On February 6, the LDP candidate Toru Hashimoto, firebrand conservative lawyer and popular TV personality—think Nancy Grace, with more attitude—was inaugurated as the governor of Osaka after beating the DPJ candidate and establishment favorite Sadatoshi Kumagai , an engineering professor at the prestigious Osaka University, 54.04% to 29.45%. (The Communist candidate gained 25.28%.) One month after his inauguration, Mr. Hashimoto’s approval rate reached 66% in a Sankei poll*. Three months later, he hit 82%**.
Although Mr. Hashimoto ran with LDP support, the LDP locals were deeply suspicious of the celebrity lawyer, who promised to cut the fat out of the deeply indebted Osaka government. It was an open secret that much of the business establishment preferred the even-keeled DPJ candidate. As it were, Mr. Hashimoto launched a full-bore attack on public sector labor unions, municipal governments and other vested interests. He managed to submit to the Prefectural Assembly a drastically streamlined budget that cut deeply into salaries and subsidies. He did not quite fulfill his campaign promise to stop issuing prefectural bonds, but came close enough to impress most locals. Along the way, he has made some verbal gaffes and has on occasion even broken down in tears, but none of that appears to have dented his popularity.
Hideo Higashikokubaru gave up a lucrative career as slapstick comedian Sonomanma Higashi to go into politics and run for the governor of Miyazaki Prefecture. On 2007 January 21, he beat runner-up Shuzaburo Kawamura 44.41% to 32.48%**. Approval from his constituency reached a peak a year later at 93.7% in a local newspaper poll, and has stayed in the high 80s.
Although there is less reporting on Mr. Higashikokubaru’s administration compared to Mr. Hashimoto’s, it is clear that he has put Miyazaki Prefecture on the map with his tireless, high-profile promotion activities on TV broadcasts and other media events***. In fact, if it were not for Mr. Higashikokubaru, the only time the nation takes note of Miyazaki would be early spring, when many of the Japanese pro baseball teams hold spring training camp there. He has also taken a far more conciliatory approach to the political establishment than Mr. Hashimoto, reaching out to the assemblymen and other locals. The prefectural finances do not look very healthy though. He has been making some inroads, cutting back on expenditures. However, if he does not start knocking heads soon, the provincial reserves will be exhausted by the end of his first term.
In a liberal democracy, 80%, 90% approval rates are literally heroic numbers. In recent years, the Bushes peaked in the 90s. But the first President Bush won the Gulf War (and got Japan to pay for it), while the current one “beat” the Taliban and crushed Saddam Hussein’s army. Columbian President Álvaro Uribe recently crossed the 80% threshold. This is a reward for the stately Mr. Uribe, who he has been winning the civil war against FARC that has all but eliminated the insurgency-turned-kidnapping-and-drug-mafia gang as an existential threat to Columbia, while doing more than a capable job of steering the economy. For Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Higashikokubaru to achieve this feat during peacetime is incredible. On the national scene, only the maverick Junichiro Koizumi has even come close in recent years****, and that was at the very beginning of his administration
The achievement of the two men surely mirrors the deep anxiety over the status quo and dissatisfaction with politicians and political parties that are unable or unwilling to inspire, to lead. For proof of this, you need look no further than the LDP and DPJ consistently being beaten by None of the Above, or the abysmal support for Prime Minister Fukuda and DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa. The national electorate is more than ripe for someone with a little bit of charisma and a lot of freedom from vested interests, hopefully pushing an agenda that challenges the status quo. It is odd that no one appears willing or able, in a nation that is at least as much in need of “change” as the United States, to come forward and seize the moment, as Mr. Koizumi did, seven years ago.
* Internet poll of 500 Osaka voters, conducted on February 29-March 4 and June 10-11 respectively.
** Satoshi Mochinaga, the LDP-Komeito candidate, came in third with 20.11%.
*** Mr. Higashikokubaru is actually a serious student of government who suspended his comedy career to go to Waseda University as a graduate student in public administration. He left school to run for the governor’s office in Miyazaki Prefecture, and the rest is history, in the making.
**** If you want to see the Higashikokubaru effect in Tokyo, go to the Miyazaki and Hiroshima antenna shop-and-diner mini-buildings near the Shinjuku South Exit. Similar in size and location, the Miyazaki establishment does brisk business while Hiroshima lies relatively fallow. It’s hard to think of a significant difference maker beyond the prominently displayed cut out of the popular governor.
***** Shinzo Abe hit 63% in an Asahi (caveat emptor) poll when he received the inaugural bump after Mr. Koizumi finished strong.