Hashimoto’s once-rising Japan Restoration Party falling short as third force in Japanese politics

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Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto (橋下徹) is probably the most charismatic politician that Japan has seen since Junichiro Koizumi (小泉 純一郎), the wavy-haired reformist prime minister from 2001 to 2006. Japan

Shintaro Ishihara (石原慎太郎) has spent the past 13 years as governor of Tokyo and is one of Japan’s most outspokenly nationalist right-wing politicians.

So it was odd, to say the least, to see Hashimoto (pictured above, right) and Ishihara (pictured above, left) merge their two new parties, with Ishihara folding his more stridently right-wing Sunrise Party (太陽の党, Taiyō no Tō) into the Osaka-based, free-market liberal Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会, Nippon Ishin no Kai).  Ishihara became the new leader of the merged Japan Restoration Party, with Hashimoto taking on the deputy leadership.

But given the now-schizophrenic nature of the party’s platform, it seems as if the party — once expected to become a major third party force in elections for Japan’s lower house of the Diet, the House of Representatives — may have turned out to be less than the sum of its parts.

After the Japanese turned out the long-ruling (since 1955!) Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) and are now disillusioned with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō), it seemed as if there were an opening for a new politician to ride the same wave to power that the DPJ rode in 2009 — especially for a young politician with Koizumi-level charisma.

But the party seems to be falling short — whereas, even in November, the party was polling in the mid-teens (ahead or even with the DPJ, and the LDP polling between 20% and 25%), it’s now fallen well below 10%, to just 4% in some polls.  Notably, most Japanese polls include a wide undecided vote (around 40% to 50%), so it’s important to take those trends with an even bigger grain of salt than we would take polls in the United States.

What that means is instead of fashioning a new opposition, Japan will instead opt for a doubling down on LDP policies under Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三), who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007.

If the Japan Restoration Party comes up short on Sunday, it could well frustrate Hashimoto’s career before it has even had a chance to peak. 

Hashimoto, just age 43, is one of Japan’s rising stars.  In a government that’s typically not only featured top-down politics, but top-down economics as well, Hashimoto has fashioned Japan’s first political movement based not in Tokyo, Japan’s capital and financial center, but Osaka.  He rose to prominence first as the governor of Osaka prefecture (essentially a state governor) in 2008, then in November 2011 as mayor of Osaka, when his ally  Ichirō Matsui was elected to the Osaka governorship.

Ishihara has one of Japan’s most colorful political careers, his career as a four-term governor of Tokyo only the last chapter in a career that began decades ago, first as a novelist, then as a reporter in Vietnam, then as a member of the Diet from the LDP from 1973 to 1995.  In 1995, amid longstanding accusations that he had supported the Aum Shinrikyo cult, Ishihara abruptly resigned when Aum Shinrikyo launched a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.  He reemerged in 1999 as an independent candidate in running for Tokyo governor, and held the office until stepping down earlier this autumn to pursue a return to the national scene.  He’s been duly reelected in the position, but he’s made several controversial statements throughout the years, offending everyone from gays to environmentalists to the Chinese (he once claimed the rape of Nanking was fictional).

Although Hashimoto launched his party with a maddeningly vague platform — ‘craft an economic and employment policy, including tax reform, that instills hope for the future’ is a good example — Hashimoto had been known for his strong stance against nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, with a call to halt the resumption of nuclear reactors and to phase out all nuclear energy by 2030.  Of course, Ishihara has been a strong proponent of nuclear energy in Japan, and he’s even called for Japan to build a nuclear weapons program.

Speaking of foreign policy, Hashimoto has been relatively dovish — in particular, on rebalancing U.S. forces throughout Japan and away from Okinawa.  Nonetheless, Hashimoto has also argued, in concert with LDP leader Shinzō Abe that the Japanese constitution should be amended to provide for easier Diet consent to amendments, and he’s open to a referendum on widening Article 9, Japan’s famous pacifist constitutional provision that forbids offensive force.  But Ishihara is arguably as far to the nationalist right on the issue as Abe.

In fact, Ishihara, as Tokyo’s governor, pushed to raise money to buy the three Senkaku islands that initiated the current diplomatic row between China and Japan that has demolished Japanese sales on the Chinese mainland and increased tensions to the point where China and Japan could perhaps go to war over the islands.

While they agree on an essentially conservative and pro-market platform, the two even have divergent views on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Hashimoto much more in favor of a wider trade alliance (unlike Ishihara).

Policy differences may not be fatal — factional differences within the LDP are much wider than many differences between the LDP, broadly, and the DPJ, which sprang out of the LDP in the 1990s.  But it still doesn’t explain why Hashimoto joined forces with Ishihara so hastily.  Their merged party has made several awkward attempts at policy accommodation — the party is now far less anti-nuclear, in deference to Ishihara’s longtime pro-nuclear stance, for example.

That’s a good question, and it’s one commentators have asked since the Nov. 17 merger:

The announcement of the merger between Hashimoto and Ishihara was met with a wave of skepticism, as well as questions over how, exactly, their new party might function after the Dec. 16 election….

“I have doubts about whether things (between Hashimoto and Ishihara) will go well. Their policies are different, and factionalism between the two parties’ supporters will likely prevail,” said Yuji Yoshitomi, an Osaka-based freelance journalist who has written about Hashimoto.

Analysts predict an outbreak of internal warfare in [the Japan Restoration Party] once the final votes are counted, with power tipping either toward Ishihara if the majority of winning candidates are from the Kanto region or, like Hiranuma, are older allies of the governor, or Hashimoto’s way if most of them hail from Kansai or other western regions where the Osaka mayor’s support rating is higher than in eastern Japan.

Hashimoto, who appeals to voters in and around Osaka and to younger voters, likely sees in Ishihara someone who appeals to voters in and around Tokyo and to older voters.  But it remains far from clear that voters are buying in:

Hashimoto and Ishihara say they put priority on unity based on broad common interests rather than on policies and disregarded minor differences. But I get the feeling that the merger is more of a mishmash, like mixing coffee with tea. Just because the colors are similar, it doesn’t mean they mix well.

Photo credit to Shinnosuke Ito.

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