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The Little City with the Big Punch

Sakai 2

Sakai Mayor Osami Takeyama and his Manifesto

SNA (Tokyo) — Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture, is the 14th largest city in Japan by population, and it has a distinguished history. There is evidence of civilized habitation here going back the 5th century; and Sakai played a notable role as a mercantile hub since medieval times. Sakai was the hometown of Sen no Rikyu, the renowned master of the Japanese tea ceremony. In the 16th century Sakai produced the bulk of Japan’s firearms, and when the warlord Nobunaga Oda decided that he needed to control Sakai and its firearms directly, and attempted to squelch the city’s independence, the locals rebelled. Oda’s soldiers seized the city and burned it to the ground. But Sakai rose to prosperity again and was officially recognized as a city under modern law in 1889.

Toru Hashimoto does not want to squelch the independence of Sakai City in quite the same brutal manner as Nobunaga Oda, but the fact of the matter is that Sakai now stands directly in the path of the primary Osaka Restoration Association (One Osaka) goal of unifying Osaka City and Osaka Prefecture into a single metropolis consisting of wards; just as is the case with Tokyo. It seems that there are many people in Sakai who want their hometown to remain Japan’s 14th largest city rather than exist simply as several wards of the Greater Osaka metropolitan region.

It’s not exactly a great revelation to point out that Toru Hashimoto and Ichiro Matsui are in a much weaker political position than they were in early 2012. With sky-high popularity at that time there seemed little to stop them from succeeding in their desire to create the One Osaka that they envisioned. The local people seemed excited to see their second-fiddle region calling the national tune again, and the other major political forces, hopeful or fearful of Hashimoto’s personal popularity, appeared likely to cooperate with the project that seemed dearest to the heart of the young rising star.

But somehow Hashimoto seemed to lose his political focus as time went on. After carefully cultivating his own political school, the transition from the Osaka Restoration Association to the Japan Restoration Party proved to be inelegant and was perceived as being too opportunistic. The political alliance and merger with Shintaro Ishihara’s Sunrise Party was a calculated risk that had some short-term benefits, but ultimately seems to be weighed down by too much baggage and destined to sink. Finally, Hashimoto’s own outspokenness boomeranged in a major way this May when his nearly inexplicable foray into the issues of comfort women and wartime sexual violence drastically eroded his mainstream appeal and his international reputation.

In the wake of this political debacle, there have been many voices within the original One Osaka movement who have been calling for a return to the roots. They point out that Hashimoto had been doing well when he was focused on Osaka issues and only began losing his way when he started pursuing a national agenda too aggressively. Meanwhile, the decline in Hashimoto’s reputation has not only marginalized his influence in Tokyo, but has also put in serious jeopardy his core political agenda in his Osaka stronghold. The victory that once looked assured is now looking like a fading prospect.

The September 29, 2013, mayoral election in Sakai City is shaping up to be a titanic political clash of national ramifications: It will either mark a reassertion of the local dominance of the One Osaka movement or else form Toru Hashimoto’s political Waterloo.

The incumbent mayor of Sakai City is 63-year-old Osami Takeyama, whose political alliances have swung around 180 degrees in just four years.

Takeyama rose through the ranks of Osaka city government to become one of its top bureaucrats in the planning section. Encouraged by then-Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto, Takeyama resigned from the city office in 2009 and ran as an independent against two-term incumbent Sakai City Mayor Keisuke Kihara. Hashimoto threw full support behind his new man, and Mayor Kihara was supported in his reelection bid by a broad coalition of the LDP, DPJ, New Komeito, and SDP. Reflecting Governor Hashimoto’s enormous popularity in those days, Takeyama beat the incumbent in a landslide and won his election as mayor.

But the “honeymoon” between Hashimoto and Takeyama lasted only about three months. For one thing, some close observers noted a profound difference in character between the two men. Takeyama was older, more conventional in his thinking, and more sensitive to the people around him. This was quite apart from Hashimoto’s cold rationalism and his brash style. At the beginning of 2010, when Hashimoto began promoting his policy of merging Osaka City and Prefecture, Sakai Mayor Takeyama was skeptical. He was also caught between his powerful political patron and a city council where he had few natural allies. Mayor Takeyama soon made it clear that he was against Hashimoto’s merger policy. As Hashimoto put more pressure on him to conform, Takeyama’s opposition stiffened and became more pronounced. At the same time, Sakai Mayor Takeyama’s former enemies in the city council were transforming into new friends.

With Hashimoto and Matsui’s policy this summer of returning to their roots and salvaging the One Osaka plan from Hashimoto’s diminished political stature, the breaking point with their former ally Osami Takeyama was reached. In order to succeed in the overall merger plan, they judged that they needed someone in the Sakai City Hall who would support their concept and voluntarily eliminate Sakai as an independent city. The “traitor” Takeyama was no longer cooperating, so they needed to destroy him; the Japan Restoration Party would set up a new candidate to defeat their old candidate in the September mayoral election.

To play this role, the JRP turned to 37-year-old Yomiuri television announcer Ken Shimizu, a photogenic and well-known local figure. Matsui declared that Shimizu has “great potential” as a politician. Problem was, no one seems to have confirmed in advance whether or not Mr. Shimizu himself was interested in making such a career move. When Shimizu was confronted by reporters asking him if he would actually run for mayor, he retorted, “Absolutely impossible! I intend to maintain my fairness and impartiality as a broadcaster.”

It was another Hashimoto-Matsui bungle to go public with a proposed mayoral candidate and then have that candidate immediate shoot down their proposal in a firm and very public way. All they could do was to mutter that they’d have a new candidate soon and then go back to quiet negotiations. They quickly came back with the name on August 8th: their candidate for mayor would be the secretary-general of the JRP caucus of the Sakai City Council, Katsutoshi Nishibayashi.

The 43-year-old Nishibayashi is in his fourth term in the Sakai City Council, and in his previous career served as a political secretary to former Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama. He also holds the office of Deputy Secretary-General of the Osaka Restoration Association.

Mayor Takeyama responded to the challenge of Nishibayashi by declaring, “I will not let the Sakai City where I was born and raised become either a colony or a vassal state of Osaka Prefecture and Osaka City.”

The political coalitions are shaping up in strange ways over this particular mayoral race. For the Japan Restoration Party, it is potentially the make-or-break moment. Failure to unseat Takeyama could be the blow that dooms the One Osaka project and breaks the spell of the Hashimoto-Matsui political machine inside their own home base. In this must-win contest they have no real allies and, indeed, most other national political forces are eager to see Hashimoto humiliated and are jumping in to support incumbent Mayor Takeyama’s bid to stay on.

The Hashimoto opponents are a pretty diverse lot. They run from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, through the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, all the way to the Japan Communist Party. Yes, both Shinzo Abe and Kazuo Shii want to see incumbent Mayor Osami Takeyama reelected in this race.

Facing a political dilemma in the Sakai mayoral election is the New Komeito Party. Their own foot soldiers in Sakai are strong enough that they may actually hold the balance of victory or defeat in their own hands. However, New Komeito is torn between their national alliance with the LDP and their local alliance with the JRP. They may just duck and run to avoid responsibility, telling their voters to select whichever candidate they please.

Mayor Takeyama isn’t pulling his punches in his reelection campaign. The slogan found on the cover of his election manifesto declares: “Sakai is One! Don’t Eliminate Sakai!” He is pointing to the fact that not only would Hashimoto’s plan end Sakai’s formal status as a city, but would also divide it into two or three “special wards.”

Hashimoto recently responded: “Sakai is being destroyed! Sakai is being wiped out! Sakai is one! These are the only things [Mayor Takeyama] has to say. But the One Osaka plan would not eliminate Sakai, and even the name will remain.”

In the heat of this fierce battle for political survival, Hashimoto and Matsui just got blindsided by their own supposed political partner, JRP co-leader Shintaro Ishihara. At a party executive meeting yesterday, Ishihara publicly demanded to know what real merit resides in combining Osaka City and Prefecture. He indicated that the plan was impractical and he apparently wants only one major metropolitan area in Japan — and that is the Tokyo metropolis that he governed for thirteen years. Ishihara’s fundamentally pointless and self-indulgent intervention once again calls into serious question the viability of the Japan Restoration Party.

All in all, it is looking like Hashimoto and Matsui may very well lose their must-win battle. Rumor has it that Hashimoto is feeling personal disgust about the way events have developed and very well could announce a surprise retirement from the political world at any time. If we are to give credence to these rumors, one has to wonder whether or not a defeat in the Sakai mayoral election might trigger such a dramatic response from the young politician, whose star has faded so quickly.

The official Sakai mayoral campaign period begins on September 15 and Election Day is the 29th. On that evening, this little city is going to deliver a very big punch to someone.