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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Osaka's Post-Election Future

Kozue Hamamoto

Nov. 25, 2015

There is ongoing political debate about the future of Osaka, which is second only to Tokyo as a hub of the Japanese economy. The region was once at the center of the national economy. It was home to Japan's first world's fair in 1970, as well as the headquarters of many corporate giants. Things are changing and its importance on the national economic scene has dwindled. The gap between gross regional production in Osaka and Tokyo has been widening for 60 years.

What can be done to reverse the trend is the big question in local politics. 2010 saw the appearance of The Osaka Restoration Party, which quickly won supporters with the promise to bring back the Osaka's status as one of the country's core regions, alongside Tokyo. The party’s proposed reforms have sparked debate and were a point of contention in last week’s elections.

The party has long stood behind an initiative it calls the "Osaka Metropolis Plan." Currently, the city of Osaka and Osaka Prefecture are governed separately. The initiative would eliminate what the party calls "redundant government infrastructure" by merging the city and prefecture. It would also privatize many sections of the public sector. The party claims the plan would save more than two billion dollars over the next two decades.

Opponents say the savings would be less than one million dollars a year, and would be far outweighed by the costs of the merger.

This May, the party brought the proposal to a regional referendum but lost by a small margin. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto advocated the proposal and after it was voted out, he announced that he would be leaving politics in December.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which opposed the referendum, proposed a committee, composed of various parties including Osaka Restoration Party, to push forward discussions on revitalizing the region. The committee has been completely unproductive, with members spending most meetings criticizing each other. Six months after it was established, the committee has made no progress.

Amid this political deadlock, a double election was held in Osaka last weekend, for the governor of Osaka Prefecture and the mayor of the city of Osaka. In the campaigns, The Osaka Restoration Party again brought up the issue of reforms and its vision for the future. Opposition parties, ranging from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party to the Communist Party, set aside their difference to once again oppose the Osaka Metropolis Plan.

However, things did not go in their favor. The Osaka Restoration Party won both the gubernatorial and the mayoral elections by a landslide. The party plans to bring its proposal to the table one more time.

Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya were joined in the studio by Kozue Hamamoto, who has been reporting from NHK's Osaka branch for the past four years.

Beppu: We've just seen how people in Osaka first rejected the plan to merge the city and prefecture in the referendum, but last week elected proponents of this plan. How can you explain this?

Hamamoto: I agree that you might feel puzzled to see contradictory results after only 6 months. Back in May, people were basically anxious about the institutions they know well changing. But, in the 6 months since the referendum, people have seen virtually no progress in the debate on how to revitalize the region. As you saw, the discussions were seen as an emotional argument rather than a constructive debate and didn't produce any concrete outcomes. People became disappointed. And I believe that is one of the main reasons for the outcome of these elections.

Beppu: Covering the elections, how were the people's reaction to Mayor Hashimoto's platforms?

Hamamoto: I recall how the people were cheering on Hashimoto when they heard him talking about his promises to bring change and insisting that Osaka can be an equal competitor with Tokyo. I felt that resonated with the traditional anti-Tokyo feeling among Osaka's people. You know that it is commonly known that Osaka people are proud of their long history, culture, local dialect, in other words, what makes them different from Tokyo. Hashimoto's messages apparently fit this local sentiment.

Beppu: Do you think we are seeing something similar that we see in the US primary elections? You know that it is often pointed out that the voters there are expressing a strong anti-Washington, anti-establishment feeling?

Hamamoto: I don't want to draw a simple analogy but I think there may be some similarities in terms of voters' sentiment.

Shibuya: Talking about Mayor Hashimoto, he has announced his plan to retire from politics next month. He made this announcement after losing the referendum. But, after the party's landslide victory, what will he do now?

Hamamoto: Well, Hashimoto did say that he will retire from politics, but he has also said that he wants to be the legal policy advisor for the newly established National Party. Pundits say he’ll continue to hold sway in the political world and at the national level as well. After stepping down as Mayor of Osaka on December 18th, he will have more time to travel out of Osaka and could play an active role in Tokyo. I hear from some local politicians that Hashimoto could win a large percentage of the vote if he decided to run in a national election.

Beppu: Given the new political reality, how will the discussions on revitalizing Osaka move forward?

Hamamoto: Having won these elections, the Osaka Restoration Party has said that it is going to, over the next three years, refine the once-rejected plan to merge the city and the prefecture, taking residents’ opinions into consideration. But, it would not be easy to find a plan that satisfies everyone. But Osaka is not the only region suffering stagnation. As Tokyo is rushing toward hosting the Olympics in 2020, the gap between the capital and the rest of the country is expected to further widen. We don't have so much time to lose just debating for the sake of debating. I think that's what makes the experiment of Osaka an interesting case. Looking at Osaka’s problems helps us understand a variety of problems shared across Japan, which are not always clear if you see things only from Tokyo. And I will continue to keep a close eye on the developments.