TOKYO, Japan — A dramatic fall in support for a prime minister just months after he took office is hardly novel in Japan's leadership merry-go-round. But when a charismatic, popular young politician is waiting in the wings, the prospect of a snap election has the country on the cusp of potentially momentous change.
Japan's most talked-about politician is not its leader, Yoshihiko Noda, or even the perennial headline seeker, Ichiro Ozawa. He is Toru Hashimoto, a 43-year-old lawyer with no experience in national office, whose radical manifesto for change is eliciting praise and scorn in roughly equal measure.
Not even the recent revelation of an extramarital affair six years ago appears to have knocked the Hashimoto bandwagon off course, as Japan prepares for a rumored election that could leave the established parties scrambling to court the mayor of Osaka and his band of rookie politicians.
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His Osaka Restoration Group (Ishin no Kai) is the most visible of several locally organized parties that are expected to benefit from widespread frustration with politics as usual. Japan does not have to hold a general election until summer 2013, but speculation is building that Noda, severely weakened by the recent Ozawa-led exodus from his party, could be forced to the polls much earlier.
Whether or not Hashimoto, who became mayor of Japan's second city late last year, will run for parliament is open to debate. He has dismissed speculation that he will make an immediate jump from local to national politics, saying he still has work to do in Osaka.
His influence is more likely to be felt by proxy through his party, which plans to field as many 300 candidates in the next election. Its candidates will be handpicked from among the graduates of a political finishing school Hashimoto launched earlier this year.
"The next election is our last chance to change Japan," he told his proteges recently. "If there are voices calling for Osaka's example to spread across Japan, [we] will respond firmly to those calls. Japan's old politics has to be swept away and a new politics built in its place."
What does that "new politics" look like?
From his power base in Osaka, a port city faced with huge debts, failing schools and the highest proportion of welfare recipients in the country, Hashimoto has achieved popularity, and notoriety, with attacks on inept national politicians and calls for a more presidential style of leadership.
Shintaro Ishihara, the right-wing governor of Tokyo who could yet emerge as a key ally, has written about the Japan that can say "no"; Hashimoto, though, is more concerned about the Japan that, in its constant search for consensus, simply can't make up its mind.
"Japan is a democracy but it can't make decisions," he said recently. "We have endless discussions and take on board everyone's opinion, but nothing ever comes of it."
To drag Japan out of its stasis, he wants direct elections for the prime minister, the abolition of the upper house, more political control of the bureaucracy and a revised constitution that would allow Japan to defend itself, and even develop its own nuclear deterrent, rather than rely on the US to guarantee its security.
"Not being able to have a war on its own," he has said, "is the most pitiful thing about Japan."
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In many ways his agenda reads like a right-wing Republican wish list: smaller government, lower taxes, deregulation and competition, and an end to the culture of welfare dependancy.
To his detractors, his ideas amount to a license for a return to pre-war authoritarian government that one wag has labeled "Hashism." The mayor has not helped dispel those fears with his combative language. "What Japan needs is a dictatorship," he has said. He told his followers to "become warriors. Let's fight together. Let's change Japan."
The man himself is as intriguing as his agenda, and may go some way towards explaining why voters in Osaka have given him such overwhelming victories in local elections. While the upper echelons of national governments have been stuffed with the offspring of the political class, Hashimoto is a genuine outsider.
He was born in Tokyo and raised by his mother in a poor district of Osaka after his parents divorced. He never knew his father, a construction worker and member of the yakuza, who committed suicide after becoming indebted to underworld associates while his son was still young.
He went on to study at Waseda, a prestigious private university in Tokyo, and became a familiar face on TV offering his views as a celebrity lawyer before running for Osaka governor in 2008. He has seven children and won the father of the year award in 2006 — embarrassingly, the same year he admits he was having an affair.
But his infidelity, like his family's connections to the mob, have failed to dent his popularity.
The only person capable of stoping Hashimoto from occupying a seat in parliament — and positioning himself for higher office — is Hashimoto himself.
"He probably won't run this time," says Yuji Yoshitomi, an Osaka-based journalist who has written a book about Hashimoto. "But the problem for [Osaka Restoration Group] is that its popularity is entirely dependent on him."
Yoshitomi believes Hashimoto may wait to see what kind of political arrangement emerges from the next election before deciding on his future.
At the very least, a decent showing by Ishin no Kai — perhaps 60 out of 480 seats in the lower house — could be the catalyst for dramatic changes in Japan's political landscape.
"The DPJ is in trouble and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] is in no fit state to fill the void, so the time is ripe for [Osaka Restoration Group] and other regional parties," Yoshitomi says. "The next election could see the birth of a new kind of Japanese politics."
But as his ambitions become clear, Hashimoto's trajectory may not be as smooth as he hopes. More than 50 former and current city officials in Osaka are suing him after being ordered to divulge their union and political affiliations in a questionnaire. His insistence that teachers sing the national anthem at school ceremonies, and his crackdown on tattooed municipal employees, suggest that beneath the political savvy may lie a petty, intolerant streak.
Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, dismisses Hashimoto's popularity as a phase — a slap on the wrists of Japan's inept leaders rather than an endorsement of his right-wing agenda.
"Like the rise of extremist and nationalist parties of the right and left in Europe, Hashimoto derives his popularity from popular frustration with the established mainstream parties and the perceived failure of representative democracy," says Nakano.
"He offers oversimplified, authoritarian pseudo-answers, which don't really solve problems, but serve as an outlet for popular frustration with the existing political system."
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