BY ERIC JOHNSTON, STAFF WRITER
OSAKA – Whatever the reaction to Yoshihide Suga becoming prime minister might be elsewhere, champagne corks are popping in Osaka, with Mayor Ichiro Matsui leading the round of toasts.
Matsui, who heads the Osaka-centered national Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party) and its local affiliate, Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka), has ample reason to celebrate. His relationship with Suga dates back nearly a decade, when Matsui, then a Liberal Democratic Party member, and Nippon Ishin founder Toru Hashimoto, then Osaka governor, wrested local political control from the Liberal Democratic Party and formed Osaka Ishin. Matsui was joined by nearly a dozen local LDP politicians, all disgruntled by their party’s local leadership and anxious to work with the popular Hashimoto.
At the time, the Democratic Party of Japan was in power. As an opposition politician, Suga’s schedule was not always pressing, and he made a point to visit Matsui in Osaka, fascinated by the success he and Nippon Ishin were enjoying. The two men often dined together as they got to know each other. They saw themselves as outsiders in the political world. Suga, a farmer’s son from Akita Prefecture, had no aristocratic pedigree like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or Finance Minister Taro Aso. Matsui, on the other hand, has been described by his critics as a former borderline juvenile delinquent from south Osaka — the wrong side of the tracks even by Osaka standards.
As Hashimoto has detailed in recent TV interviews, the two men remained in touch after the LDP returned to power in 2012. Suga and Matsui, Hashimoto said, would often talk over the phone, even after Suga became chief Cabinet secretary, as often as a couple of times a week.
Hashimoto met with Suga and the two remained in contact after Hashimoto left local politics in 2015. Since 2016, Hashimoto and Matsui have traveled to Tokyo on five occasions, usually late December, to meet with Suga and sometimes Abe. That time of year happens to be when negotiations over the budget for the following fiscal year (which starts in April) between local governments and the central government intensify. Hashimoto noted that having Suga as Osaka’s ally gave Osaka an edge.
Suga, Hashimoto said, would relay the desires of Matsui and Hashimoto to the prime minister. In return, Matsui and Hashimoto kept their Nippon Ishin party members, and the local Osaka business community they were allied with, up to date on what policies the central government was set to support in the coming fiscal year — Osaka’s merger effort, the 2025 World Expo bid and casino resort-related legislation, for example.
The Suga-Matsui bromance, therefore, is an important indicator of what may happen not only in Osaka but also regarding the future of a Suga administration. When Matsui told reporters he welcomed a snap general election on the same day as the Osaka merger referendum, slated to be held on Nov. 1, he was not just speaking lightly.
Osaka media polls over the past few weeks suggest the referendum will result in approval of the merger of the city’s 24 wards into four special areas with greater autonomy. Such a political boost to Matsui would improve his party’s chances in a general election, which Suga would welcome and possibly reward. In Osaka, local media are already wondering if, by this time next year, Nippon Ishin will have joined the LDP and Komeito in the ruling coalition.
As of this writing, not even Matsui is willing to go that far. Over the coming months, countless issues could easily derail the Suga administration and bring another prime minister into power. Or a new party. For the moment, however, Matsui and his supporters are breathing easy, knowing their favorite LDP politician is now the prime minister.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.