Outspoken Toru Hashimoto may have to quit as Japan Restoration Party leader

Toru Hashimoto's outspokenness about the benefits of prostitutes for troops makes it likely the Osakan will fall on his sword to save his party

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 7:36am

Rumours have constantly swirled around the life of Toru Hashimoto, the colourful mayor of Osaka and the founder of the nationalist Nippon Ishin no Kai, or the Japan Restoration Party (JRP).

There were the whispers about his late father's links to Japan's notorious underworld groups; questions over why his mother subsequently changed their family name; and, more recently, raised eyebrows about the wisdom of expressing the belief that the "comfort women" who were forced to provide sex to Imperial Japan's military in the early decades of the last century were a necessity of war.

Offensive to people in countries that were invaded and colonised in the last century, as well as women in general, 43-year-old Hashimoto compounded his problems by offending the United States by suggesting their troops in Okinawa expend their energies on the local prostitutes.

Now the rumours have started again, and they are getting stronger. If they are to be believed, Hashimoto is growing tired of the criticisms that he has had to put up with and is equally aware that remaining as head of the JRP could fatally damage its chances in the Upper House elections scheduled for July.

The signs are that Hashimoto will step down before the election to give his successor a better shot at becoming the third force in national politics that he envisaged when he set up the party in September. The rumours have not been scotched by Hashimoto's victory in the Osaka assembly on Thursday evening, when two motions condemning his comments justifying "comfort women" and on US forces in Okinawa were defeated in a vote.

Once Hashimoto has gone, so the stories go, he will go back to being a lawyer at his Osaka legal practice and being provocative and controversial on television chat shows. That is from where his meteoric rise to mayor of Osaka and head of a national political party all began.

"It would definitely be a smart move for the party because, as things look right now, it's likely they will be beaten into a poor third place in the election and may sink below Your Party into fourth position," said Jun Okumura, an international relations analyst with the Eurasia Group.

"It has been a precipitous fall for Hashimoto's party but it is possible that his resignation would stem the immediate bleeding, although I'm not sure that it could revive the party's fortunes entirely," he said. "To start with, there would be the question of the new leader of the party."

Shintaro Ishihara is joint leader of the JRP and as much a nationalist as Hashimoto, although at the age of 83 he is from a vastly different generation and may lack the stamina for a prolonged political fight or the appeal to younger voters. He is also unlikely to be popular with women after famously stating that "old women who live after they have lost their reproductive function are useless and are committing a sin".

Japanese politics has been, without a doubt, enlivened by the presence of Hashimoto and what some see as his utter honesty - not an attribute that politicians are often accused of, but one that they must equally learn to wield with caution.

Hashimoto was born with the surname Hashishita in Tokyo in 1969, but his father - a member of the yakuza underworld - died when he was in the second grade of elementary school. Shortly afterwards, his mother changed the family name to Hashimoto because Hashishita - the kanji characters for which literally read "under the bridge" - is linked to the burakumin minority that have traditionally been the target for discrimination because they were employed in "unclean" industries in previous eras.

The family moved to Suita in Osaka three years later and Hashimoto managed to get a place, at the third attempt, to read law at Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University. Graduating in 1994, he passed the bar examination the same year and set up his own law firm in Osaka in 1998, specialising in corporate law, entertainment law and dispute resolution.

As his profile rose, he began to be invited on to local radio and television programmes.

"I knew him when we worked together on TV shows in Osaka about seven years ago," said Yoshie Nakano, a psychologist. "At the time, I had the very strong impression that he was actually a very quiet man, thoughtful and even quite introverted.

"But as he became more popular, he built his own style as a TV commentator and a lawyer so that in front of the cameras he was much more of an extrovert and was keen to talk about controversial topics," she told the Sunday Morning Post. "But I do not remember him ever making extreme comments on issues, like he has done recently."

From a psychologist's perspective, Nakano describes Hashimoto as a "trickster".

"He likes to throw out extraordinary ideas to the group and then enjoys seeing them make a big deal out of it," she said. "When he is trying to get across a new idea or a specific aspect, it is like he is trying to educate people. He almost sees it as his mission."

The public support that Hashimoto began to attract caught the eye of the Liberal Democratic Party, which offered to support him if he would run for governor of Osaka prefecture in January 2008. Voted into office with 54 per cent of the vote, he later founded the Osaka Restoration Association as a regional political party with the aim of instilling new vitality in the city.

He went head-to-head with some powerful and well-established local politicians on a number of key issues, such as consolidating Osaka's two airports, but still had sufficient support to resign as governor to run for mayor of the city in November 2011.

The controversies continued; he banned city employees with tattoos from working in positions where they could come in contact with the public and admitted having an extramarital affair with a club hostess between 2006 and 2008. He also had a feud with the left-of-centre Asahi newspaper after it published a series of stories about his father's yakuza links and burakumin heritage.

On September 12, buoyed by his popularity in Osaka and ambitions of recreating that on the national stage, Hashimoto launched the JRP.

Initially, the new party fared well and attracted defectors from more established parties as it sought to build its power base. Polls not too many weeks ago put the JRP neck-and-neck with the Democratic Party of Japan, which had been the ruling party as recently as December.

And then came the comments - starting with the claim that comfort women were "necessary" so soldiers could get some "rest" during second world war - that have undone the strides he made in the past five years. Efforts to talk his way out of the corner he had painted himself into were shown to be semantics.

"I would say that Hashimoto is about as honest a politician as you could find," said Okumura. "Others adopt a public persona, but he doesn't."

This what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach is part of "an effort to engage in honest dialogue on difficult issues", Okumura said. "But I don't think he calculated the political consequences of being so honest."