Despite insipid public interest in the nation's political parties, moves to form a new political entity led by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara are gradually taking shape.
"The general public is fed up with the current state of politics," the 79-year-old Ishihara said at a news conference on Jan. 27. "There is a need to reshuffle the political structure in the Diet. I won't spare my assistance."
A leading proponent of the new party is Shizuka Kamei, the 75-year-old leader of the People's New Party, the junior coalition partner to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
On Jan. 25, Ishihara, Kamei and Takeo Hiranuma, the 72-year-old leader of the opposition Sunrise Party of Japan, agreed to set up a new political party in March.
Ishihara was re-elected mayor of Tokyo in April. Since then, his leadership has been lackluster. The decision to make another try at hosting the Olympics in the capital city--after failing to be named the host of the 2016 Games--has been his only major policy. During his weekly news conferences, criticism of national politics often upstages issues facing Tokyo.
"A politician will do what he has to do even if he is on his own," Ishihara said at the Jan. 27 news conference. "The nation matters more to me than Tokyo does."
He was prudent, though, when Kamei first approached him late last year with the proposal to form a new party.
"I'm too old," he was quoted as telling Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto in December.
But Ishihara grew visibly more engaged in January. There are signs that Ishihara and other backers of the new party are gearing up for the possibility of a snap election being called in the next few months. They clearly expect Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to dissolve the Lower House in June.
Behind the scenes, basic policy lines of the proposed new party are already being assembled.
Mikio Shimoji, the secretary-general of the People's New Party, and others have contacted lawmakers of the Sunrise Party of Japan, the People's New Party, the DPJ and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
Parliamentarians who have shown interest in joining the new party have contributed policy drafts.
The proponents argue that joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, which Noda is pushing, "goes against Japan's national interests." To gain the cooperation of Hashimoto, they also plan to tout the devolution of power to local governments.
Given that Ishihara, an outspoken ultra-nationalist, is going to lead the new party, the party platform is expected to take a markedly conservative tone.
Agreement is yet to be reached, however, on other policy issues. For example, Ishihara supports the plan to raise the consumption tax rate, but Kamei is opposed.
Furthermore, the proponents of the new party are expected to face difficulty in recruiting members because they cannot bank on splitting the LDP at a time when it is pushing aggressively for the DPJ to dissolve the Lower House.
Nobuteru Ishihara, the Tokyo governor's oldest son, is seen as a viable candidate to lead the LDP in the future. He may come under fire if his father goes on to create a new party.
"Nobuteru will have to quit the LDP if the new party is formed," a senior LDP member said.
Elsewhere, the Sunrise Party of Japan is fraught with internal rifts. The party's three Upper House members joined an LDP-led parliamentary group earlier this month.
"Political realignment is not likely to take place given the current climate," a senior Sunrise Party of Japan member said Jan. 27.
Meanwhile, Ishihara signaled he may cooperate with Toru Hashimoto, the 42-year-old mayor of Osaka, and Hideaki Omura, the 51-year-old governor of Aichi Prefecture.
"I empathize strongly with Hashimoto's ideas," Ishihara said. "I hope Tokyo, Osaka and Aichi will tie up to destroy the centralized system."
He also hinted that he may refrain from leading, or even joining, the new party if it fails to recruit a sufficient number of members by March.
"Just trying to rake in a certain number of dissatisfied elements does not make a political party," Ishihara said.
Hashimoto remained noncommittal on Jan. 27 about his possible tie-up in the proposed new party.
"I was never informed of such a plan," said the popular mayor, who leads a political group called Osaka Ishin no Kai (Osaka Restoration Group). "(Ishihara), citing his age, has always said he wouldn't engage in such a plan."
In February, Hashimoto is expected to join Ishihara and Omura in a joint conference themed on administrative systems for large cities and the introduction of a new provincial system.
For the time being, however, Hashimoto appears set to keep a distance from the moves to form a new party. At the same time, he remains on good terms with Ishihara, who is hugely popular with the public.
"Ishihara is the best known leader of a local government. I am happy to hear him say that there should be an overhaul of the way government is structured in large cities," Hashimoto said.
Hashimoto attended a New Year's party at the Osaka chapter of New Komeito for the first time this year. He also appears willing to cooperate with Your Party and the LDP as long as they support proposed amendments to realize his dream of an "Osaka metropolitan government," the top priority in Hashimoto's political agenda.
Hashimoto has made no secret of his hopes that his Osaka Ishin no Kai will one day be represented in the Diet.
"We are recruiting people who will reset and reassemble this country," Hashimoto told supporters on Jan. 20. He plans to field 300 candidates in the next Lower House election and expects 200 of them will win seats in the 480-seat chamber.
But Osaka Ishin no Kai is often an issue of contention on the stage of national politics.
"A restoration effort has kicked off in Osaka," Yoshimi Watanabe, the leader of Your Party, told Noda in the Lower House on Jan. 27. "Your Party supports the actions that are aimed at rectifying distortions in Japan's governance structures."
Noda added a note of sarcasm to the final part of his answer.
"As a reformer myself, I am looking with great interest at the movements in Osaka," Noda said. "I sincerely hope those movements will not be overrun by termites."
Hashimoto shot back: "If you let your guard down even once, you are eaten up in this world. I am very excited that the prime minister has come up with his own message. I will take great care to ensure I won't be eaten up by termites."
Watanabe was visibly offended.
"Noda deserves a censure motion if his 'termites' remark refers to Your Party," Watanabe told reporters at a news conference. "It's a declaration of war against Your Party and Osaka Ishin no Kai."
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