Regionalism provoking tectonic shifts in Japan

Japan’s Agency for Reconstruction, a full-fledged cabinet ministry with three bureaus and six branches, has debuted yesterday in Tokyo to coordinate the government’s efforts to rehabilitate the country eleven months after the infamous Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear whammy. While everyone wishes the Agency well, it is clear that reconstructing the country requires not more bureaucracy but a sense of unity among the country’s leaders. Unfortunately, there’s no such unity; bickerings among the different political actors continue to plague the country’s leadership.

Of course, as a student of politics, I find these bickerings, and the political maneuverings that come with them, very interesting. Fascinating political developments have been unfolding in the country recently. Just as everybody thought that there couldn’t have been anything more dramatic than the ouster of the long-entrenched Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 2007, the resulting shadow battle between the reformists and the political establishment, and what everyone thought was a track towards a two-party system; more tectonic shifts are actually occurring: ones characterized by the rise of new political actors, the re-invigoration of previously marginalized political actors, and the corresponding reaction from the traditional political actors. And these shifts have been triggered not from Tokyo but from Osaka, Nagoya, and other regional centers.

Local government leaders who have increasingly been binding themselves together to push Tokyo to cede more powers to the prefectures have become, for all intents and purposes, full-fledged actors in the national political scene. While the movement for regionalist devolution has been around for quite a time, never has it reached the heights it currently enjoys. The movement’s popular poster boy, the boyish-looking Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, described by many as a revolutionary, has stunned the country with his bold and cunning maneuvers.

Mayor Hashimoto had served as Governor of Osaka since 2007, where he pushed for several local reforms that were derailed by local bureaucrats and city mayors working to protect their turfs. Among his pet proposals was the merging of the city and prefectural governments of Osaka to create a metropolitan entity similar to Tokyo. But when the then Mayor of Osaka, who was anxious to protect his city’s autonomy, blocked this move, the exasperated Hashimoto resigned as governor, challenged the incumbent mayor in the election, and sent his lieutenant to run for his gubernatorial post. With the highest voting turn-out in history, Hashimoto and Ichiro Matsui won the mayoral and gubernatorial elections, and their local party, the Osaka Restoration Association (Osaka Isshin no Kai), won control of Osaka city and prefectural councils.

Hashimoto’s dramatic victory prompted the creation of a formidable but loose entente among like-minded local government leaders. Among those who have joined the alliance are Aichi Governor Takeaki Omura, Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura and the maverick Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara. These leaders have demanded the beleaguered government in Tokyo to cede more powers to the prefectures, with Hashimoto vowing to send political assassins to unseat their members in parliament should the major Tokyo-based political parties ignore his group’s demand. It doesn’t look like an empty threat.

The Governor of Aichi, for instance, is establishing a political training institute that many observers say is a prelude to the creation of his own political party. Mayor Hashimoto’s party, of course, is already a force to reckon with in the Kansai region. The governors of Ehime, Kagawa, Kochi and Tokushima in the Shikoku region have also expressed their intention to form their own regional association and to collaborate with the Kansai regionalists. And no less than Democratic Party (DPJ) kingpin and perennial schemer Ichiro Ozawa, whose political acumen is probably unmatched in Japan, has acknowledged the regionalists’ political rise: Governor Omura has been invited to speak at a caucus of around 100 Ozawa minions in the Diet while the erstwhile shadow shogun is reported to have been sending feelers to Mayor Hashimoto’s camp.

Meanwhile, some of the former political bigwigs who had found themselves in the political wilderness after they bolted the LDP in 2007 and formed their own micro-parties, are seeing Hashimoto’s movement as an opportunity for them to again play a bigger role in national politics. In particular, micro-parties Tachiagare Nippon and Minna no To are now presenting themselves as a vehicle for Hashimoto’s entry into the national political stage. An alliance of convenience would most likely loom between Hashimoto and either of these parties. Both would be needing each other: Hashimoto needs these parties’ machineries and national political network, while the parties could use Hashimoto’s energy. Indeed, in a recent TBS poll, seventy five percent of respondents believe that it’s high time for the regional parties to enter national politics while Hashimoto was voted as the most electable official, followed by Governor Isihara and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

All these are becoming a challenge to the two major political parties, the ruling DPJ and the opposition LDP.

For the DPJ, particularly Prime Minister Noda, this is an added complication to the already difficult situation he is in. His bold moves to trim the Diet and to raise taxes are facing opposition from the political establishment, even from within his own party. Ozawa, who represents the intra-party opposition to Noda, is opposing the Prime Minister particularly on his tax measures, which has always been and will always be a political taboo in Japan. Indeed, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who had entered office with substantial public support, lost the Upper House of the Diet to the LDP when he proposed tax increase last year.

In fairness to Ozawa, he has been consistent with his views on the tax issue ever since, and his beef with Noda’s tax policy proposal appears to be principled. He has been going around rallying support against the proposal, even courting the regionalists themselves. If Ozawa, known for his great backroom skills, succeeds in winning over the Hashimoto forces, he would give the Prime Minister some very painful headaches, to say the least.

But the threat to the LDP is actually bigger. After its downfall in 2007, the party, which had led Japan almost uninterruptedly for fifty years, has been gaining brownie points due to the incompetence of successive DPJ governments. Under the leadership of party chief Sadakazu Tanigaki, the LDP enjoyed an increase in popularity ratings, leading to a point where it could have easily regained control of the government had there been snap elections. But this public support represented a vote against the DPJ instead of a vote for the LDP. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the public’s attitude towards the LDP, whose long rule incubated graft and corruption, remains highly cynical.

The rise of the Hashimoto-led regionalist forces, if they successfully forge tactical alliances with Ozawa and the other national but small parties, could present themselves as an alternative to both the corrupt LDP and the incompetent DPJ. This is why I believe the LDP would probably push the Prime Minister to call for elections as soon as possible, before Hashimoto’s forces could build a substantial political machinery.

Of course, popular as they are, the Hashimoto forces, even with support from micro-parties, will never be able to wrest control of Tokyo on their own. The best they can do, assuming they become able to field enough parliamentary candidates, is to represent a third force that could ensure that neither the DPJ nor the LDP would be able to command majority in the Diet. In such a scenario, it would be exciting to see how Hashimoto, Ozawa, Tanigaki and Noda would play their cards.

Interesting times, indeed.

Update, January 12: Yomiuri Shinbun reports that 2,750 people have applied to be part of Mayor Ishihara’s “political training institute.” Obviously, these applicants want to be on the shortlist when the popular mayor selects his candidates for parliamentary seats in the event of a snap election. Meanwhile, the eccentric Tokyo Governor Ishihara has called on his son, Shintaro, to resign as Secretary-General of the LDP, saying the party is irresponsible. This will surely heighten the apparent rift between the father and the son.

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