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Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011

Long honeymoon over for Hashimoto


Staff writer

OSAKA — Three years into his first term, Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto continues to enjoy some of the highest ratings of any politician, with media polls showing 70 to 80 percent of the electorate approve of his job performance.

News photo
Dictatorial designs?: Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto (center) in July drums up support in Ikuno Ward, Osaka, for a candidate from his One Osaka party running in a municipal assembly by-election. KYODO PHOTO

But the outspoken governor's policies have come under increasing attack of late by current and former politicians, academics and others who warn Hashimoto's brand of populism will lead to a form of dictatorship.

Since becoming the youngest governor at age 38, Hashimoto has made headlines locally and nationally with his efforts to reform both Osaka Prefecture and the wider Kansai region. His growing cooperation and ties with local government leaders nationwide, ranging from former Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru to newly re-elected Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, have also raised eyebrows.

He has also formed his own political party, which now holds a slight majority in the Osaka Prefectural Assembly. In April's local elections, the party aims to capture the municipal assemblies of the prefecture's two largest cities, Osaka and Sakai. In addition, the governor and his party have indicated they might help independent, populist candidates in other prefectures, a suggestion that alarms the established political parties.

Over the past three years, Hashimoto has instituted tough fiscal policies that have helped stem the flow of red ink the prefecture was drowning in, mostly because of failed public-works projects undertaken during the 1990s and a decreasing local tax base. His sharp criticism of both prefectural and central government policies and spending, and his detailed proposals for solving problems have won him many admirers.

"Hashimoto is the first governor we've had in a long time who is unafraid to argue with conventional wisdom and who has shown real political leadership," said Kenichi Takeyama, 46, who campaigned for Hashimoto three years ago.

But the governor has also been embroiled in his fair share of controversies. He continually pushes for the central government to shut down Itami airport, on the border of Osaka and Hyogo prefectures, saying it's the only way to increase flights at Kansai airport, in which Osaka Prefecture has invested heavily. The popular Itami airport, which only handles domestic flights, is about 20 minutes from Osaka Station and much more centrally and conveniently located than its Kansai and Kobe counterparts.

Hashimoto's attempts to close Itami are strongly opposed by Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido. The central government, which runs Itami, has been ambiguous on the matter, indicating it might approve of some sort of integration of Itami and Kansai airports, despite their geographic nonproximity, but not committing to a specific plan to shut it down. Media polls show public support in the Kansai region for shutting Itami is lukewarm.

But possibly no other issue has created such heated controversy as Hashimoto's push to merge Osaka and Osaka Prefecture into a single "One Osaka" entity. The plan calls for special semiautonomous zones within the prefecture, with the governor and prefectural assembly enjoying more power. One Osaka is also the name of the governor's party.

"Currently, Osaka Prefecture and the city of Osaka compete with each other for resources and there is a lot of bureaucratic overlap. A single Osaka would reorganize the city into four different specialized zones, and the rest of the prefecture into four or five zones. The head of the zone would be an elected official and would enjoy more authority than the heads of the city wards currently enjoy," Hashimoto said last month when unveiling the plan.

The first step toward this goal, Hashimoto said, is to get the prefectural government and Osaka's towns and assemblies to pass resolutions seeking a new law to establish a single Osaka. The governor hopes the first resolutions will be passed this May, and all municipalities in the prefecture will follow suit within a year.

After that, the plan calls for the Diet to pass a related law, perhaps as early as next year. A prefecturewide plebiscite on the issue would follow, and, if passed, voters would elect new representatives for a single Osaka by spring 2015.

But the plan has met with stiff opposition not only from the bureaucracy in the city of Osaka but also from those inside and out of the prefecture who fear Hashimoto is subverting the democratic process.

Several books written by freelance journalists and local academics have appeared in the past few months, warning Hashimoto is a control freak who seeks dictatorial power, lashes out when he doesn't get his way, and who is popular with voters because he is a smooth talker who comes across well on television, not because he has well-thought out policies.

Of particular concern to some politicians is Hashimoto's perceived eagerness to call for dissolving local assemblies if they disagree or veto a local leader's plans for economic reform or political reorganization. Critics say the "Hashimoto method" of local governance, as the Osaka media have dubbed it, aims to replace independent assemblies with rubber-stamp bodies that bow to the will of the mayor or governor.

Last month, Hashimoto's support of Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, who called a snap mayoral election and pushed to recall the municipal assembly, drew a warning from Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara. In a veiled reference to the methods Kawamura and Hashimoto were using, Ishihara told supporters of an LDP-backed opponent of Kawamura that Adolph Hitler rose to power in the 1930s through legal means.

Former Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda and former Miyagi Gov. Shiro Asano have also criticized Hashimoto and Kawamura's approach, questioning whether it is wise to have a system of government with so much power vested with a single leader rather than an elected assembly.

"Assembly members are also the representatives of the people, and the decisions of the assemblies must be respected," Masuda said.

"I'm not a dictator. I'm just using various methods within the rules of democracy to realize my ideas. That's what politics is about," Hashimoto said in defense of his methods at a January news conference.

Yet after nearly three years of mostly glowing local press reviews, the recent criticism of his policies, as opposed to his style, appears to be irritating the governor.

In recent months, Hashimoto has used his news conferences as a bully pulpit to berate media who question the validity of his proposals, or run Op-Ed pieces or comments by critics who say he has failed to address basic questions and provide sufficient details about his plans.

The governor said last month that media that simply report comments by critics such as Osaka Mayor Kunio Hiramatsu, one of his most vocal opponents, haven't studied his proposals properly. He has also hinted that if he can't succeed with the One Osaka plan, he will not stand for a second term next year.

"If realizing the concept of a One Osaka government entity appears highly unlikely, my role is finished," he told reporters this month.

However, Hashimoto added that if his political party fails to capture the Osaka Municipal Assembly in April's elections, he will not immediately dissolve it.

At present, only 13 of the city's 86 seats are directly held by Hashimoto's party. If they capture a majority either on their own or in alliance with other parties, Hashimoto has said his next goal would be to put up a candidate to run against Hiramatsu in November's Osaka mayoral election.



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