LOCALS in Osaka, Japan’s second city, are glued to their television screens watching the spring sumo-wrestling tournament. The final round falls on March 23rd. They are considerably less enthralled by the political contest of the week. For the mayor, Toru Hashimoto, has called a snap election on the very same day as the sumo final. Yet he is, in effect, voters’ only choice in the poll. No other serious political party is fielding a candidate, because Mr Hashimoto will still win, but it will be with a very low turnout. As one local joke has it, he is wrestling only himself.
It is all a far cry from a year and a half ago, when the young, right-wing Mr Hashimoto electrified the political scene with a new political outfit, the Japan Restoration Party (JRP). His radical ideas about decentralisation, committing Japan to trade liberalisation and abolishing the upper house of parliament made him seem a reformist heavyweight who could go far in national politics. In the election for the lower house of parliament in December 2012, the JRP, co-led by the still-more-nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, a former governor of Tokyo, took 54 seats, just behind the Democratic Party of Japan.
The chosen one
In fact, Mr Hashimoto’s right-wing views proved his undoing. In May 2013 he stated that Japan’s wartime system of using “comfort women” from South Korea and other countries to provide sexual services to Japanese troops was necessary at the time. He was aiming to lend support to earlier comments in parliament by his friend, Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, which also called into question whether Japan had been an aggressor during the war. Condemnation followed, both internationally and locally. The public’s verdict was also clear. In the election for the upper house of parliament two months later, the JRP won just eight seats.
Now things are going wrong on Mr Hashimoto’s home turf, too. The reform he holds dearest is his plan, called “Osaka Metropolis”, to unify the city’s government with that of the prefecture. One aim is to save money. Having a dual system of government, he says, has already wasted some ¥1.6 trillion ($16 billion). The reform also fulfils his broader aim to wrest power from the central government in Tokyo. But now, emboldened by the mayor’s fading national popularity, local figures are turning against the plan. It was the dissent of formerly loyal politicians from New Komeito, a Buddhist-backed party, which prompted a furious Mr Hashimoto to call the snap election.
That is not going down well with Osakans. Many struggle to understand how the metropolis plan would benefit them, says Isao Kinoshita, editor of Osaka Nichi-Nichi Shimbun, a local paper. Campaigning this week, Mr Hashimoto was reduced to complex diagrams and a red-tipped pointer to explain his scheme. Voters seemed bemused. “How many old-people’s homes will you build?” interrupted one. Another headache is the opposition of Osami Takeyama, mayor of Sakai, a smaller city in Osaka prefecture. He loathes the idea of Sakai being restructured into a single administration, and this week published a book about his campaign against the diminished Mr Hashimoto.
Failure to bring off the metropolis plan could lead to Mr Hashimoto’s exit from politics altogether. Though for now it still has some clout, the JRP is expected to lose seats in the next lower-house election, due by December 2016. It has suffered partly because most of Mr Hashimoto’s best ideas were stolen by the government of Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. In an ambitious plan to revive Japan’s economy, Mr Abe has joined talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement, as Mr Hashimoto recommended. The government wants to loosen stifling regulations and to give more power to the regions in a series of freewheeling special economic zones, to include Osaka. Yet blame also rests squarely with Mr Hashimoto for allowing his revisionist views on history to overwhelm his reforming zeal. The question is whether Mr Abe can avoid the same fate. His announcement on March 14th that he will not seek revision of an apology made to comfort women in 1993 by the chief cabinet secretary of the time, Yohei Kono, suggests that Mr Abe may have learned from Mr Hashimoto’s mistakes.