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Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

Political earthquake in Osaka


HONG KONG — Toru Hashimoto's huge victory in the Osaka mayoral election was undoubtedly a political earthquake. The question now is how sweeping and powerful will be the tsunami that follows. My worry is that Tokyo, and particularly the political and bureaucratic establishment, does not comprehend the tectonic forces working underground.

The election was the start, not the end, of the action. Hashimoto challenged, and defeated the combined forces of Japan's political establishment. He has now issued another challenge: He wants to be the prime mover and maker of a new political and economic center of power based in Osaka. This could prove, depending on how the old pols and bureaucrats react, either the opportunity to create a twin engine with Tokyo in reforming and reviving Japan, or spark a dangerous squabble between the two biggest regions of Japan that could weaken Tokyo's ascendancy and the whole country.

Hashimoto, a boyish-looking 42-year-old lawyer, father of seven children and self-confessed son of a gangster, has demonstrated that he is a talented, telegenic populist politician with an ability to say something exciting to each generation. His flashes of abrasive and autocratic temperament also suggest someone tempted to take matters into his own hands if he cannot get his own way. Equally dangerously, Japan's political establishment is lost in a daze in a maze without a clue how to find its way out, let alone to deal with Hashimoto's challenge.

Victory proved Hashimoto's strength. The local chapters of the governing Democratic Party of Japan and opposition Liberal Democratic Party joined forces in backing incumbent Mayor Kunio Hiramatsu. The Japanese Communist Party did not field a candidate, but fiercely attacked Hashimoto. Hashimoto, the man of action, swept fuddy-duddy Hiramatsu aside and won almost 60 percent of the vote in an election that attracted the highest turnout for decades.

Before resigning last month as governor of Osaka Prefecture embracing Osaka and 32 surrounding cities, four months before his term expired, to run for mayor, Hashimoto shrewdly nominated his ally Ichiro Matsui, aged 47, to succeed him, and Matsui beat six other candidates to take over the governor's job. Hashimoto's avowed next step is to consolidate the Osaka urban area into a political unity. In the immediate triumph of victory he set himself and Tokyo a deadline of four years to establish the Osaka metropolis.

A lot of what Hashimoto urges makes sense. The idea that Osaka city of the mayoral election is an island of 2.6 million people is a nonsense of artificial boundaries established too long ago. Osaka is the heart of a continuous urban area that embraces not only the eight plus million people of Osaka prefecture, but almost 20 million people in neighboring Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures.

The major campuses of Osaka University are technically in Suita and Toyonaka cities, but they are all part of the same urban sprawl, as close to the center of Osaka as Shinjuku is to Kasumigaseki or Shepherds Bush to the city of London. Technically, Osaka is Japan's third biggest city, after Tokyo, which has 8 million people in the 23 wards of the metropolis and 13 million in Tokyo prefecture, and Yokohama with 3.6 million, though Yokohama and Tokyo are also part of a continuous megalopolis of 30 plus million people.

There is a swirl of daily movement into Osaka — where the city's daytime population is almost 4 million — from Kyoto and Hyogo, which are only 35 and 30 minutes away by train or 17 minutes by Shinkansen. Local lore has it that a cultured person goes to school in Kyoto, works in Osaka and lives in Kobe, the main city of Hyogo.

Hashimoto faces three hurdles before he can see his dream accomplished. The least difficult is to get resolutions in favor of an Osaka metropolis passed in the Osaka prefectural assembly, already controlled by his Osaka Ishin no Kai (Osaka Renewal Group), and by Osaka and Sakai cities. He would also have to win a majority in a referendum of affected people, a constitutional requirement, and would then have to get the central government to revise the Local Government Law.

The last is the most difficult given the attitude of Tokyo politicians that creation of an Osaka metropolis is something for the back burner with the gas turned off. Tokyo-based commentators have glibly said that Hashimoto has shunted himself down a cul-de-sac by becoming a mere mayor. This is a mistake. Hashimoto is a determined guy, who has already threatened to call Osaka city elections, where his group holds only 33 of the 86 seats, to bend the council to his will.

Osaka and Kansai generally have a different, more commercial view of life and its necessities. Tokyo people greet each other with a general "How are you?"; but the typical Osaka greeting is "moukari makka?" or "How much money have you made today?" In the current exigent economic times, the answer is not as much as people would like. Osaka, home to Panasonic, Sharp and the birthplace of the Sumitomo group, is suffering 7 percent unemployment, nearly 30 percent higher than Japan generally.

Hashimoto believes that red tape and too many sluggish bureaucracies obstruct revival of Osaka's economic spirits. But Hashimoto himself is sometimes right in principle, but tends to rush in and get practical things wrong. His abrasive impatience saw him clash with neighboring Hyogo over his desire to close Osaka's Itami airport, most of whose land is in Hyogo. Anyone who has to use expensive, distant Kansai airport with its slow immigration and suspicious customs officials would wish instead that Itami became a second expanding Haneda.

The correct response is to accept that the existing local government administrative boundaries need to change to reflect demographic and social changes, the need to involve local people in decisions affecting them and to boost economic and political reform of Japan.

Encourage Hashimoto to provide practical details of how an Osaka metropolis would work, but also investigate whether a Kansai — and for that matter a Tokyo — megalopolis would work better, not only in terms of efficiency but also government for the people. Set a two year time limit for redrawing the administrative map of Osaka, Kansai and Japan as a whole to create a 21st-century Japan that can be an example of democracy for the world.

It would be a mistake for the established politicians and bureaucrats to sit on their hands and hope that Hashimoto will go away or to obfuscate with talk of general administrative reforms. He has powerful friends, mostly independent-minded politicians who have won office by appealing directly to a public disgruntled with grubby politics as usual. Populist politics would be a dangerous game that Hashimoto might be tempted to play if frustrated. It could unleash a tsunami of popular discontent on Japan's political process.

Kevin Rafferty is author of "Inside Japan's Powerhouses," an account of Japan Inc. and internationalization.


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