Gathered in a hall in the city of Osaka, about 900 students at Toru Hashimoto’s school for candidates listen raptly as the populist mayor Hashimoto issues a clarion call to shake up Japan’s deadlocked politics in an election that could come this year.
“It means nothing if you do not win. I don’t know when it will be, but everyone, get ready,” said a shirt-sleeved Hashimoto, wrapping up a speech in which he blasted mainstream parties, chided the media and pledged to speak for a silent majority.
“Become warriors. Let’s fight together. Let’s change Japan,” he said.
Detractors call the boyish-faced Hashimoto a dangerous, right-wing populist who targets unpopular groups such as overpaid civil servants, tattoo-sporting city workers and electric power companies discredited by the Fukushima nuclear crisis, and bashes them to public applause.
Fans argue his brand of strong leadership is what Japan needs to break out of decades of policy impasse that last month prompted rating agency Fitch to downgrade its credit status.
Either way, Hashimoto’s ability to tap voter discontent far beyond the western city of Osaka means the former lawyer and TV talk show celebrity has the potential to shake up Japan with far-reaching results for the world’s third-biggest economy and its neighbors.
“People in Tokyo thought he was just an Osaka phenomenon, but that is changing,” said Kunio Hiramatsu, the former mayor of Osaka easily defeated by Hashimoto last year. “If they run 200 candidates in the next election, I think they could win a substantial number.”
Hashimoto’s plan is for the best and brightest of the students at his cram school for candidates to join more experienced allies to run in a national election that must be held by August next year but could come sooner.
SENSE OF DEADLOCK
Hashimoto’s stronghold is in Osaka, Japan’s second-largest, but declining metropolitan area, where business executives dream of reviving past commercial glories.
After resigning as governor of Osaka Prefecture last year, he won a landslide victory to become city mayor on a platform attacking scandal-tainted civil servants while promising to unify city and prefecture governments to eradicate duplication and cut wasteful spending.
“In a situation where people felt a sense of deadlock over a stagnant economy, deflation, a lack of jobs or stalled income and wanted to change something, Hashimoto’s easy-to-understand call for change resonated in people’s hearts,” said Akira Yanagimoto, a city assembly member from the rival Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and no fan of the mayor.
With memories of Japan’s military aggression in the 1930s and 1940s still raw, even some conservative critics find Hashimoto’s tactics disturbing. Others worry about what they see as an authoritarian streak.
“Right now, he is fashioning domestic enemies — those in the minority and ‘vested interests,’” Yanagimoto said. “But I worry that if he goes on the national stage, foreign companies or even foreign countries could become the ‘enemies.’”
Some backers acknowledge that propelling Hashimoto, 42, to the nation’s top job, prime minister, would carry risks, but argue that Japan’s prolonged stagnation makes drastic action vital.
“Frankly, I do feel some sense of danger, but I am more worried about the situation now,” said Shimpei Fukuda, 36, a former aide to a ruling party member of parliament and a student at Hashimoto’s school. “The only option is change.”