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Osaka Metropolis Plan reemerged

2015.12.10




Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Public Administration and Local Self-governing

Specializing in public administration and local self-governing, I have been advocating the formulation of a polarized nation, a transition to the “Doshu-sei” (regional system), the rejuvenation of metropolises, and the granting of legislative authority to regional assemblies as Japan’s “new formation”. I have been involved in the “Osaka Metropolis plan”, which is one of these live reforms, and have examined the result of the referendum in my university editorial “Osaka Metropolis Plan Comes to a Grinding Halt” (18th May this year). Continuing from this article, I would like to summarize the Osaka double election here.

The Regional Election of the Year

The emphatic 22nd November headlines described the result of the Osaka double election as merely an “overwhelming” or “total” victory. My view was, unlike the media headlines, that it was decisively a case of a “landslide victory”. The common consensus was that Ishin (Osaka Restoration Association)’s incumbent governor would likely hold his seat comfortably, whereas the LDP was in the lead for mayor. While the gubernatorial election was overwhelmed by Ishin as expected, the mayoral election did not go as expected: at first closely matched, Ishin overtook mid-race and ended up finishing far ahead of the other candidates.

This Osaka double election was the return match of the same-day gubernatorial and mayoral elections fought 4 years ago, when Toru Hashimoto ran for mayor switching from his prefectural governor post, making the issue of the implementation of the Osaka Metropolis plan. Hashimoto retires on 18th December after one term in the mayoral office. It was the second same-day election to decide both on a succeeding mayor and the continuation of the governor’s tenure. This time, the two main issues were a) whether to continue or stop the reformist “Ishin politics” that even spilled over into national politics for over 6 years and b) whether to resurrect or shelve the “Osaka Metropolis plan,” which was once rejected in the 17th May referendum.

They both became major focal points in this election, which asked voters to make decisions about the future of Osaka, a major city and the hub of Western Japan. The result was an “Ishin” victory by a wide margin in both mayor and governor races (see table below).

Election Result
Osaka Prefecture
Gubernatorial Election
Won Ichiro Matsui Ishin, Incumbent 2,025,387
  Takako Kurihara Ind. New, LDP 1,051,174
  Yukinori Mima Ind. New 84,762
Osaka City
Mayoral Election  
Won Hirohumi Yoshimura Ishin, New 596,045 
  Akira Yanagimoto Ind. New, LDP 406,595
  Chozo Nakagawa Ind. New 35,019
  Hidehisa Takao Ind. New 18,807

The outline of the battle was crystal clear: a duel between the leading “Ishin” and “anti-Ishin” candidates in both the mayoral and gubernatorial races. Against the candidates from a regional political party “Osaka Ishin no Kai” (Osaka Renovation Association), the anti-Ishin alliance was formed behind the candidates endorsed by the LDP and backed by the Democratic and Communist parties of Japan (Komeito opted for a free vote). In the end, Hirofumi Yoshimura (40), the former member of the House of the Representatives, came out on top as the post-Hashimoto Osaka mayor and Ichiro Matsui (51) was reelected as the Governor, making “Ishin” the double winner.

Since the “Ishin no To” (Japan Innovation Party) split in October, the elections were seen as a litmus test for the newly formed national political party “Osaka Ishin no Kai” (Osaka Restoration Association), but for them it was more a campaign to stake the very existence of local political party “Osaka Ishin no Kai” holding up the Osaka Metropolis plan. This was evident from the fact that Hashimoto himself was out front and crisscrossed Osaka City asking for voters’ support during the two weeks of the election. Repeatedly visiting the south Osaka areas where he was defeated in the May referendum, he managed to overtake in the middle stage and stretched the lead in the final stage ensuring that the newcomer Yoshimura crossed the goal line with a huge margin. The organization and strategies of Osaka Ishin were such that their campaign reminded me of the former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and his “Tanaka Army Corps”.

This guaranteed that the Ishin politics of Osaka for the last 4 years led by the Hashimoto-Matsui formation will continue for another 4 years under the new leadership of Yoshimura and Matsui. Between the choices of “returning to the past” or “going forward” in this double election, the voters of Osaka chose to “go forward” in choosing Ishin politics.

Incidentally, the turnout was about 10% lower than the last double election, at 50.51% for the mayoral election and 45.47% for the gubernatorial election. The gubernatorial race turnout was close to the 45% of April’s unified local elections’ average and slightly higher in the mayoral race.

So What Constitutes Hashimoto Reforms and Ishin Politics?

There is no real definition of what Ishin politics is. The author Taichi Sakaiya wrote that, “in order to fundamentally revive Japan suffering from a long-term decline, we need a drastic super-reform, in other words we need the determination and wisdom to do ‘Ishin’” (‘Ishin’ suru Kakugo [Determination to do ‘Ishin’], Bunshun Shinsho, 2013). In line with this, Hashimoto was recorded as saying during the campaign, “It is about turning back the politics of existing parties or going forward with Ishin’s reform” and “the first stage when I represented the party was the destructive reform; especially appalling were amakudari (“parachuting”), high employee salaries, scandals involving employees, collusion with the workers’ union, wasteful construction of public facilities, and squandering of tax revenue. No one could solve the problem of providing unfair huge amount of subsidies to a certain people in a fixed way”. “A daring reform to change all this” is what ‘Ishin’ politics is about, one might say.

Resurrecting the other topic on the once rejected Osaka Metropolis plan, there were disputes saying that “the objective of this plan is to make Osaka the sub-capital and a bustling international city. The central government ministries and agencies will be redistributed to Tokyo and Osaka, and the head office functions of corporations, should be accumulated in Osaka too. To enable this, Tokyo and Osaka will be connected with the maglev Linear Chuo Shinkansen”. “The direction of the growth strategies does not vary much between Ishin and the LDP but crucially, the methods to realize these visions do”. There were further proposals that “the wide-area executive power should be concentrated to the Osaka Metropolitan Government (prefecture) so as to have one unified headquarter.” Hashimoto proposed that “common administrations such as public education and welfare that operate ‘from the cradle to the grave’, would be assigned to five new special wards”.

In contrast, the anti-Ishin candidates were against the Metropolis plan and insisted on preserving the current dual prefecture-cities system, with a 30-member council (Osaka Council) consisting of the heads and elected members of the prefecture and the two ordinance-designated cities helping to achieve this.

Responding to this claim, Hashimoto “set up the Osaka Council for half a year after the referendum, working together with the LDP and others, but (I) realized the meeting did not make any decisions. In this way you won’t achieve anything even after 100 years” and dismissed it entirely as the “useless Osaka Council”.

Significance of Reemerging the “Osaka Metropolis Plan”

As an organizational reform, the Osaka Metropolis plan is about “merging the region-wide administrations of the prefecture and its cities into one Osaka Metropolitan office, and handing the basic administration over to the special ‘wards’ like those of Tokyo” but its wider implication is the realization of the urban policy to induce the development of Osaka and the Kansai region. In the last referendum, its purpose was left out of the debate in favour of arguing only about the methods and it became trivialized (“the Osaka Metropolitan plan is just about the administration reform”), resulting in gaining 10,000 more opposing votes.

There were criticisms of the revived Osaka Metropolis plan but in a newspaper interview I gave my following opinion.

The result of the referendum is within a margin of error. It is not the right choice to shelve the Metropolis plan based merely on this result, as it will affect the future of Osaka. It is questionable if the electorate had fully understood the issue when casting their votes. Understanding the Metropolis plan will take time and it should go to the vote again.
The “ordinance-designated cities” system (currently 20 cities including Osaka) is about 60 years old. For Osaka Prefecture – the second smallest of the administrative divisions in Japan after Kagawa – its significance of dividing the region in order to manage a large city has faded, as the cities other than the City of Osaka have now also grown into megacities. Due to the bad effects of dual and double administrations, the system is more a hindrance than a beneficial one. The system is simply too old for Osaka.
The time is not calling for Osaka to be run by the City of Osaka alone, when it is expected to be the hub of Western Japan. While the whole prefectural area should be regarded as one metropolis and the wide-area executive power should be returned to the prefecture, to make a strong Osaka Prefecture, the special wards should be created to support the daily lives of 2.7 million citizens.
The administrative reform is just one aspect of the Metropolis plan: the real aim is the realization of the urban policies to develop Kansai, such as becoming the sub-capital. I would urge the readers to be the judge in deciding which is better, comparing the above with the LDP candidates’ “general ward” and Osaka Council ideas. 
(“Issues in the Double Election”, Mainichi Shimbun, 14th November 2015, evening edition)

In any case, as a result of the overwhelming victory in the election, the Osaka Metropolis plan has come back to life and will be the subject of debate again. Of course, this election was not about giving the final yea or nay on the plan but merely about reopening the discussions including the potential version updates, rather than killing it off entirely. If the respective authorities and assemblies of the prefecture and the city can come to a decision on the topic, the legal commission will be set up, and a referendum will be held again to reveal the ultimate decision under the new mayor and governor. I expect it will be 2 or 3 years from now.

Personal Views on Hashimoto & the Significance of Challenging the Reform

I would like to share a few personal accounts here. Until 4 years ago I did not know Hashimoto. I met him for the first time through a friend of mine, just after Hashimoto became the mayor and was in the process of appointing several special advisors. In our first conversation, Hashimoto mentioned “I’m not intending to use the same Metropolis system as Tokyo’s. I would like to create an updated and unique version of the Metropolis of Osaka, so let’s do it together”. I do remember thinking “OK, quite an ambitious idea” as the first impression. Some say “Hashimoto on TV is kind of scary”. Yet after getting to know him in various settings, I can attest to his real and rather different nature: he is a good-natured man who likes sports and open to sharing different opinions, has a quick mind, is quick-witted, and amiable.

With Mr Hashimoto in his mayoral office, Photographed on 15th October 2015 at the Osaka City Mayoral Office

When one reexamines the significance of this election, we are faced with the more fundamental, structural aspects. The fact is, in order to make the Osaka/Kansai area recover from the nearly half-century long decline since the Osaka Expo in 1970, we need to give back its hub position to Western Japan by creating the Metropolis of Osaka equaling that of Tokyo and bring down Japan’s excessive structural centralization. Japan is threatened by an earthquake that directly hits Tokyo area, and has the problem of disappearing provinces due to the decreasing population. In addition, its share of the world GDP has dropped from 18% to 8% in the last 20 years.

To eventually escape from this conundrum, we are at the stage where we need a complete structural reform, not a band-aid policy like Abenomics. This will of course include turning Osaka into the sub-capital; switching over to the Doshu-sei to rejuvenate each region by restructuring the system of the government into a simpler and more effective one; putting the brakes on the tax hikes that decimate disposable income; realizing a society where if you can, you are allowed to work whenever, wherever and indefinitely; concentrating on narrower areas of public services. If you want to call this the Nihon Ishin (Japan Restoration), then we have to come up with a momentous reform akin to the Meiji Ishin.

There exists a cynical view, that this was just a regional election to choose a mayor and a governor of Osaka, but I beg to differ. As the waves of reform usually originate in the American West Coast and travel towards the East Coast, likewise Japanese history has repeatedly witnessed the changes “from the west to the east”, evident in the transformation since the Meiji Ishin.

Japan was supposed to be moving towards decentralization but somehow we have turned towards “re-centralization”. We are just mindlessly following the conductor’s baton of the central government. So are the universities. No matter how this “regional revitalization by central authority” may be run, what accumulates is debt. Without the residents’ vitality and the change of direction towards “regional revitalization by local authority” to facilitate local communities to take on the challenges, there will be no Japan regeneration. Probably the Osaka double election made us aware of this.

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Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Public Administration and Local Self-governing
Nobuo Sasaki was born in 1948. He earned a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University and a doctorate in law from Keio University. After serving in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, he became a professor at Seigakuin University in 1989 and a professor at Chuo University in 1994. He was a visiting research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2000 and has served as a professor in both the Graduate School of Economics and the Faculty of Economics at Chuo University from 2001 onward. He serves as a member of organizations such as the Japanese government’s 31st Local Government System Research Council and the Science Council of Japan. He also served as a special advisor to Osaka City and Osaka Prefecture until March this year. He specializes in public administration and local self-government. His publications include The New Shape of Japan [Aratana “Nihon no Katachi”] (Kadokawa SSC Shinsho), Regional Revitalization in an Era of Depopulation [Jinkou Genshou Jidai no Chihou Sousei Ron], and Local Assembly Members [Chihou Giin] (PHP), Public Administration in Japan [Nihon Gyousei Gaku] and Modern Municipal Government [Gendai Chihou Jichi] (Gakuyo Shobo), Regional System [Doshu-sei], and How do We Change a Local Government? [Jichitai wo dou kaeruka] (Chikuma Shinsho), Administration of Tokyo [Toukyou Tosei], Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office [Tocyo], (Iwanami Shinsho) and others. Can Local Assembly Members change? [Chiho Giin ha Kawareruka] (Kodansha Shinsho) is scheduled to publish next Feburuary.
He has received the NHK Local Broadcast Cultural Award and the Japan Society for Urbanology Prize.