Is Japan cracking up?

Mainstream parties in Japan are losing the trust of the people as renegade politicians gain support.

Japan’s ruling party reportedly sees Hashimoto’s populism as a threat to its own reputation as a ‘reformist party’ [EPA]

Tokyo, Japan – “Is Japan cracking up?” The question seems ludicrous, regarding one of the planet’s most homogenous, stable and violence-free nations. However, in the aftermath of the late-November victories of a regional party in the gubernatorial and mayoral races in Osaka, Japan’s second city, the next steps in Japan’s political evolution may be along regional, not national lines.

The elections of Toru Hashimoto as mayor of Osaka City and Ichiro Matsui as governor of Osaka Prefecture on the Osaka Isshin no Kai (Association for the Renewal of Osaka) ticket were predictable, given the huge proven political drawing power of Hashimoto. A former television personality and a lawyer, Hashimoto had during his time as governor built up a huge following among the voters by taking on targets of public disdain: the prefectural assembly, prefectural civil servants, the governments of the prefecture’s smaller municipalities and the teachers’ unions and the Board of Education.

He hacked at public salaries and reduced municipal spending, racking up the first budget surpluses in years. In the municipal elections of 2010, Osaka Isshin no Kai – a party that Hashimoto assembled at the last minute – won a plurality of seats in the prefectural assembly, shocking the large national parties.

Control of Osaka, however, was not enough for Hashimoto, who has a grandiose plan to transform the prefecture into a metropolitan district such as Tokyo. The capital’s shining image is a huge psychological weight on Osakans, who are defensive about their national and international status. However, the mayors of the prefectures’ cities stood in Hashimoto’s way, the most prominent of which was the mayor of Osaka.

He argued that, in order for the Osaka prefecture to fulfill its destiny as a great world metropolis, the government of the city of Osaka would have to be destroyed. Hashimoto resigned as governor to run for mayor, placing himself in the position of leading the municipal government’s dismantlement from within. Meanwhile, this left the governor’s office open for Ichiro Matsui, the secretary-general of Hashimoto’s party.

On Sunday November 26, voters handed Hashimoto the keys to the mayor’s office, and elected Matsui as governor.

The battle of Osaka, however, was not just between Hashimoto and his main opponent Kunio Hiramatsu, the incumbent mayor of Osaka, a mild-mannered and avuncular former television announcer. The contest was also between Hashimoto and the national parties, particularly the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the main opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP). The LDP and the New Komeito, the political party of Japan’s largest religious congregation, had supported Hashimoto when he ran for governor in 2008. But soon after his election, Hashimoto turned his back on his former political allies, attacking many of their sacred cows. As for the DPJ, it saw Hashimoto’s populism as a threat to the DPJ’s own reputation as a reformist party.

Decay in public’s trust

So it was that the main political parties worked together to halt the Hashimoto juggernaut. Even the Communist Party of Japan, which never sides with the other parties and always runs one of its own candidates in major elections, did not put up a candidate in Osaka City, in order to increase the chances of victory for the incumbent mayor.

Yet the fight between Hashimoto and the mayor turned out to be a purely local affair. The national chapters of the major parties, wanting to avoid supporting a lose cause, declared themselves neutral on the subject of who might win in the Osaka elections. The local chapters of the DPJ, the LDP, and national Diet members from Osaka were the ones left to lend their support to candidates who ultimately lost.

The failure of the mainstream traditional parties to elect their candidates, even when cooperating to an unprecedented degree, opens a window onto the decay in the public’s trust in traditional politics. The DPJ and LDP, the two parties that can become parties of government, have seen their support sink to the level where they can each count upon receiving only 20 per cent of the vote. The New Komeito, drawing on the votes of the huge Soka Gakkai religious organisation, can count upon receiving between four and six per cent of the final vote. The other parties are really micro-parties, each with three per cent support or less.

Half the voting public does not consider itself affiliated with any party. It is this floating electorate that Hashimoto and those such as him are targeting.

The election of Hashimoto and Matsui to the main executive posts in Osaka puts Japan’s three main population centres under the control of renegades. The Tokyo Metropolitan District has Ishihara Shintaro, of The Japan that Can Say “No” fame, as its governor. A former member of the LDP, he quit the party and his Diet seat, saying that he was sick of the party’s policies. He struck out on his own, winning the governorship of Tokyo when he saw the traditional parties nominating grey and inoffensive candidates. He recently won his fourth election as governor, after promising he would quit after three terms, deciding to run again after he saw how bad the other candidates were.

In Aiichi Prefecture, the home of Toyota Motors and Japan’s third-largest urban area, the city of Nagoya and its suburbs, independents Hideaki Omura and Takashi Kawamura are governor of Aiichi and mayor of Nagoya, respectively. Kawamura, a former member of the DPJ and a flamboyant buffoon, was in perpetual warfare with his city’s assembly after his election in 2009, as the assembly resisted implementing Kawamura’s reforms, including deep tax cuts. A stalemate lingered until earlier this year, when Kawamura arranged for his own re-election, the election of his ally Omura and the recall of the assembly, all in one swoop

Omura and Kawamura see Hashimoto and his Isshin no Kai colleagues as soulmates. Omura, a former LDP Diet member, has indeed promised he will formally link his supporters to Hashimoto’s.

Rogue politicians

The successes of these rogue regionalist politicians have forced the main political parties to examine what they can learn from them in order to boost their own fortunes. But the traditional parties are finding out that they can’t borrow very much. The emerging regional parties (for example, there is a Hokkaido party, Shinto Daichi) are basically the vehicles of larger-than-life individuals, who combine their own personal fame with a call for re-emphasis on regional identity.

On the subject of governance, they have brought the national discussion on the role of bureaucrats down to the prefectural and municipal level, promising economic improvements from radical reductions in the pay and personnel of local government. Hashimoto, for example, claims there will be great cost savings from eliminating the redundant services currently provided by both Osaka’s municipal and prefectural governments.

Emulating the rogue politician’s slash-and-burn governance style would undermine the patronage and election networks that underpin the support of many of the traditional parties. For the ruling DPJ, which was elected on a platform of radical reform, the rogues are reminders of what the DPJ wishes it could do on the national scale – but the realities of macroeconomics and the lack of a singular, charismatic leader prevent the party from doing so.

All is not smooth sailing for the new regionalists. Hashimoto needs changes in national laws in order to make his dream of an Osaka Metropolitan District a reality. He has threatened that if he is thwarted, he will take his movement to a national level, a largely empty threat considering how much his movement relies on regional identity. Regional parties have also not taken off in the other major concentrations of population, such as the city of Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu, perhaps because of Fukuoka’s relative prosperity and stability.

Hashimoto’s political star has been rising and those of the traditional parties falling, in part because of Osaka’s declining economic importance and vitality. Some 60 per cent of those who supported Hashimoto in the mayoral election said that they did so because they expect him to improve the economic climate of the city – a desire that Hashimoto will be hard-pressed to satisfy.

Despite the difficulties faced by Hashimoto and those like him, the national parties should still be worried. The electorate is clearly shopping around for persons or parties able to deliver on promises, particularly in terms of the performance of the economy, the security of the pension and health systems, and the ending of government waste. In 2009, the majority of the public thought it had found the answer in the DPJ, tossing out the LDP after the party had run Japan for more than 50 years.

The voters have since become disillusioned with their choice, for reasons both fair and unfair. National elections do not have to be held until 2013, giving the major parties some time to align themselves more closely with voters or to find a champion. 

However, there are many politicians in the traditional parties who are looking, Janus-like, at what Hashimoto and others are doing in the regions, and at what their own party leaders are doing in Tokyo. And they are not liking the contrast they see between the two.

Michael Cucek is author of the Shisaku blog on Japanese politics and society and a Tokyo-based Research Associate of the MIT Centre for International Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.