Category Archives: Politics

The Hashist

One of the most curious things about the boyishly telegenic and viscerally ambitious Toru Hashimoto (pictured left), mayor of Japan’s second city, Osaka, is his name. Not how it sounds—Hashimoto is a common enough surname and Toru a familiar enough given name—but how it is written. Here it is in Japanese order, two-character surname first:


The problematic character is the middle one. Hashimoto is almost always rendered as 橋本 (usually) or 橋元 (more rarely), but to write it 橋下 makes me (and I suspect the average Japanese person) want to read it as “Hashishita” rather than “Hashimoto”. And thereby hangs a tale.

Although seen from Tokyo as the personification of Osaka boosterism, Hashimoto was actually born and brought up, until his fifth year of elementary school, a few stops out of Shinjuku station in the heart of Tokyo, which is why a Japanese acquaintance described his ability to speak persuasively in the Osakan dialect as “bimyo”, ambiguous.

His father’s roots, however, are in the Kansai region of western Japan where Osaka lies, specifically in an impoverished mountain-flank hamlet of some 60 dwellings whose name the media are collectively too terrified to reveal, because this is no humdrum hamlet but what is known in euphemism-drenched contemporary parlance as an “area subject to discrimination” (被差別地域), which, decoded, means a home to Japan’s once mightily despised and now largely ignored undercaste of tanners, gravediggers, and butchers, among other occupations deemed tainted, who down the centuries have gone by a myriad of names, among them eta (穢多, “mass of filth”, a word now so intensely incendiary that my PC PC simply refuses to summon it up), shin heimin (新平民, “new citizens”), burakumin (部落民, “village people”), and dowa (同和, “same as the Japanese”), the currently acceptable term.

When all citizens were required to take surnames sometime after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it appears that all the residents of the unnamable hamlet into which Hashimoto’s father was born chose, or were assigned, Hashishita (橋下) and that was the reading by which his father was known when, sometime after World War II, he left the hamlet for the city of Yao in Osaka Prefecture, where he took up residence in a dowa district (同和地区) and fell into yakuza circles, ending up as one of the three main movers and shakers (三羽烏) in a gangster gang. The father married outside of the dowa community and Hashimoto’s parents moved to Tokyo in the late 1960s, where Toru was born in 1969. In the early 1970s, the father grew estranged from his new family and drifted back to Osaka alone, where he gassed himself to death over debts incurred to other gangsters when young Toru was in the second year of elementary school. Soon after, Hashimoto’s mother changed the reading of her surname to Hashimoto from Hashishita, seemingly in part to sever ties with the rest of the Hashishitas but also because of the negative connotations of the name, for Hashishita (“under the bridge”) carries implications of vagrancy and homelessness whereas Hashimoto (“foot of the bridge”) does not.

Three years after Hashimoto’s father killed himself, Toru, now in the fifth grade of elementary school, and his mother moved to Osaka, where they ended up—coincidentally or not, it is hard to be sure—in a dowa district of Osaka City. His mother, although apparently eligible, refused the rent reduction the city offers to dowa (同和減免措置) and Toru, although his junior high school offered a special education program for dowa (同和教育), was adamantly opposed and took the regular classes. While it is clear that Toru was aware of his dowa heritage from an early age—his father is buried in a cemetery reserved for dowa in Yao—it seems that he only learned of his father’s gangster background from the media after he rose to fame. In public, at least before the investigative journalists from the weeklies broke the story of his father’s background, Hashimoto would deny his dowa roots, saying, “Although we lived in a dowa neighborhood, we weren’t dowa ourselves, so we couldn’t get subsidies, which really hacked me off. I don’t do the dowa problem”.

Although by his own admission not particularly academic, Hashimoto made it into Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University at the second attempt and, after passing the bar exams, registered as a lawyer with the Osaka Bar Association in 1997 at the relatively young age of 28, striking out on his own the following year as a specialist in corporate compliance and M&A, among other fields. He subsequently gained notoriety on Kansai-area talk shows as a celebrity lawyer for the extreme forthrightness with which he expressed his opinions, of which he has many, and was catapulted to his first taste of political power on a nebulous platform of change (slogan: “an Osaka where children laugh”) in the January 2008 Osaka gubernatorial election, backed by the Liberal Democratic Party, in which he won an absolute majority of the votes cast. He resigned as governor before the end of his first term and in November last year succeeded in both winning the Osaka City mayoral election and maneuvering an ally, Ichiro Matsui, into the governorship.

So who is Toru Hashimoto, what does he believe in, and what does he want? There’s something of the shtark, the spiv, the shyster about him—you feel that he’s always about to peel back the jacket of his suit to reveal row after row of Rolex knock-offs on silken racks in the lining. He was cautioned for stealing a bicycle in junior high and, while still a university student, could be found running a tidy little wholesale sideline in leather jackets until someone ripped him off. As a lawyer, he acted as an advisor between 1999 and 2004 for a small-business loan firm (less politely, a usurer) called Cities, regarded by lawyers for the heavily indebted as one of the most intransigent and recalcitrant of any company of its type—and that is saying something. In July 2010, when the brouhaha about the possible extinction of the consumer finance (read: loanshark) industry because of new regulations was at its zenith, he proposed a special-zone concept for the money-lending industry (貸金業特区構想) that would relax the incoming restrictions on the maximum that can legally be borrowed and restore the pre-reform maximum interest rate of 29.2% on loans of less than Y200,000 (just over $2,500) with durations of a year or less. As a friend who is intimately familiar with the underbelly of Japanese loansharking world—and who shares with many Tokyoites a certain metropolitan disdain for Osaka and all its works—said with deep glee, “It is just such an Osaka-rashii idea, just so typically Osaka!”

Hashimoto is also an ardent supporter of the legalization of casinos and, even more controversially, wants to restore some of Osaka’s red-light districts that were cleaned up ahead of The International Garden and Greenery Exposition in 1990. He is on record as an admirer of cockroaches, as they flee quickly and have an acute sense of danger, and had some eyebrow-raising things to say on the subject of rules in general in his 2006 book, Mattou Shoubu:

Unless we build a Japan in which people who sneak through the cracks in the rules are applauded, this country will not survive in the international society of the future.
Wringing out ideas that get around the rules, isn’t that what’s most needed in today’s Japan?!?
It’s only clear rules that are the basis of actions, and where there are no regulations defined by clear rules, then I don’t care what anyone does.

Hashimoto’s political and social philosophy, such as it is, strikes me as being grounded in the Victorian self-help mentality of a Samuel Smiles. Like many a successful man of humble origins, he simply cannot fathom why everyone should not be able to prosper, as he has, by dint of industry and application. In a prefectural assembly debate in 2008 he defended the cuts his administration was making in support for poor students attending private high schools: “In today’s world, the first and foremost principle is self-responsibility. No one is going to save you.” (今の世の中は、自己責任がまず原則ですよ。誰も救ってくれない。) This is tempered, to be fair, with a belief that those unable to clamber into the sumo ring of competition, such as the disabled, should be offered all due assistance. Though partly of dowa stock himself, he won support from the (very) far right in the Osaka gubernatorial election for his pledge to cut the dowa measures budget to zero and in another 2008 prefectural assembly debate, had the following to say on the dowa:

I was brought up in a so-called dowa district. The dowa problem hasn’t been solved at all. But just because there’s still prejudice, the question of whether they should be given special preferential treatment—well, that’s a different matter.

Despite having been bullied himself at school because of his inarticulacy in the Osaka dialect when he arrived from Tokyo, Hashimoto has no shred of sympathy for the victims of bullying:

There’s bullying wherever you go. If you can’t get over something like that, what are you going to do in the rest of your life?

In some ways, Hashimoto reminds me of nothing so much as a crusty old hang ’em and flog ’em Tory from the shires, a breed now nearly vanished from the shores of Britain. Although in an interview he has claimed his sole memory of his father was of having had the living daylights thrashed out of him, aged three, by the old man for throwing chopsticks across the dinner table, he has boasted elsewhere, immune to the layers of irony, that he beat one of his own kids for 50 minutes straight for having been caught bullying—beaten for bullying, I should add, not for having been caught. He called for the swift hanging of the perpetrator of an indiscriminate knife attack in 2001 at an Osaka elementary school that left 8 students dead—and was duly rewarded. Of the near gang-rape of a fourth year elementary-school girl (who was thus about 10 years old) in the Kansai city of Amagasaki in 2006, Hashimoto hinted that she might have been asking for it, although how a prepubescent girl asks for something about which she knows nothing beggars my feeble imagination:

It all hinges on whether they took off the girl’s clothes, or whether she took them off herself.

Hashimoto has a rusty axe to grind about education, about which his beliefs are a perplexing brew of the sensibly iconoclastic—he is a vociferous critic of Japan’s cram-and-rote-learning system and a supporter of a more diverse entry system for state high schools, with non-academic criteria such as sporting ability to be taken into account—the mainstream global right—classes streamed by academic ability and school vouchers—and the dismal pedagogy of the Gradgrind: he wants useful education, whatever that might be, not education imposed from above, and believes the core curriculum should be stripped down to reading and writing, the abacus, and the inculcation of respect for one’s superiors. He is a remorseless foe of Nikkyoso, the Japan Teachers Union, which although a shadow of its onetime self I think Karel van Wolferen was right all those years ago in identifying in The Enigma of Japanese Power as the only liberal-leftist opposition to the paternalist monolith, and a backer of former Transport Minister Nariaki Nakayama (now, aged 68, settling comfortably in to that political retirement home for old fogeys, The Sunset Party of Japan), who, possessed by a form of hysteria, once dubbed Nikkyoso “the cancer of Japan”.

As any ill thought through and hastily articulated political worldview is bound to be, Hashimoto-ism is a bundle of contradictions: he wants to arm Japan with nuclear weapons and bring back conscription, yet—at least since the Fukushima disaster—has come out against nuclear power. While in favor of Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, he hopes the gods forefend that foreigners, no matter how many generations their families might have been in the country, be allowed to vote in even local elections. Hokkaido University professor Jiro Yamaguchi coined the brutal portmanteau “Hashism” to condemn our Hash’s authoritarian tendencies, amply documented in a comment made in June last year:

In Japanese politics these days, the most important thing is dictatorship. Having so much power you’re called a dictator.

and in a 2009 slanging e-mail match with his own staff:

You’re frighteningly unconcerned that the prefecture has lost Y38bn [about $500mn] by failing to forecast water demand. No one seems worried. If this was a private-sector company, the whole lot of you would be quivering in shock! … Organizations in which people’s pay is guaranteed no matter what happens are terrifying.

A female prefectural bureaucrat had the temerity to send him a rebuke, to which he responded:

First, don’t give your boss any sass. I’m your boss. I’m the head of this organization. Time to acquire some common sense. As the head, I’m giving you a serious warning. If you’ve got a bone to pick, come to my office and I’ll hear you out. 

Ultimately, the poor woman was given a—probably career-destroying—official reprimand. Around here, we’ve come to call this kind of toy-throwing tantrum “pawa hara”, power harassment.

But like many a politician on the make, what Hashimoto believes in most ardently is himself. Unlike the others, though, he’s not in the least ashamed to admit it:

What’s wrong with a lust for power and glory as a motivation for becoming a politician? Why do politicians blather on about serving the people, serving the country—such bullshit! (Literally, “it makes my arsehole itch”.) Setting one’s sights on being a politician, that’s the pinnacle of a lust for power, a lust for glory. After that comes doing it for the people, doing it for the country. Us politicians have to grudgingly serve the people so as to satisfy our lust for power, our lust for glory. 

As a shoot-from-the-hip, take-no-prisoners politician possessed of many an unsound view, Hashimoto has amassed down the years a glorious rogues’ gallery of gaffes that deserve to be framed and exhibited, as Doonesbury does with the wisdom and wit of a Bush or a Gingrich. Here’s a random assortment:

People who like [the traditional performing arts of] noh and kyogen are weirdoes!

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down too well with the practitioners of noh and kyogen and their trade associations.

Whoring by the Japanese in China is a kind of ODA.

Astonishing how much offensive condescension can be packed into so few words. This talk-show spasm did at least provoke an impromptu and tear-stained on-air apology the following week.

Shitty boards of education

This was said in reference to municipal boards of education that refuse to disclose percentages of correct answers scored in scholastic tests at the local authority level. In a language almost bereft of swear words and yet with vast scrolls of verboten taboo-to-broadcast expressions, this is more shocking than it might seem to outsiders. Hashimoto was rapped over the knuckles by his own mother for this; he apologized but did not withdraw the comment.

On a Fuji TV program in 2006, Hashimoto infringed one of the many taboos by using the banned word “cripple” (びっこ引いている), which elicited an immediate apology from both him and the compere, Sawako Agawa, to whom he said on-air a couple of months later, “If it was up to me, I’d knock you up straight away” (いまの僕なら阿川さんを即妊娠させられますよ), which earned him a complaint from the Osaka Bar Association that he had brought the dignity of the profession into doubt.

In 2008, Hashimoto had a contretemps with the ever-so-slightly left-of-center Asahi Shimbun, which had published an editorial critical of his posturing:

The world would be better off if the Asahi disappeared. It’s a totally foolish institution. I hope it goes out of business soon. The paper seems to think it’s fine to badmouth the powers that be.

If the number of adults that just badmouth people like the Asahi does increases, then this country’s done for!

Hashimoto is by no means a fan of NEETs, young people not in education, employment, or training, an acronym that originated in the UK and spread swiftly to the Far East:

Lock them up and set them to forced labor!
Folk who don’t pay taxes aren’t entitled to live. 

With NEETs not having anyone in particular to stand up for them, these comments went uncensured.

One of the most contentious left-right tug-of-war freedom-of-conscience issues is that of forcing teachers to stand, face the Rising Sun, and sing Kimigayo at school ceremonies. Here’s what the Hash thinks:

Civil servants who repudiate the flag and the national anthem should quit. Antics that make light of their unsackability are absolutely intolerable.

And finally, a dig at the sleepy Sea of Japan backwater (he’s got me at it now) of Tottori, a long put-upon butt of jokes:

Tottori’s got about 600,000 people, but 40-odd members of the prefectural assembly. Six would be enough!

Osaka has 109 prefectural assembly members for 8.9mn people, one for every 80,000 citizens, while Tottori has 35 for 585,000 people, one for every 17,000 citizens, so Hashimoto might be said to have a point, but this is not the sort of comment with which a politician can get off scot-free, and Hashimoto, having trampled on delicate provincial sensibilities, was forced to murmur an apology.

Although not gaffes, two quotations about his children—he now has seven—reveal him to be a stay-away, hands-off dad of orthodox ilk, as uninterested in their welfare as his father was in his:

I’ve got seven kids but I haven’t had anything to do with their upbringing, so the wife asks me how I can spout off about childrearing.

I’ve got six kids but if the wife wasn’t around, spending 30 minutes with them would be about my limit.

At least some of these gaffes would in the West be darts toxic enough to stun the advance of even the most bull elephant of politicos but here, while we assiduously sort them into categories—was it a “slip of the tongue” (失言), a “problematic utterance” (問題になった発言), or the amorphous catch-all, “words or deeds that became a talking point” (話題になった言動)— the culprits soldier on. After all, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, a wholly unreconstructed racist and misogynist whose gaffistry makes Hashimoto look like a rank wet-behind-the-ears amateur, is on his fourth successive term, and nothing, but nothing, he says, even his declaration that the Great East Japan Earthquake last year was divine punishment (天罰) for the greed of modern Japan, can stop him in his tracks. Why this occurs, I can only speculate: that these populist demagogues are in many cases channeling the opinions, sometimes repressed by decorum, of an on-balance archly conservative electorate more than willing to indulge the odd gadfly here, the grumpy maverick there, if only for entertainment value, as long as they do not get too close to the levers of power. 

But there are always specifics at play, too, and the popularity of Hashimoto in his Osaka bastion can be explained by his eagerness to shake a devolutionary fist at Tokyo, the center of power in a highly centralized state, and the woes of Osaka itself, expressed as well as anywhere on the website of his new party, Osaka Ishin no Kai (大阪維新の会), glossed variously as One Osaka and the Osaka Restoration Party.   

Per capita prefectural income in Osaka Prefecture fell to Y3.08mn (c$39,000 but around $31,000 at PPP, very roughly the same level as Spain or South Korea) in 2006 from Y3.57mn in 1996, down by close to Y500,000 (14%) over the decade. In Osaka City, the decline was even more dramatic: the city’s per capita income was Y4.12mn in 1996, close to Tokyo’s Y4.27mn, but while Tokyo’s rose to Y4.82mn in 2006, Osaka City’s fell to Y3.44mn (down 16.5% on the decade), creating a gap of around Y1.4mn. The prefecture has the highest welfare rates in the country and unemployment blackspots as bad as anywhere, and with many of its leading corporate lights such as Sharp and Panasonic now adrift in seven seas of misery, the troubled present augurs more pain to come.

On arrival as governor in February 2008, Hashimoto inherited a monstrous prefectural debt of around Y6trn (approximately $10,000 a head), the legacy of a decade of fiscal mismanagement and deficits, and his first act was to declare a financial crisis and vow to cut the budget by Y100bn (about $1.3bn) a year. He managed to prune Y244bn over three years in what I’ll concede was a gutsy performance that started with his own salary, which he slashed by 30%, and that naturally earned him a host of enemies. As Osaka mayor, he will doubtless be anxious to take the same scalpel to the bloated municipal body, and in a city where the average bus driver earns somewhere between Y7.5mn ($95,000) and Y9mn ($115,000) a year, depending on which source you consult, and a third of sewage maintenance workers reputedly were until recently pulling down more than Y10mn ($130,000) annually, few could dispute that there is flab for the trimming.

As governor, Hashimoto can also be credited—to a degree—with cleaning up crime: Osaka has long been notorious as the crime capital of the country (these things are of course relative—Osaka is no Detroit). Some pragmatic initiatives—thousands of CCTVs and bright LED streetlights, ring-fencing the police budget from the worst of the cuts—helped reduce the number of reported crimes by 24% from 2007 to 2010, ahead of the 17% reduction recorded nationwide. Finally, after 35 inglorious years, Osaka ceded the title of national pick-pocketing champion to Tokyo in 2010. And for such an avowed autocrat, Hashimoto governed with a surprisingly liberal streak in some respects, pushing Osaka up the national information disclosure rankings, as compiled by the National Ombudsman Conference, from 28th out of 47 in 2007 to first in 2010.

The policy for which Hashimoto is now best known, however, is an arcane one: he wants to make Osaka Prefecture the administrative mirror-image of Tokyo. As he perceives it, the problem is that, although the population of Osaka is similar to that of a New York or London, administratively it is a patchwork quilt of 43 separate local authorities—33 cities, 22 of them with more than 100,000 people, nine towns, and a solitary village—which breeds overlapping provision of services and general inefficiency. The plan is to merge Osaka City with 10 of its surrounding cities, turn them into 20 wards, aping the 23 wards of Tokyo, and then turn Osaka Prefecture into a city. Without delving deeply into the minutiae of the pros and cons of the plan, its single biggest drawback, to this observer leastways, is that it rests on a specious piece of a priori reasoning: that to make Osaka look, administratively, like Tokyo will make it behave, economically, like Tokyo. It won’t, because the causes of the gaps that have opened up over the last dozen or so years between the capital and the second city—globalization, technological advance and commoditization, and the steady whittling away of the industrial base, to name but three interlocking phenomena—are not going to be ameliorated, let alone sent into reverse, by a dose of administrative tinkering.

No matter: Hashimoto is a—very resolute—man with a plan. To push it through, though, he will need not only the unwavering commitment of the wavering people of Osaka and the unqualified support of the heads of all affected municipalities, which has not been uniformly forthcoming, but also approval of revisions to the relevant laws by both houses of the Diet, which will require cross-party consensus, all of which will be a very tall order indeed. My suspicion, though, is that he is using the plan as a means to an end, that end being to orchestrate a revolt of the regions and vault himself onto the national political stage as a Napoleonic colossus astride the horse of a new, third-party force. He wouldn’t be the first dowa boy made good in national politics by any means—former minister for post-earthquake reconstruction Ryu Matsumoto, whose career imploded so spectacularly and entertainingly in a blizzard of boorishness one Sunday last summer, is the grandson of the founder of the Buraku Liberation League—but he would be the first with a gaze fixed so snake-like on the ultimate political prize, the keys to the Kantei. It was, I believe, former PM Taro Aso—no friend to the dowa—who said that it would be impossible for someone of dowa lineage to become prime minister. In Hashimoto, we might just see that assertion put to the test.  

Whoever said that Japanese politics was dull?

 [An apology, a justification, and a recommendation: This post relies on intelligence gleaned from a handful of websites, a couple of articles from the business weeklies, and a smattering of general knowledge. Amazing what you can unearth through just a little fossicking in the leaf-litter, though. The original Japanese quotations I inserted as something is always lost in translation: to take one tiny example, “zettai yurusanai”, rendered here as “absolutely intolerable”, loses the insistent aggression of the double-t plosive in “zettai”. Finally, for those seriously interested in the ins-and-outs of politics, Japanese style, I can do no better than recommend Michael Cucek’s splendid blog, Shisaku. How he stays so immaculately well informed is a constant wonder and mystery.]