Behind Hashimoto, Osaka’s telegenic mayor, a sign of Japan’s discontent


Toru Hashimoto, elected governor of Osaka in landslide in 2008, has gained a reputation as populist with his off-hand remarks on a range of subjects. (Yuzuru Yoshikawa/Bloomberg News)

Toru Hashimoto is the product of a fed-up country. He is also its chief rabble-rouser.

The telegenic Osaka mayor wants wholesale changes to Japan’s sleepy status quo. He would like to transfer power from Tokyo to a collection of new regional fiefdoms, bigger than the existing prefectures, that would collect taxes and make streamlined decisions. He holds a tea-partyish small-government philosophy, but he speaks about it in such forceful terms that critics here have given it a different name: Hashism.

“It will be a creative destruction,” Hashimoto said, describing his vision for reform in a television appearance this year. “Dismantle everything and start from scratch.”

From his perch in this eroding industrial city in Japan’s heartland, Hashimoto, 42, has as much name recognition as Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and an approval rating nearly three times as high. Hashimoto’s calls for change play to a country that is anxious about its economy, disheartened by years of weak leadership and increasingly disgusted with the central government’s inability to make decisions — about tax increases, about disaster reconstruction, about energy policy.

Japanese politicians, Hashimoto said in the same television appearance, “cannot decide on anything.” Without an overhaul of the way the nation’s government is structured, he said, “Japan will sink within three to five years.”

Even before entering politics, Hashimoto, who trained as a lawyer, was nationally famous for giving legal advice on television. But his political style has expanded his fame, largely because he has been prolific both in making enemies and in jousting with them.

He recently ordered his more than 30,000 city employees to disclose whether they had any tattoos — a traditional symbol here of membership in the yakuza, or Japanese mafia — and said those with the ink should quit. He has also suggested that elected officials should have something approaching “carte-blanche power,” near-heresy in a country wary of unrestrained authority, part of its recoil from World War II militarism.

Tsuneo Watanabe, the powerful Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings chairman, recently said of Hashimoto, “I’m reminded of Adolf Hitler.”

On Twitter, Hashimoto reminded Watanabe that he was in charge of the country’s largest newspaper and its most popular baseball team.

“He is a far more magnificent despot,” Hashimoto wrote.

Supporters say Hashimoto is a threat merely to the established political parties, not the nation. Persuaded by his complaints of Tokyo’s failings, many here hope Hashimoto will use his made-from-scratch political party, formed in 2010, to catapult to the prime minister’s seat.

But Tokyo’s political scene has been notoriously closed to outside challengers and minor parties. The Liberal Democratic Party controlled the country nearly uninterrupted for a half-century. It was ousted by the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009, but the DPJ’s promised reforms never took root.

By both policy and behavior, the two major parties are now nearly indistinguishable. Both have approval ratings under 20 percent.

For now, Hashimoto, who declined a request for an interview, has played down his interest in national politics, saying he first must reform Osaka by eliminating redundancies in the city and prefectural, or state, bureaucracies.

But Hashimoto’s actions suggest otherwise. Two months ago, his party, the Osaka Ishin no Kai (Osaka Restoration Association), created a training program to give a crash course in politics to would-be members of parliament. The goal, party officials say, is to train several hundred acolytes who can run for Diet seats this year if Noda dissolves the lower house and calls for a general election.

Hashimoto’s party currently has no Diet members but says it wants to claim 200 of a possible 480 seats in the next election, which could make it the dominant party and vault Hashimoto to the prime minister’s post. For now, though, political analysts and party officials say that 20 to 50 seats are likelier, given the party’s scant inroads beyond Osaka.

To expand its national role, analysts say, Hashimoto’s party will have to develop a following in Japan’s far-flung — and slow-to-change — rural areas. The training program has applicants representing 46 of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

“Hashimoto will be the center of a typhoon,” said Shigeki Uno, a University of Tokyo social science professor, predicting that Hashimoto’s party will rattle the major parties in Tokyo but is unlikely to immediately unseat them. “It’s anti-establishment. Anti-Tokyo. Anti-anything.”

Mayor infuriates, inspires

Even his enemies admit a certain glee in watching Hashimoto do combat. During televised debates with “stupid scholars,” he wags his finger, lowers his chin in his palm, pulls witty one-liners and sometimes rolls his voice into a growl.

He first served as Osaka’s governor, winning a landslide election, at age 38, in 2008. Late last year, just before the end of his term, he quit his post and took a run at the mayor’s job. It was a lateral but calculated move that paid off with expanded power for his party. Hashimoto not only defeated a candidate who opposed his government reform ideas, but also was succeeded in the governor’s office by a member of his own party.

In both jobs, Hashimoto’s moves have infuriated his targets and appealed to the frustrated. In an attempt to symbolically break up the collusive relationship between city workers and labor unions, he uprooted the unions from their low-rent headquarters in a government building. He ordered enormous pay cuts for some civil servants, including a slash of nearly 40 percent for bus drivers, who had been earning average salaries of $93,000 — a symptom of runaway spending, he said.

Whether in education or transportation or social security, Hashimoto has called for less government spending and more competition. As a result, he has fostered a battle in Osaka between “tax users and tax eaters,” said Kenji Miyazaki, an official with a business group supporting Hashimoto’s party.

But some of Hashimoto’s biggest ideas have more to do with the nation than with Osaka. Some of these have taken shape only recently as he has tried to build the Osaka Ishin no Kai, which holds most of the key government posts in Osaka but has little traction beyond that. The party platform recommends elimination of one of Japan’s two Diet chambers, which analysts say would reduce gridlock. Hashimoto also favors direct election of the prime minister and constitutional changes that would remove certain checks and balances on decision making.

“I think he’s doing it to make Japan better, and it sounds really nice,” said Osaka-based writer Yuji Yoshitomi, author of a book on Hashimoto. “But there’s also a darker side. Because the future worry is, what if somebody one day enters that system” with fewer checks and balances and abuses the power?

Preparing for ‘battle’

Hashimoto and his lieutenants dreamed up their political training program to help with a single, Osaka-centric mission, program officials say. To merge the city and prefectural governments, he needs approval from the Diet. To ensure the Diet cares enough to help, his party is trying to groom loyalists who can grab seats in parliament and help with the fight.

In practice, though, the training program reflects a burgeoning political movement, with Hashimoto at its center. Organizers expected between 1,000 and 1,500 nationwide applicants; they received 3,000 and picked 2,000. When the program opened March 24 for the first of five sessions — de facto tryouts during which candidates hear lectures, write essays and square off in debate — Hashimoto told the crowd, “Let’s prepare for the coming battle!”

Those applicants represent Japan’s disenfranchised, and a counter to the privileged blue bloods — second- and third-generation politicians — who hold much of the power in Tokyo.

The bulk are in their 30s and 40s, a generation that entered a tight job market after Japan’s real estate and stock bubble burst. School officials say that many have experience in prestigious jobs: lawyers, doctors, bureaucrats.

But they are also disillusioned enough with Japan that they are willing to quit those jobs if they win an election. Some applicants, officials say, have already lost their jobs.

Skeptics say the training program discounts hard work and experience, that applicants cannot be microwaved into politicians.

“Out of a few lectures, how can you evaluate these wannabes?” said Harumi Arima, a political analyst and former parliamentary aide who admires Hashimoto’s political skill but doubts his ability to build a national party from scratch. “Not everybody just picked from the street has the skills for the Diet. Maybe 20 or 30 are good enough to run, and that’s it.”

But Hitoshi Asada, an Osaka prefectural assembly chairman who helps run the school, said applicants are “quite courageous” and had skills necessary for politics even before attending the lectures.

“There’s no model for what we’re trying to do,” Asada said. “We’re figuring it out as we go.”

Special correspondent Yuki Oda contributed to this report.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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