Sitting in his ramshackle Tokyo office filled with the stench of cigarette smoke and the leftover Chinese restaurant decor he once was, Taisuke Ono is the unlikely face of a populist wave that has turned Japanese politics upside down.
The 47-year-old former Accenture consultant lost Tokyo’s gubernatorial race last year, but made a comeback with the success of Nippon Ishin no Kai, or Japan Innovation Party. In last week’s general election, the Osaka-based regional party shattered all expectations by becoming the country’s third political force.
With a near quadrupling of its representation to 41 seats in the powerful lower house of the Diet, the once-marginal party can provide the ruling bloc in Japan with the votes it needs if the government decides to push forward with the revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution.
“This is just the first step for us” to become a national party, said Ono, who won one of Ishin’s first two seats in the capital, Tokyo.
“We need to deliver the kind of results we got in Osaka,” he added, citing the need for constitutional amendment and regulatory reform to revitalize the stagnant economy.
Conservatives have long sought to revise Japan’s waiver of war constitution to make explicit the legality of the country’s armed forces. But an amendment requires significant political capital and public momentum, which made it impossible for even Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister, to achieve his lifelong ambition.
Economically, Ishin wants to address what he said was the failure of the ruling Liberal Democrats to deliver on promises of sweeping structural reform to spur growth and escape decades of deflation.
Ishin was founded a decade ago as a regional organization led by Toru Hashimoto, a charismatic and sharp-tongued former governor of Osaka and the closest thing Japan has ever had to a populist à la Donald Trump.
The right-wing party is widely supported in the country’s second largest city for its success in privatizing the local metro system and for populist policies such as free education and pay cuts for parliamentarians.
Hirofumi Yoshimura, Ishin’s deputy director, 46, has become a celebrity for his high-profile media appearances during the Covid-19 crisis as governor of Osaka.
“Mr. Yoshimura’s popularity has been an important factor in which we have been able to become a third force,” said Tsukasa Abe, a 39-year-old member of Ishin who was first elected in Tokyo.
Beyond his newly accumulated parliamentary clout, analysts said Ishin’s electoral success puts greater political pressure on Fumio Kishida’s new administration.
Ishin supports the LDP’s efforts to increase Japan’s role in national security and defense spending to deal with the Chinese threat, as well as the need for a constitutional review.
But the party sharply criticized the Prime Minister’s vision of a new capitalism to achieve wealth redistribution and “warm reform”. He argues that “painful reform” is needed to open tightly regulated markets to growth.
“I think the fact that you had a party with a new way of thinking about increasing the number of seats shows that there is a will for change and a more radical solution among the electorate,” said Richard Kaye, manager. portfolio at French Asset Manager. Comgest and a seasoned investor in Japanese equities.
“This is a welcome development as it pushes the country further towards reform and deregulation.”
In addition to crushing the PLD in Osaka, Ishin garnered votes outside his stronghold in western Japan by capitalizing on public disillusionment with the ruling party. He also exploited skepticism about the botched electoral strategy of the main opposition camp to ally with the Communist Party of Japan despite their ideological differences.
Yet Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University, said Ishin faces an uphill battle to become a powerful force in national politics. Ishin, she said, had to figure out how to maintain his distinct identity as an opposition force while working with the PLD and its coalition partner Komeito on political initiatives.
“The LDP will likely assess their options and pit the Komeito and Ishin against each other,” Nakabayashi said. “The challenge is how well Ishin can demonstrate his presence in national politics.”
A crucial area of cooperation between the three parties is constitutional reform, which requires a two-thirds majority in parliament followed by a majority vote in a national referendum. While the LDP and Komeito maintain a comfortable majority, winning 293 of the 465 seats in the lower house, they still need Ishin to reach the two-thirds threshold.
But with an upper house election looming next summer, analysts wonder if Kishida is ready to take the enormous political risk of pushing forward a controversial agenda that could upset both the public and the Komeito, a Buddhist pacifist party.
Ishin also only raised the issue of constitutional amendment during the election only in the context of legalizing free education rather than to promote a change in Article 9 renouncing war.
Party members admit that Ishin risks losing his identity if he works too closely with the LDP and repeat his volatile history of winning and losing seats.
“The common concern for the third force is the loss of momentum following a boom,” said Ono. “Our main DNA is reform, so we must move forward without compromise.”