Who knew a modern-day Adolf Hitler was running Osaka?
Certainly not the majority of the 2.7 million people in the western Japanese city. Toru Hashimoto boasts an approval rating more than twice that of the prime minister. Osakans love their mayor’s crusade against Tokyo’s dysfunction and absolute power over the country. It has Japan’s old guard running scared and comparing Hashimoto to Europe’s most notorious genocidal fascist.
If the world needs anything, it’s a moratorium on Hitler analogies. As much as one may dislike Barack Obama or George W. Bush, neither bears even the most fleeting resemblance to the maniacal German leader. Suggestions to the contrary are beyond ignorance and vandalize history. Yet for Japanese to turn to a man in this rarefied company speaks volumes about where Japan finds itself in a volatile global environment.
The desire for change reached a fever pitch after last year’s earthquake and tsunami. Even before the earth shook, the waters rose and radiation leaked on March 11, 2011, Japanese sensed Tokyo had lost its way. Many just hadn’t realized how much. Hence the Tea Party-like dynamic inherent to Hashimoto’s popularity. His drive for greater accountability, decentralized decision making and fresh ideas is as well-timed as it is frightening to the establishment.
Young and Telegenic
The words “a future prime minister” routinely accompany discussions of Hashimoto’s rapid rise. At 42, he’s young and telegenic in a nation where the other best-known regional leader, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, is 79. Hashimoto is unusually blunt in his criticism of national leaders, and his vision is at odds with the prevailing wisdom in Tokyo.
Frankly, I find some of Hashimoto’s platform borderline creepy. His party’s training program for aspiring leaders, the Restoration Politics Institute, smacks of nationalism. His inquisition against teachers who refuse to stand and sing when the national anthem is played -- some worry it celebrates Japan’s militaristic past -- is right-wing silliness. Giving the third degree to city workers with tattoos is just weird. Yes, Japanese traditionally associate body art with members of yakuza organized-crime groups. But in 2012, is it anyone’s business if some desk clerk inked Mickey Mouse on his back?
Yet at a time when Japanese are grasping for change, Hashimoto is what passes for a breath of fresh air. Take his stance against relying on nuclear power, one that enraged the national government. Hashimoto is doing what any elected leader should: heeding the will of the people. The large majority of Japan’s 126 million people no longer trust power companies and bureaucrats to protect them from another Chernobyl.
All Yoshihiko Noda has done since becoming prime minister in September is remind voters that the nuclear industry holds the puppet strings even after the Fukushima disaster. Hashimoto is fighting for people, not companies, and good for him. This gives you a sense of how dangerous divergent views are to vested interests in Tokyo -- and why Japan needs more of them.
Hashimoto’s calls for greater accountability and competition are particularly welcome. His party favors direct elections for prime minister, which would be a genuine revolution in Japan. It wants to scrap one of the two chambers of the Diet to hasten decision making and reduce the gridlock that stops virtually all change in Japan.
The dark side of this would be a charismatic leader becoming too powerful -- even dictatorial. That has opponents calling the movement “Hashism,” a play on fascism. This is a minor risk in a nation with so many checks and balances embedded in its postwar system of government. What really worries the establishment is new ideas that leave its carefully built fiefdoms out of the loop.
This really is the point. Japan is a prosperous, safe and politically stable place. Yet it may be a little too stable and, in turn, change-averse. Public debt is more than twice the size of Japan’s $5.5 trillion economy, the population is aging rapidly and its global competitiveness is waning. How is the government responding? All it seems capable of doing is naming a new prime minister every nine months and plotting tax increases.
Fitch Ratings put things well last week when it cut Japan’s sovereign-debt rating, calling the government’s fiscal strategy “leisurely.” Well, that description applies to everything from energy policy to raising productivity to boosting the birthrate to encouraging entrepreneurship to lowering trade barriers to improving corporate governance to increasing female participation in the labor force to liberalizing immigration.
Love the Tea Party or hate it, it challenged the status quo in Washington in unpredictable ways. The same goes for the Arab Spring, which not only shook the Middle East and North Africa, but also sent waves of fear through the halls of power from Beijing to Mexico City.
Japan, it has long been said, needs a new generation of leaders to step forward and engineer a major course correction. Hashimoto, love him or hate him, personifies it, and the extent to which he makes the establishment squirm, and play the Hitler card, suggests this political upstart is on to something.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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