Gathered in a hall in the city of Osaka, about 900 students at Toru Hashimoto’s school for candidates listen raptly as the populist mayor issues a clarion call to shake up Japan’s deadlocked politics in an election that could come this year.
“It means nothing if you do not win. I don’t know when it will be, but everyone, get ready,” said a shirt-sleeved Mr. Hashimoto, wrapping up a speech in which he blasted mainstream parties, chided the news media and pledged to speak for a silent majority.
“Become warriors. Let’s fight together. Let’s change Japan.”
Detractors call the boyish-looking mayor, who will be 43 on Friday, a dangerous, rightwing populist who targets unpopular groups such as overpaid civil servants, tattoo-sporting city workers and electric power companies discredited by the Fukushima nuclear crisis, and bashes them to public applause.
Fans argue his brand of strong leadership is what Japan needs to break out of decades of policy impasse that last month prompted rating agency Fitch to downgrade its credit status.
Either way, Mr. Hashimoto’s ability to tap voter discontent far beyond the western city of Osaka means the former lawyer and TV talk show celebrity has the potential to shake up Japan, with far-reaching results for the world’s third-biggest economy and its neighbours.
Mr. Hashimoto’s stronghold is in Osaka, Japan’s second-largest but declining metropolitan area, where business executives dream of reviving past commercial glories.
After resigning as governor of Osaka Prefecture in 2011, he won a landslide victory to become city mayor on a platform attacking scandal-tainted civil servants while promising to unify city and prefecture governments to eradicate duplication and cut wasteful spending.
“In a situation where people felt a sense of deadlock over a stagnant economy, deflation, a lack of jobs or stalled income and wanted to change something, Hashimoto’s easy-to-understand call for change resonated in people’s hearts,” said Akira Yanagimoto, a city assembly member from the rival Liberal Democratic Party and no fan of the mayor.
Clearly, there is a deep well of disillusion to tap. Nearly 80 per cent of Japanese are dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country, while 86 per cent said the government is having a bad influence, according to a recent survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
His insistence that public school teachers sing the national anthem – for some still a symbol of prewar militarism – at ceremonies and a ban on city workers having tattoos, long associated with “yakuza” gangsters, upset liberals.
“He is a kind of nationalist” but not extreme, said Shinichi Kitaoka of the Institute for International Policy Studies. “But he is still surrounded by more hawkish people.”
The platform of Mr. Hashimoto’s Ishin no Kai group includes radical reforms such as abolishing the upper house, whose ability to block legislation in a divided parliament has been one reason for political stalemate, and the direct election of the prime minister by voters rather than by parliament. Both innovations would require hard-to-achieve constitutional reform.
Mr. Hashimoto adopted an anti-nuclear position after last year’s disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant. But he softened his opposition to restarting two reactors after lobbying by business groups about the dangers of blackouts.
Whether Mr. Has himoto himself will take a shot at parliament, a prerequisite to becoming premier, is unclear. Some say it would be tough for him to quit as mayor mid-stream. Others argue that, ultimately, he will not be able to resist.