Once upon a time, during Japan’s Imperial Age from 1894 to the end of World War II, the Land of the Rising Sun was known to be the strongest, most advanced country in East Asia. To assert its power in the region, Japan increased its military spending, went to war with Russia - winning - formally annexed Korea, colonized Taiwan and nearby islets and invaded China. This imperialistic behavior was a direct result of heightened nationalism, a sentiment that underlines a country’s national ideas, exemplifies its countrymen, stresses the importance of national security and becomes paranoid about its image both domestically and abroad.
Now, a new wave of nationalism seems to be sweeping over Japan. After the triple disaster brought by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, the Japanese have spiraled into a sense of distrust for their politicians. None of the leaders of the ruling left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) are believed to have successfully dealt with the catastrophe, nor to have been transparent about the effects of the cataclysm. As Japan’s relations with neighboring China and South Korea become increasingly vitriolic over territorial disputes – which spawn from Japan’s imperialist past – anger and resentment simmers on every end of the spectrum. Amidst the chaos, one figure has stolen the spotlight.
Former lawyer and TV personality Tōru Hashimoto assumed office as Osaka’s mayor in November 2011, when he won with 60.92%, the largest voter turnout in 40 years. Hashimoto’s father was a burakumin (historically outcast people considered impure) as well as a yakuza gang member. He committed suicide when Hashimoto was in second grade. By fifth grade, Hashimoto’s mother decided to relocate to Osaka and start anew. He now has seven children with his wife Noriko, whom he publicly admitted to have cheated on with a club hostess between 2006 and 2008. Despite his interesting past, this 43-year-old glib speaker and smooth persuader has become the most followed politician in Japan, and according to Asahi News, “some opinion polls show that Hashimoto's Japan Restoration Party is more popular than the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. In one TV survey it even ranked higher than the biggest opposition rival.”
Many Japanese hope that Tōru can turn the ship around and sail towards better horizons. The problem is that, at the outset, his policies are dramatic to say the least. In an interview on Fuji Television, Mr. Hashimoto compares Japan to old hardware: just as software development cannot get better if the hardware on which it runs is not upgraded, so too can politics not move forth if the underlying system remains the same. Hashimoto uses North Korea as an example: he explains that it does not matter who its leaders are if the system is rotten at the core.
According to a recent article on Asahi News, his party, the Nippon Ishin no Kai, plans to enable the public to directly elect the Prime Minister, empower the Lower House by possibly abolishing the Upper House, halve the Lower House members to 240, cut subsidies to political parties by 30% and prevent wasteful public spending by, for example, slashing support for the elderly. To spur economic growth, he plans to let Japan enter more Free Trade Agreements with various countries and invest ¥3 billion to stimulate opportunities for young people. He also plans to promote jobs in other energy sectors and gradually abolish Japan’s reliance on nuclear power, which Hashimoto wants to do away with by 2030.
The 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster is largely what made Hashimoto surface to light. His popularity was sparked by his eagerness to challenge the authorities in Tokyo by setting up his own investigation team, which he dispatched to the nuclear reactors to conduct research. However, behind this good-will chore may lie more sinister goals.
On June 29th, 2011, Mr. Hashimoto remarked, “The most essential thing in Japanese politics now is dictatorship.” He also proposed that Article 9 of the Japanese constitution be revised.
Article 9 states:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
Hashimoto would like to re-militarize Japan by advocating a referendum. He once commented, “not being able to have a war on its own is the most pitiful thing about Japan.” In addition, it is his party’s desire to enable constitutional revisions to pass with the approval of half the Diet members instead of two-thirds. Furthermore, the Ishin no Kai calls for more patriotism, forcing Japanese teachers to sing the national anthem. The Japan Times writes that his approach to politics has been labeled “Hashism” – an amalgamation of Hashimoto and Fascism. And it seems to be working quite well. Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Hokkaido University, subscribes to this viewpoint, claiming that many see him as the answer to their deep chagrin.
As the East Asia Gazette has written in the past, many Japanese ultra-conservatives deny Japan’s war-time crimes. Similarly, Hashimoto remarked that there is no evidence that Japan’s Imperial Army forced Korean or other Asian women to work as sex slaves. In fact, he said it was all just fiction. For this, he was admonished by a South Korean spokesman. Paradoxically, Hashimoto seeks to strengthen Japan’s ties with South Korea and Australia. At a time of extremely strained relations between the neighboring East Asian countries, Hashimoto might need to go back on his words if he wants Japan to maintain any relations with Korea at all.
Elections will be held before autumn next year. This should give major parties some time to refocus their priorities and perhaps align their views more closely with the people’s. And this is already happening. An article by Japan Today explains that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s administration is set to permanently shut down the country’s nuclear reactors by 2030, a policy which is meant to follow in the footsteps of Germany but which comes at a time when Tōru Hashimoto has made the same promise. This also comes at a time when a significant amount of radioactive cesium has turned up about 200 km away from Fukushima, on the north-western end of Japan, near the Shinano river according to a report by Asahi News.
Ironically, Hashimoto’s Ishin no Kai has emerged contemporaneously as Rurouni Kenshin, a popular Japanese animation, has turned to film. In Japan, it has immediately become a box-office success. Rurouni Kenshin tells of a vagrant samurai in the late Edo period (1603-1868) who began working with the Ishin shishi (Ishin warriors), fighting for the restoration of the Emperor and for the downfall of the Shogunate. While the parallel may seem a far stretch, much of Hashimoto’s rhetoric is centered around Japanese history. According to the Japan Times, Hashimoto “released a set of proposed policies for the political party that he formed — a policy platform he titled 'Senchū Hassaku,' which means 'Eight Policies Composed on Board a Ship.' This title refers to a plan of the same name written by Ryoma Sakamoto, one of the great reforming heroes of the Meiji Restoration. And as if another clue to the mayor's inspiration were needed, he called his party Osaka Ishin no Kai — using the word ishin (restoration), an unabashed reference to the Meiji past.”
Hashimoto is clearly inspired by the powerful clans of yore that dreamed of reforming Japan with their swords. However, he must also bear in mind the dire consequences that ultra-nationalism can bring in the long-run, as it did in World War II. Yet many seem to share his vision. In a poll conducted by Fuji News between September 1st and 2nd, people were asked “If there were elections for the Lower House now, which political organization would you vote for?” The answer: 23.8% of respondents said they would pick Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin no Kai. The LDP came in second with 21.7% of the votes, while the ruling DPJ came in third with 17.4%. Another question asked, “With the upcoming Lower House elections, do you hope Hashimoto Tōru’s party, the Osaka Ishin no Kai, will be able to influence the Japanese political scene?” A whopping 62% of voters said they hope so, 34.5% said they do not, and 3.5% said they don’t know.
It seems that the Japanese people will face a difficult choice in the looming 2013 elections: they will either have to vote for an injection of ultra-nationalism, or for the maintenance of an ineffective political culture that currently reigns.