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Osaka assemblywoman Mayu Murakami entered politics to change Japan, part of a group started by Mayor Toru Hashimoto in a bid to transform the country’s politics. It may have peaked too soon.
Public support for Hashimoto’s Japan Restoration Party has dropped as his positions on nuclear power and a territorial dispute with South Korea have drawn fire. Having once aimed to take more than 40 percent of the seats in the next election, the JRP has scaled back its ambitions and now is seeking ties with other opposition groups to weaken the two main parties.
“National support has fallen because voters aren’t getting the right information and are only hearing our opponents’ views,” said Murakami, 27. “If people who are really concerned about Japan’s future listen to what Hashimoto says in detail, I think they will support him.”
While Hashimoto’s popularity falters, embattled Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is grappling with a weakening economy and opposition demands to fulfill a pledge to call an election “soon.” The likely beneficiary is the Liberal Democratic Party, which after being ousted from half a century of control in 2009 has revived its fortunes under new leader Shinzo Abe, political analyst Koichi Nakano said.
“The more real Hashimoto’s entry into national politics gets, the more exposed he becomes,” said Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “If the election takes place soon, that would give an advantage to the LDP. Abe at this point is enjoying something like a honeymoon period and with the Hashimoto threat receding, that would be perfect timing for the LDP.”
The LDP’s popularity has risen since Abe, a former prime minister, took over as its head in September advocating a harder line on a territorial dispute with China that has hurt Asia’s two biggest economies. His party’s approval rating is 32 percent, double the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s 16 percent and almost five times that of the JRP’s seven percent, according to a Nikkei newspaper poll published Oct. 29.
A proponent of eliminating atomic power after last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, Hashimoto dropped his opposition to restarting two nearby atomic plants after it became clear Osaka would struggle to meet its power needs.
“To be honest, I chickened out over the risks of blackouts,” Hashimoto said at a June 8 press conference.
He suggested on Sept. 23 that disputed islets claimed by Japan and South Korea be jointly managed, a stance that goes against the position of both the DPJ and the LDP. The next day, he fired off dozens of messages on Twitter re-asserting Japan’s claims to the islets, known as Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korea.
Since the reversals, his fortunes have declined in the polls. The percentage of voters who plan to vote for JRP in the proportional representation section of the next election fell to 14.2 percent in a Fuji News Network poll published Oct. 7, from 23.8 percent the previous month. In a separate Kyodo News poll, the number fell to 13.9 percent from 17.6 percent in September. None of the polls gave a margin of error.
“Hashimoto may flame out pretty quickly,” said Gerald Curtis, a professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University in New York. “The longer the election is put off, the more his support will decline. For better or worse he is not a game changer.”
Hashimoto, 43, a lawyer and former television personality, in 2008 became governor of Osaka, the commercial center of western Japan with a $490 billion economy. He quit his post three years later to run for mayor, pledging to merge the two jobs to reduce bureaucracy and save money, and won with almost 60 percent of the vote.
He aims to build his Osaka-based party into a national force, tapping into voter discontent with both major parties over the response to the country’s record debt and more than a decade of deflation. The world’s third-largest economy faces a contraction in the second half of the year, battered by declines in industrial production and exports.
Japan’s industrial production fell 4.1 percent in September from the previous month, the steepest since last year’s earthquake and tsunami, while exports dropped 10.3 percent from a year earlier, according to government data.
JRP strategist Hitoshi Asada, chairman of the Osaka Prefectural Assembly, said support dropped because the party’s fresh image was tarnished by the necessary recruitment of nine little-known lawmakers from different parties to qualify as a political party. Hashimoto has said he will remain mayor and not run for parliament.
“We want to gather as much political power as possible for our own party, but it’s no easy matter,” Asada said. “The reason we exist is to act as a catalyst to bring together a group of people who can agree on principles and values.”
The JRP’s success depends in part on the candidates it will field in the election. Asada is part of a committee that has interviewed hundreds of hopefuls, while warning them they will have to raise money on their own, because the party will not qualify for government funding until April.
The party hopes to win about 75 seats in the 480-member lower house of parliament and is aiming to build a political bloc that will include twice that number of lawmakers, he said.
“I think there are a lot of people who want something not provided by the LDP or DPJ,” Asada said. “We are looking for fresh faces who will not let them down.”
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