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Friday, March 28, 2008

Hashimoto's cost-cutting plans under fire

Osaka governor's political skills questioned by bureaucrats, politicians

Staff writer

OSAKA — If Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto has his way, employees now working on international human rights issues may become school security guards and a popular women's center will be sold off.

News photo
Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto attends a prefectural assembly session Tuesday. KYODO PHOTO

These are just two proposals for keeping Osaka Prefecture from declaring bankruptcy among many he has floated since taking office in early February. But growing anger among bureaucrats, citizens' groups, and opposition politicians toward the governor's actions has even his supporters wondering whether Hashimoto, 38, has the political skills needed to achieve his agenda.

Osaka Prefecture, which has nearly ¥5 trillion in total debts, is, in Hashimoto's words, all but bankrupt.

One of his first acts upon assuming office was to announce an emergency provisional budget of about ¥1.2 trillion for the period between April and July. He also set up two special project teams to review all prefecture-funded projects not critical to daily life and suggest cost-cutting measures.

In early March, Hashimoto conducted highly public on-site inspection tours of prefectural-funded projects whose purpose he questioned. One was the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center, or HuRights Osaka.

Located in a posh high-rise in Minato Ward, the center was established in 1994 and is jointly funded by the prefecture and the cities of Osaka and Sakai.

Its purpose is to promote human rights in the Asia-Pacific region, to convey Asia-Pacific perspectives on human rights to the international community, to ensure the inclusion of human rights principles in Japan's international cooperation activities and to raise human rights awareness among the Japanese people.

"We connect Japan to the outside world and to the United Nations. We're the only group or organization in Japan that is in a working partnership with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights," said Osamu Shiraishi, the center's director.

When Hashimoto visited, he became angry after failing to get a satisfactory answer to his question of how many of HuRights Osaka's published books were used in school classrooms. The governor demanded to know why the center hadn't researched who was using its materials and told Shiraishi private companies wouldn't dream of printing things nobody would read.

"It would be better to take the prefectural employees working here and reassign them as security guards at schools or dispatch them to those prefectural bureaus that are understaffed and paying a lot of overtime," Hashimoto told reporters afterward.

"We were told there would be a dialogue with the governor. It wasn't a dialogue. Hashimoto came, said the center cost too much, and then spoke to the media. He didn't ask us to submit specific recommendations on how to cut costs," Shirashi said.

It's possible HuRights Osaka will be integrated into another organization and moved to a cheaper location, he added.

"But it's important to maintain our educational activities and functions. Japanese have their own definition of human rights, which boils down to 'be nice to people,' " Shiraishi said. "They're often ignorant of international standards like the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. They have to be taught what these rights are, and that's what we're here for."

HuRights Osaka's fate is unclear. Although well-known among rights activists at home and abroad, it has little visible public or political support at the moment.

Meanwhile, another target of Hashimoto's, the Dawn Center, is putting up fierce resistance to his plans.

Located near Osaka Castle, the Dawn Center was built in 1994 as a gathering hub for women and as a public information center on gender issues. The center rents out rooms to women's groups and other civic organizations for nominal fees. Like HuRights Osaka, it's known and respected by women's groups and human rights activists in Osaka, other parts of Japan and abroad.

Hashimoto has suggested the prefecture could save money by selling off the building, which cost the prefecture nearly ¥9.1 billion to build, for ¥5 billion.

However, Shizuko Koedo, director of Working Women's Network and a staunch supporter of the Dawn Center, has spent the last month organizing public protests over Hashimoto's plans and lobbying prefectural assembly members.

"The governor's idea makes no sense," Koedo said, noting "¥5 billion is above the market value of the building and it would remain unclear as to what would happen to the services now provided by the Dawn Center."

Unlike HuRights Osaka, the Dawn Center does have visible support among ruling party politicians within the prefectural assembly, especially New Komeito ranks. Hashimoto will face tough opposition if he attempts to close it down.

HuRights Osaka and the Dawn Center are just two of the smaller, but more internationally known, examples of where Hashimoto has looked to make cuts.

Yet in the nearly two months since he won a landslide victory, the governor has made headlines and enemies not only by surprising politicians and bureaucrats with specific demands for cost cuts but also angering them with well-publicized outbursts.

On three occasions in just a single week in mid-March, Hashimoto's statements in the assembly were stricken from the record afterward. On one, Democratic Party of Japan assembly member Ryuji Nakano held up a copy of a book Hashimoto wrote several years ago, in which he questioned the necessity of spending government money on juvenile delinquents.

When Nakano suggested the book should be withdrawn from publication to avoid confusion over Hashimoto's ideas for educational reform, the governor first ignored the question and then insulted Nakano.

"I don't want children to become the kind of cowardly adults who hold up one page of an author's book while making declarations," Hashimoto said, a response that was quickly stricken from the official record after strong complaints by Nakano.

"Hashimoto needs to grow up. His comments show a surprising lack of maturity and he is needlessly making enemies in the bureaucracy. Frankly, a growing number of people in the ruling parties are wondering if he is really up to the challenge of governing," said one Liberal Democratic Party assembly member, speaking anonymously.

The moment of truth may come by early June, after Hashimoto's two project teams officially release their recommendations on all prefecture-funded projects, including HuRights Osaka and the Dawn Center.

Public support for Hashimoto and his efforts to slim the bureaucracy is still high, but it remains to be seen if his popularity ratings will stay high if he fails to persuade the bureaucracy to carry out his plans.

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