Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I Think I Misunderestimated (Now) Mayor Hashimoto

The consumption tax hike and the politics around it have been dominating headlines (while the political decision to restart Units 3 and 4 at the Ohi Nuclear Power Plant quickly faded from view, a matter that I intend to take up briefly later), and Ozawa is at the center of attention. What will Ozawa do? What will Noda do to Ozawa? And what will the opposition have to say about it? However, when the dust settles, it will be Toru Hashimoto, the Osaka governor-turned-mayor—not Ozawa—who will be the center of speculation in the lead-up to what looks like a near-inevitable snap election and beyond.

Ozawa and Hashimoto have both positioned themselves in opposition to Noda on the consumption tax hike and the nuclear resets—two of the three major policy issues (a prospective bid to join the ongoing TPP negotiations is the other) that Noda has set his sights on as potential landmark achievements of his regime. Ozawa’s opposition to the tax hike is seen as opportunistic, but it’s hard to reject the argument that it violates the manifesto is a legitimate one, especially when you consider the fact that only a fraction of the multitrillion-yen fiscal savings that was supposed to precede any such talk materialized. Ozawa’s criticism of the nuclear restarts has been an out-of-nowhere revelation and viewed as a typically opportunistic maneuver, but Hashimoto’s last-minute acceptance—a flip-flop with a toothless summer-months-only caveat as fig leaf—is far from the first case where he has made very public turnabouts. Yet Hashimoto is the one that the DPJ, LDP, Komeito and, lest we forget, Your Party are all courting while Ozawa, if he bolts, will struggle just to gain control over the other DPJ dissidents that leave/are forced to leave and, in the case of many of them, will be hard put to win reelection. Hashimoto is all upside while Ozawa is all downside. Why?

Most Japanese voters do not know these two men personally. It’s probably safe to say that most Japanese voters have never even met them*. In fact, we know them almost purely through the media filter. So it is to the media coverage and its background that we should look to for an answer in the first instance. I took a whack at this question during a multiparty email discussion when I addressed a point in an Economist blog post**. I’m reproducing my take below, which essentially formed itself when I watched, at first reluctantly, a recording of a press briefing in the course of my work. And yes, I’ll get back to “ex-Mrs. Ozawa”’s letter. But not now.

*I haven’t, though I worked for a government ministry for years, and Hashimoto and I went to the same high school—many years apart, but there are annual alumni conferences. **I continue to have great respect for The Economist’s published articles but sometimes find blogposts there at fault—no, not yours, my friend—for misunderstandings and/or excessive hedging.

“The public standing of the prime minister’s other foe, Mr Hashimoto, may have also peaked.” (from the Economist blogpost)

You know, “may” is the key word that renders the entire paragraph--like so much of media reports--worthless unless you have some understanding of the facts of the case. I wouldn't bet either way either, but one thing that the report doesn’t mention is that he has a much wider room for error than any other politician in sight, as can be seen from the way he goes from one position to another like...but let’s skip the simile...on issue after issue without visible harm. The media loves him, not just because he makes great copy, though he does, lots more than Ishihara. Unlike Ishihara, he engages reporters directly. He never evades a question (though he can go on and on, which sometimes should have the same effect), he's never condescending (though he may call you an idiot, or at least your question stupid, if he thinks you are/it is), and never gets testy when he's cornered (though he can lash out furiously when he's frustrated). He's not a bully; essentially, he treats people, politicians, garbage collectors, teachers, and yes reporters as members of civil society who have specific roles to play. He obviously has strong views about what those roles are and how those roles should be played. But he certainly respects the media, from Asahi Shinbun to NicoNico Doga,* and the media respect back. He'll have to change his style if and when he goes directly and personally into national politics, but till then, I think that the love affair will endure, because it's based on mutual respect.

* You should go watch one of his press briefings if you understand Japanese. I don’t think that I’ve ever managed to pay attention to a long—1.5 hours in this case—press briefing mostly uninterrupted by anyone else.

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