The New Political Forces Emerging in Japan

What to Make of Hashimoto Tōru?


Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru has been grabbing a major share of the political limelight in Japan. Is he a reformer or a rabble-rouser? A journalist who has been covering him closely offers a look at the essence of this charismatic figure.

Just who is Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru? All of Japan’s media organs are trying to determine his true identity. Is he a genuine reformer, or is he a demagogue of unrivaled caliber? Will he be a flash in the pan, or can he make it as far as the prime minister’s seat? His unorthodox image as a politician has led some people to label him a monster. This much is clear: The history of Japanese politics has rarely seen such a fuss over a local leader.

Always Conscious of the Media

Hashimoto became governor of Osaka Prefecture (with the second-largest economy among Japan’s 47 prefectures) in February 2008 at the age of 38. Since then he has been a constant source of news. Why is this? As one of the journalists following his words and deeds, I can offer one explanation, namely, his relationship with the media.

Hashimoto Tōru , center left, and Matsui Ichirō, center right, rejoice with their supporters after their victory in the 2011 Osaka double election. (Photo: Jiji)

Hashimoto has declared, “If it weren’t for the media, somebody like me couldn’t exist as a politician. If the media turned their backs, it would be the end of me.” This suggests that he is constantly thinking of how to get media coverage. One good example is the November 2011 double election for the Osaka prefectural governorship and for mayor of the city of Osaka. Hashimoto has revealed that he staged this based on his calculation of how to win media attention.

Hashimoto campaigned for the mayor’s seat on the basis of a call for reviving Osaka by combining the municipal and prefectural governments into a single metropolitan government like that of Tokyo. The incumbent mayor of Osaka was opposed to this “Osaka Metropolis” concept, and so Hashimoto decided to step down as prefectural governor and run in the November 2011 election for the lower-ranking position of mayor in a bid to oust this opponent. This resulted in the holding of a simultaneous election to fill the vacant governor’s seat—the first such double race in Osaka in 40 years.

Hashimoto arranged for a close ally, prefectural assembly member Matsui Ichirō, to run for the governorship while he ran for the mayor’s post. Facing opposition from all the major political parties except for the New Kōmeitō, Hashimoto consistently fostered the impression that he and Matsui represented the reform camp and that the existing parties and rival candidates were reactionaries. They both won on a groundswell of voters’ dissatisfaction with the prolonged economic downturn, the stagnation in national politics, and hopes for change.

Comparing Hashimoto with Prime Minister Koizumi

Hashimoto’s successful double election maneuver further strengthened his appeal. He announced that the local party he heads—Osaka Ishin no Kai, or the Osaka Restoration Association (also known as “One Osaka”)—would field candidates in the next general election for the House of Representatives, the lower house of the National Diet. When the Ishin Seiji Juku (Restoration Politics Academy) was launched to groom a slate of 400 candidates, it was flooded with 3,326 applicants, of whom 2,045 were accepted; lectures at this political academy started in March 2012. The plan is to narrow the group down to 888 on the basis of the attitude they show at the five lecture sessions and their campaign-funding power; these remaining aspirants are to undergo practical training, including delivering street-corner speeches, from July on. The major political parties see Hashimoto’s party as a threat. In addition to preparing legislation to implement his Osaka metropolis concept, they have been continuing to look for ways of allying with Hashimoto in the next lower house election.

Hashimoto’s performance may remind some people of that of Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001–06), who declared that he would “destroy” the Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling party of which he was president, and who called a general election for the House of Representatives in August 2005 in which he arranged for the nomination of “assassin” candidates to knock out veteran politicians who had opposed his plan to privatize the postal services. Like Koizumi, Hashimoto has adopted the campaign tactic of presenting a picture of sharp confrontation between two clearly defined positions, and he shares the talent Koizumi showed for delivering his message in the form of punchy sound bites. Also, like Koizumi, he has the charisma to attract a large body of faithful political followers.

Koizumi, however, was a long-time veteran of the factional politics within the LDP, and he gained his position in the media spotlight after reaching the pinnacle of his political career by becoming prime minister. Hashimoto, by contrast, emerged suddenly without any political experience and advanced himself by using the media as his lifeline. And he is still young—currently 43.

Koizumi was the first prime minister to adopt the practice of taking questions twice a day from the media team covering him. I was part of that team myself for a while when I was based in Tokyo. These sessions were generally just a few minutes long, about 10 minutes at the most, and often they would be cut short while the reporters were still asking questions. Hashimoto has adopted a similar practice of taking questions twice a day, but unlike Koizumi, he keeps at it until the reporters have run out of questions for him, and the sessions can last as long as an hour. In addition he holds a regularly scheduled press conference once a week, where it is not unusual for him to keep talking for almost two hours.

This openness to questions is accompanied by close attention to the media coverage he receives. Hashimoto checks all the major daily newspapers in the car as he rides to work in the morning, and in the evening he checks the tapes of television news programs. If he finds himself misreported, he immediately posts complaints on Twitter, identifying the media organ and reporter by name.

In February 2012, a senior officer of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan caused a commotion by shutting out one newspaper organization from his press conferences after it published an article he disliked. Hashimoto remarked, “If it were me, I’d have the reporter come [to my press conference] and bad-mouth him.” I know of no other politician who is as obsessed with the media as Hashimoto is.

Fiscal Reform: The First “Play” in Hashimoto’s Political Theater

Before becoming governor of Osaka Prefecture, Hashimoto worked as a lawyer. He cut an unconventional figure, sporting dyed hair and wearing T-shirts and jeans even to court sessions. He has explained that this was part of a sales strategy to leave a strong impression on potential clients. This, together with his ardent work, allowed him to set up his own individual law office at age 28, just one year after he received his license to practice—something that is normally expected to take about 10 years. He quickly won a reputation as a lawyer skilled in negotiating out-of-court settlements.

Hashimoto’s unusual talent won him attention, and when he started appearing on TV as a commentator, he quickly became a popular figure, attracting people with the gap between his casual appearance and the staid image of the legal profession. He caught the eye of Sakaiya Taichi, a well-known author from Osaka, who encouraged him to run for the Osaka prefectural governorship. That, very briefly, is the story of his career up to his entry into the world of politics.

To understand Hashimoto, it is important to consider his experience as a TV personality. As Hashimoto explains from his own experience, TV is a medium where “you can’t get through to viewers unless you have a knock-out brand.” Commentators must offer clear and simple pronouncements on complex matters and sometimes shock the home audience by presenting extreme opinions. Statements must not be ambiguous; they need to be made more salient by being presented in clear black-and-white terms. Hashimoto has taken the approach he learned from TV with him into the world of politics. He has turned politics and public administration into a form of theater. The stage is not limited to election campaigning but extends to everyday meetings and to the policy-making process. By revealing this theatrical performance to the media, Hashimoto has fostered both support and opposition to his policies, creating the drama of confrontation.

The first “play” that Hashimoto put on was the drive to rehabilitate Osaka’s prefectural finances. Four years ago, when Hashimoto became governor, Osaka was saddled with a prefectural debt of almost ¥6 trillion and ranked second worst among Japan’s 47 prefectures in terms of fiscal rigidity (lack of financial leeway). On his first day in office, the new governor delivered an address to prefectural employees in which he declared, “This prefecture is a bankrupt firm. All of you are the employees of a bankrupt firm.” With this mediagenic sound bite, Hashimoto succeeded in spreading the message that fiscal reform was essential.

Hashimoto also adopted the surprise ploy of scrapping the almost-complete draft budget for the fiscal year starting in April 2008, replacing it with an interim budget for April–July, and putting together a sweeping plan for fiscal reform during that four-month interval.

The main plank of Hashimoto’s fiscal reform was reduction of the salaries of all the prefecture’s employees, numbering around 90,000. The margin of the cuts ranged from 3.5% to 16% depending on the post. This was combined with a 5% reduction in retirement allowances, the first such cut by any prefecture. The labor union representing prefectural employees protested, but Hashimoto countered by opening up the negotiations with the union, which had previously been conducted behind closed doors, and when a union officer said, “This is more than we can put up with,” he retorted, “In a private-sector company that can’t make ends meet, employees get fired.” The media coverage of this exchange resulted in a flood messages from the public—overwhelmingly in Hashimoto’s favor—to members of the prefectural assembly, which was deliberating the proposed cuts. Hashimoto made skillful use of the sense of bitterness felt by the general public toward the prefecture’s civil servants, who were enjoying job security at a time when the prolonged economic downturn was taking a toll on employment in the private sector; it seems fair to say that the governor fanned this sentiment and turned it into a tailwind of support.

“Slaves” of the National Government

How to get the message to the media—with this in mind, Hashimoto came up with a number of punchy phrases with which he made things move. One example was his attack on the cost-sharing system by which the national government has local governments pay a portion of the cost of its public works, such as road maintenance and river improvement projects in their jurisdictions. When Hashimoto became governor in 2008, Tokyo was simply sending bills to the local governments telling them how much they had to pay without spelling out the details, a practice that had given rise to considerable dissatisfaction among local authorities.

In February 2009 Hashimoto brought this matter to the fore with an announcement that the prefecture was going to refrain from including a portion of this cost in its budget for the coming fiscal year. He then headed to Tokyo and had a meeting with the head of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, which is responsible for this system. During the short interval when journalists and cameras were allowed in the meeting room, Hashimoto came out with a vigorous message: “The regions [local governments] are slaves of the country [central government]. I call for emancipation of the slaves.” With the use of the word slaves, the governor achieved wide diffusion of his message about the problems in the existing system. A month later he created more waves in remarks he delivered to a government commission. This time he said the national government was “like a bottakuri bā”—a bar that hits patrons with exorbitant bills. This was a longstanding issue, and the National Governors’ Association had been calling for abolition of the system since 1959, but governors had not pressed the demand with vigor, partly out of fear that Tokyo would cut back on public works in their prefectures. This changed in the wake of Hashimoto’s statements. One after another, governors spoke up in agreement, and pressure from the regions resulted in change at the national level, leading to partial abolition of the system in 2010.

Hashimoto also took on Japan’s prefectural and municipal boards of education. At the time of the nationwide test of academic achievement for elementary and junior high school students in fiscal 2008, the boards of education released the results broken down by prefecture, but they did not reveal the results for municipalities or individual schools on the grounds that this would lead to “ranking” among them. Hashimoto, who is the father of seven children, used a radio appearance to speak up from a parent’s standpoint, hurling a rude epithet (kuso) at the boards of education and calling on people to raise their voices in protest. He also called the people at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (responsible for nationwide coordination of the boards of education) “idiots” (baka) in front of the press. His open use of the rude words kuso and baka, ill befitting a public official, caused a stir, but his call for disclosure won considerable support from other parents of schoolchildren, and the following year the boards of education in Osaka Prefecture yielded, deciding in principle to release the results broken down by municipality.

Assessments of Hashimoto’s character are split, but everybody testifies to the tremendous amount of studying he does. People say he is unmatched in the way he learns intensively about various policy measures and systems, debates, and grasps the issues. As seen in the cases of the public works cost-sharing system and the boards of education, his radical pronouncements are not mere verbal abuse; he latches on to shortcomings in Japan’s dysfunctional systems, and his harsh words are the secret of his messages’ appeal.

Citing the Will of the People to Implement Cost Cuts

Hashimoto’s political style, which focuses on sending and receiving messages through the media, naturally leads to a standard of behavior based on what the people want and what actions will win popular support. When he set aside his campaign pledges to concentrate on cost cutting immediately after becoming governor of Osaka prefecture, he did so because he judged this to be the will of the people.

In addition to the reduction of prefectural employees’ salaries mentioned above, the new governor’s three-year plan for fiscal rehabilitation launched in fiscal 2008 included a long list of partial or total cuts of existing programs, including a 20% cut in construction spending, cuts of 10%–25% in subsidies to private schools, and the closing or privatization of 9 of the prefecture’s 28 cultural, sports, and other facilities for use mainly by residents. Those targeted for the cuts protested strongly, but just as in the case of the labor union, the publicly aired direct confrontations between Hashimoto and his opponents resulted almost without exception in victories for the governor, who brought to bear both the arguing skills he developed as a lawyer and the “will of the people” as transmitted through the media.

When Hashimoto ran into strong criticism over his plan to cut the annual subsidy of around ¥400 million paid to the symphony orchestra established by the prefecture, he came out with this brazen rebuttal: “The bureaucracy and business leaders put on airs of being cultured with their talk about the orchestra, but the culture of humor [manzai and rakugo] is more rooted in Osaka.” Hashimoto calls himself “uncultured,” and in his pursuit of efficiency he sometimes dismisses traditional and cultural elements with bombshells that seem to reveal ignorance on his part. This aspect is a source of serious concern. But he raises an essential question when he asks, “To what extent are we going to preserve culture using tax revenues and what types should we preserve?” In the end it was decided that the orchestra would stand on its own feet financially, with no subsidy from the prefecture. Hashimoto achieved what he had hoped from his focus on cutting costs, and during his term as governor he maintained support ratings of 70%-80%.

Feeding on His Position as Osaka’s Prime News Source

Hashimoto also moved to cut costs in the prefectural assembly. In advance of the local elections held in the spring of 2011, his Osaka Restoration Association successfully pushed for a 30% cut in assembly members’ compensation, reducing it to the lowest level among all the prefectures. And in the election campaign the party pledged to decrease the number of prefectural legislators by 20%. After the election, in which it won an outright majority, the party immediately rammed this measure through the assembly. Though many complained that the legislation was enacted without sufficient deliberation, the forcefulness of this move, which was adopted by legislators in the realization that it would cost some of them their own jobs, was a key factor underlying Hashimoto’s success in the double election later in the same year. The approach taken by the Osaka Restoration Association in this connection contrasts sharply with that of the national political parties, which have talked a lot about cutting legislators’ pay and reducing the number of Diet members but have failed to implement such reductions, and it is one of the reasons for the support directed at Hashimoto’s movement by people around the country.

Hashimoto Tōru and Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintarō meet with the press after the enrollment ceremony of the Ishin Seiji Juku in June 2012. (Photo: Jiji)

It is necessary, however, to take considerable care in assessing Hashimoto’s reform program. To give one example, in the three years following his inauguration as governor, Hashimoto improved the prefecture’s fiscal balance by a total of ¥300 billion, but the prefectural debt, which was ¥5,828.8 billion before he took office, rose to ¥6,073.9 billion as of fiscal 2010. The economic downturn caused corporate tax revenues to decline, offsetting the gains from spending cuts, and the prefecture has had to struggle under the heavy burden of debt from excessive reliance on bond issues to fund major public works projects in the past.

Speaking as a journalist, I think we should acknowledge that Japanese media tend to give big play to the showy confrontations and messages in front of their eyes but to be generally weak at follow-up checking. And for the media in Osaka, which does not have the range of news sources found in Tokyo, Hashimoto, with his presidential style of top-down decision making, serves as the top-rated source of stories, and coverage often focuses on his pronouncement of the day or his plans for the day to come. This media culture has clearly helped feed Hashimoto’s power.

Reforms Based on a Creed of Competition

One of the two perspectives that I see as keys to understanding Hashimoto’s policies is his creed of competition. He was raised by a single mother until he was 14 and graduated from a violence-plagued junior high school to go on to one of the most prestigious high schools in the prefecture; he subsequently made a place for himself both in the legal profession and the entertainment world through his own talents and efforts. With this background, he strongly believes in the efficacy of competition, and he applies this belief to public policy as well. For example, he supplied the driving force for the enactment by the prefectural assembly in March 2012 of a basic ordinance concerning prefectural employees and two basic ordinances concerning education, which have introduced some much stricter conditions: The new personnel assessment system for prefectural employees has resulted in a sharp increase in the share of employees receiving the lowest rating; previously this was applied to only about 1 employee in 2,000, but now 1 in 20 are getting it, and those who receive this rating two years in a row will be subject to discharge and required to undergo remedial training.

The newly enacted ordinances on education incorporate the idea of improving quality by promoting competition among teachers and schools. But this has had a negative impact on the prefecture’s recruitment of new teachers: Of the candidates who passed the fiscal 2012 prefectural examination for teaching positions at Osaka public schools, the percentage who turned down their acceptance was 3–4 percentage points higher than normal, the worst figure on record. The new provisions have been compared to the No Child Left Behind legislation adopted in the United States under President George W. Bush, which drew considerable criticism, and care will be required in their implementation.

The second key perspective is Hashimoto’s orientation toward reform of systems, organizations, and procedures. The Osaka Metropolis concept that Hashimoto is currently pursuing along with Governor Matsui forms the core of his thinking about system reform: Osaka City has powers of a level comparable to those of Osaka Prefecture; under Hashimoto’s concept the city and the prefecture would be merged so as to eliminate duplication in facilities and programs, and a new administrative setup would be created consisting of Osaka Metropolis, which would handle regional administration, and basic government units at a level close to the people. And the revised eight-plank set of policies that the Osaka Restoration Association made public on July 5, 2011, in preparation for fielding candidates the next national election for the House of Representatives includes a list of proposed changes in the nation’s core systems, including regrouping of the prefectures into larger regional blocs, direct election of the prime minister, and reform of the House of Councillors (the upper house of the Diet); the party trumpets these as a “great reset.”

Following Up on Hashimoto’s Reforms: A Media Responsibility

Today’s Japanese society is full of a sense of stagnation and is headed toward a gradual decline, buffeted by the waves of globalization. And as long as politicians at the national level remain unable to come up with fundamental reforms, Hashimoto will probably continue to exert influence. For now he is saying that he has no intention of entering national politics himself, but with the Diet caught up in unending political squabbles, we are bound to hear calls for him to become prime minister. Among the politicians in Tokyo one hears talk of a passive response to Hashimoto—sitting tight and waiting for his freshness to wear off—but given the nature of his popularity, the idea that the established parties can simply wait for his shelf life to end can only be called wishful thinking.

Still, I find it hard to swallow Hashimoto’s use of the term great reset as if it were a magic spell and his delusive idea that our society will change dramatically if we change our systems. And I cannot help sensing danger in the way he goes from one battlefield to the next, taking on new opponents each time and stirring up a furor.

For example, the introduction of single-member electoral districts for the House of Representatives in the 1990s was supposed to lead to elections fought over policy issues. How well has that worked out? And we have had a number of booms in the popularity of particular politicians and political movements, such as the Socialist “Madonna” Doi Takako in the late 1980s and Hosokawa Morihiro (prime minister 1993–94) and his Japan New Party in the early 1990s, along with the enthusiastically welcomed change of ruling parties in 2009. The repeated waves of political excitement have been followed by reforms of a number of political arrangements and systems. But have these left us with a sense of improvement in Japanese politics?

Hashimoto Tōru is indisputably a figure of rare talent. But we must learn the lessons of history. We must scrutinize his day-to-day pronouncements, check the policy decisions he issues one after another, and follow up on the results. We must do this dispassionately and patiently. That is our responsibility as members of the media that gave birth to this “monster” leader of today.

(Originally written in Japanese. Title background photograph courtesy of Jiji.)

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