style of leadership on the part of the prime minister. As for the local parties Hashimoto and the others lead, even if they were to take the nation by storm in the next election, the political constraints of coalition government and a recalcitrant upper house would prevent them from capitalizing on their momentum and, in all likelihood, turn their success into a disappointing anticlimax.

Beyond the election prospects of Hashimoto and Kawamura as individual cases, however, this trend raises interesting issues concerning the development of political leadership at the national level. For local politics to serve as a training ground for national politics, the two need to be structurally similar. In the United States, state governors form a major component of the talent pool from which presidential candidates are drawn, primarily because the office of governor parallels that of the president in terms of both duties and the executive’s relationship with the legislature. In Japan, with its parliamentary system and bicameral legislature, it is hard to imagine a situation in which charismatic local leaders could make rapid inroads nationally and put bold policies into practice nationwide.

Given that our basic system of government is unlikely to change radically in the foreseeable future, perhaps we should be asking how we can create a “farm system” to foster leader and a system to propose policies, both suited to the system of government we have. The parliamentary system lends itself to steady, systematic policy making and implementation under the leadership of a unified party. By its very nature, the system anticipates that policy changes will come through a change of government that brings in a new ruling party, thus offering few opportunities for flashy, charismatic leadership. That being the case, surely it would be more meaningful for political parties to revamp their internal governance with a view to promoting within the organization leadership development and the systematic presentation of policy, than to keep on waiting for another charismatic politician to take the helm.

(Originally written in Japanese. Title background photograph: Hashimoto Tōru [left] lending his support to Kawamura Takashi [right], the mayor of Nagoya, who led the petition drive for a referendum to dissolve the city assembly [September 20, 2010]. Courtesy Sankei Shimbun.)


(*) ^ An electoral system in which voters cast their ballot either for the name of a party or for the name of a candidate on one of the parties’ candidate lists. Seats are allocated proportionately to each party on the basis of the total of party and individual votes they receive, and the ranking of the candidates on the lists from which the parties fill their allotted seats is determined by the votes received by the individual candidates.

  • [2012.07.25]

Professor at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Law. Earned his PhD in political science after doing graduate work at Kyoto University and taught at schools including Osaka University before arriving at his present post. Specializes in comparative political studies and American politics. His works include Seitō sisutemu to seitō soshiki (Party Systems and Party Organizations) and Daigisei minshushugi: “Min’i” to “seijika” o toinaosu (Representative Democracy: A Reconsideration of the Public Will and Politicians).

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