This is an interesting article about the role of age and fame in modern Japanese politics.

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Celebrity rises to power in Osaka
By Purnendra Jain

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KYOTO – While celebrities-turned-politicians in Japan are nothing new (and prone to disgrace), an outspoken 38-year-old lawyer and TV advice show host recently elected as Osaka prefecture’s governor is raising hopes even beyond his electoral base.

Toru Hashimoto’s landslide victory this week with more than 1.8 million votes thoroughly trounced rival Sadatoshi Kumagai, who received a little less than 1 million votes. When Hashimoto takes office in early February after the four-year term of incumbent Fusae Ota ends, he will be the youngest of Japan’s 47 governors.

He also largely owes his success to female and young unaffiliated voters who frequently watch his TV shows where he discusses legal options for people with marital and financial issues.

Through his frequent TV appearances on civil law suit programs and comedy quiz shows he is well known not just in the Osaka area but also nationwide. His experience as a lawyer has also given him an understanding of Japan’s legal and bureaucratic complexities, a requirement without which celebrity politicians otherwise fail and lose their popularity.

For more than a decade now gubernatorial elections in Osaka have been conducted in difficult circumstances. Osaka’s finances have been a major issue; but also resignations and retirements of governors have occurred amid scandals, leading to public distrust. When voters in Osaka preferred to choose a comedian “Knock” Yokoyama in 1995 because of his pledge to cut costs and make Osaka financially healthy, he delivered little except disappointments; in the end he offered his resignation from office halfway through his second term in late 1999 on charges of sexual harassment and was finally indicted for molestation.

Following this incident, the current governor, a woman with a previously impeccable bureaucratic record from the then-Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI, now METI – Ministry of Economic, Trade and Industry) was elected in 2000 to the highest public office in Osaka.

Fusae Ota became the first female governor of Japan, a landmark development in Japan’s prefectural politics. But Ota, too, announced in late 2007 her intention not to run for a third term after a money scandal surfaced a few months prior to her announcement. She was reportedly receiving huge sums of money from corporations as lecture fees, prohibited under law, and she was claiming taxpayers’ money as part of her office expenses while using her parent’s home in Tokyo.

Impact on the national government
Analysts believe that local electoral results, especially when a large prefecture like Osaka is involved, serve as a political barometer for national-level politics. Even though not supported by the national headquarters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner, the Komeito, the support for Hashimoto from the prefectural chapters of these parties would suggest the ruling coalition is likely to perform well in the Osaka region should there be a general election this year.

This is in sharp contrast to Sadatoshi Kumagai, the runner-up, who was officially supported by Ichiro Ozawa’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and whose high-profile leaders were at the campaign trail in support of Kumagai. Some analysts believe that the gubernatorial election outcome in Osaka has put the pressure back on the DPJ, which was in the lead position in Osaka following the election of its candidate Kunio Hiramatsu as Osaka’s mayor late last year after defeating the LDP-backed candidate Junichi Seki.

While local-level elections may provide some guide to national politics, it would be wrong to assume that the voting pattern of these local elections will necessarily be repeated at the national-level elections. For one, the political structure at the local level is different from that of the national level. At the national level, the Westminster parliamentary system operates in Japan in which the prime minister is chosen from the majority party in the Lower House of Parliament.

At the local level, political chief executives are elected based on the presidential system, that is, through direct voting. Furthermore, local issues that concern day-to-day lifestyle of residents are of utmost importance at local elections and foreign policy, defense or international trade and diplomacy rarely become electoral issues.

However, in this age of globalization, it is not unusual even for local and state governments to conduct their own diplomacy by building trade, cultural and educational ties with like-minded local governments overseas. After all, local economies are not totally isolated from global economic trends; they have impacts on local economies. Some Japanese local governments in the past conducted their own active “foreign policies” through various kinds of links overseas, but in recent years local governments have become too “local”.

Osaka prefecture boasts a total gross domestic product several times larger than many of the world’s nation-states and it has many large industrial and business houses that depend on global markets. In this context, it is important that the new governor and his advisors keep their eyes on global trends and the advantages they may derive from them, while not losing focus of local issues.

Young and a celebrity
Hashimoto’s age is an asset, according to many who were interviewed by the media. They see in him a new hope. In Japan some of the old traditions are breaking. Voters no longer simply vote for a candidate on grounds of experience and age alone and prefer to give a chance to a candidate who seems capable and genuinely promises to bring reform. As Hashimoto said in his victory speech, “I’m only 38 years old, but I’ve got a lot of energy and I want to borrow everybody’s energy to help change Osaka.”

Hashimoto is not the only young governor around. Last year in rural Kochi prefecture in Shikoku Island, a 40-year-old Finance Ministry official, Masanao Ozaki, was elected to the gubernatorial position, held previously for 16 years by a very popular and reformist governor Daijiro Hashimoto (brother of the late prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, but no relation to the governor-elect of Osaka).

Elections of celebrities (or tarento from the English word talent as they are known in Japan) to political positions is not a new phenomenon in Japan. They range from TV stars to novelists, writers and comedians. The disgraced TV comedian and ex-governor of Osaka, “Knock” Yokoyama (Isamu Yamada) was elected to the Upper House of the national Diet, Japan’s Parliament, where he served three six-year terms before becoming governor of Osaka in 1995.

Tokyo’s current governor Shintaro Ishihara’s predecessor, Yukio Aoshima was a TV celebrity. Ishihara himself is a well-known novelist and recipient of the most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize even before he graduated from university.

Although less known, the mayor of Osaka City, Kunio Hiramatsu, elected in November last year is a former TV personality. But the media spotlight has turned in recent months on a well-known national-level comedian by the name of Sonomanma Higashi or Hideo Higashikokubaru, who was elected in January last year as the governor of Miyazaki prefecture in Japan’s southern part of Kyushu.

He declared his candidacy when his predecessor Tadahiro Ando resigned on charges of corruption and was later arrested. It is amazing that this comedian-turned-politician enjoyed an approval rate of 90% while the disapproval rate was barely 4% even after more than six months in office. Obviously he is doing everything right.

Japan does not yet have a Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger-type successful and highly visible celebrity-turned politician, but there is no dearth of them entering the political arena. It is a different matter though that very few have been successful in managing politics well in Japan. It is time that some Japanese celebrity politicians take up the challenge and make the difference in the overall staid and stale nature of Japanese politics.

Honeymoon period
Generally when a political head takes office in Japan, a honeymoon period lasts for about 100 days. All eyes and expectations are now focused on Hashimoto as he has promised to tackle the debt problem head-on. The prefecture has a debt of close to 5 trillion yen (US$46.8 billion), accumulated mainly as a result of issuing of local bonds in the 1990s for public works projects, including the brand new Kansai International Airport in the middle of the sea, a Japanese engineering feat.

While the prefectural government’s borrowings skyrocketed in the 1990s, at the same time corporate offices from Osaka moved to other destinations within Japan or overseas where they had better networking opportunities, tax breaks or cheaper operational costs, lead to a decline in Osaka’s revenue base. The central government has put Osaka on notice to get its financial act together sooner rather than later. Hashimoto has offered to cut costs by canceling projects, issuing no new bonds and by lowering staff salaries, saying “cut what needs to be cut and keep that need to be kept”.

Declining revenue base has also meant deterioration in public services such as education, medical and social welfare programs. Hashimoto has few immediate answers to these questions, although these issues are very much in his mind and he has indicated that he is committed to improving some services, such as child care facilities.

Hashimoto is watched closely by media and his every action will be scrutinized. He earned a bit of notoriety after he once said Japan should possess nuclear weapons and on another occasion he was reported to have commented that Japanese men hiring Chinese prostitutes was a form of Japan’s official development assistance.

Furthermore, when the media asked him in December whether he was going to run for governor, he replied he was “definitely not interested 20,000%”, which left the media perplexed when he announced his candidacy. He will need to be careful in choosing his words and language as he is no longer a guest on quiz shows where celebrities in Japan get away with all sorts of sexual and discriminatory remarks. Here he might pay heed to his fellow former celebrity Miyazaki governor Higashikokubaru who said in an interview that he never needed to worry about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. “Now, however, the situation couldn’t be more different.”

These are still early days for a TV celebrity-turned-governor who needs to learn his way around and how to negotiate the complex web of local bureaucracy, to get on with the “masters” in Tokyo, plus ever-demanding voters, and not to mention Osaka’s business community.

Despite the record of tarento as politicians in Japan being less than glowing, many have exited with disgrace or with little achievement, there are some very successful examples. Ryokichi Minobe, professor and a popular TV commentator on economic issues, who served as Tokyo’s governor in the 1960s and 1970s, made a huge difference to the life of people in Tokyo through his policies and plans that earned him national and international respect.

Purnendra Jain is professor and head of the Center for Asian Studies at Australia’s Adelaide University.

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