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Profile: Ishin leader Matsui squares off against LDP

By Terasawa Tomomi

 

Matsui Ichiro, Osaka mayor and representative of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party, Ishin), has both announced that he will retire from politics next spring and changed his campaign strategy during the Kishida administration from that he used during the Abe and Suga administrations.

 

Ishin regained momentum in the 2021 Lower House election, but it will still be difficult for it to become a “national political party.” Matsui, whom an aide describes as “at heart, a gambler,” will take an “ants on the ground” strategy in this election. This term plays on a comment made by a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) executive.

 

In early May 2022, LDP Secretary General Motegi Toshimitsu made the following statement at an LDP meeting after giving a speech in Osaka: “During the 2021 Lower House election campaign, I found Ishin had exceptional momentum. (This time) I felt no such thing as I was in the streets.”

 

The next day, Matsui reacted, saying, “As Motegi said, we are like ants. We will do our best by crawling about on the ground.”

 

Ishin developed a strategy to call on LDP supporters and unaffiliated voters to vote for Ishin, by telling them that the LDP can win the election “in their sleep.”

 

That strategy would not have been possible during the Upper House election three years ago.

 

Matsui says that although former Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide does not drink, he drinks plum wine with Matsui because Suga is “so comfortable around Matsui.” It was also customary for former Ishin representative Hashimoto Toru to have a “year-end party” with former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

 

The more Ishin seemed to be on good terms with the administration, however, the more difficult it became for voters to see how Ishin differed from the LDP. In the 2017 House of Representatives election, Ishin lost some seats and held a total of just 11 seats, the lowest since the party’s launch.

 

Ironically, the turning point for Ishin’s comeback came with the resignation of then-Prime Minister Suga. In the 2021 House of Representatives election held immediately after Prime Minister Kishida Fumio took office, Ishin regained its momentum by harshly criticizing the LDP. Ishin won all the Osaka Prefecture constituencies in which it ran off against the LDP. On June 18, Matsui pointed out that “Prime Minister Kishida has listening skills, but he does not take action or get things done.” Matsui continued, “We made various proposals during the Abe and Suga administrations which were adopted,” citing the 2025 Osaka, Kansai Expo.

 

A Diet member commented that Ishin has intensified its appeal to “conservatives who are critical of the Kishida administration.” Kishida is a member of the LDP’s Kochikai faction which is said to be dovish.

 

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Matsui called for “discussions where nothing is taboo” on nuclear sharing, a topic which Prime Minister Kishida said he was “not thinking about discussing.” Ishin’s pledge includes revising Article 9 of the Constitution to explicitly mention the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and increasing defense spending to 2% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). In his speech on June 24, Matsui said, “We must have proactive defense capabilities. We should initiate discussions where nothing is taboo.”

 

Matsui states, “What I say becomes a party pledge,” including discussions on nuclear sharing. Ishin has been the “founder’s party” since its inception.

 

The “Osaka Metropolis Plan” was rejected in a second referendum in 2020, and Matsui announced his retirement from politics after his term as mayor expires in the spring of 2023. A mid-level Osaka City Assembly member worries that “the party will fall apart without Matsui.” Another Osaka Assembly member said, “Everyone will follow Matsui even if they are split on the matter. Matsui has a personality that makes people want to follow him.”

 

Some Ishin members were concerned about the party’s survival when Hashimoto Toru retired from politics in 2015, but the party regained momentum as Yoshimura Hirofumi, the current deputy representative of Ishin and Osaka governor, grew in popularity. A veteran local assembly member explains, “Hashimoto and Yoshimura are advertisements for the party. Matsui has been carrying the party for a long time. Matsui’s retirement has a completely different meaning from Hashimoto’s.”

 

Matsui tells Ishin candidates across the country, “Do the legwork. Get out there and explain the party’s policies face-to-face. That is the heart of this campaign.” The fact that the party founder himself is working to make Ishin into a national party right up to his retirement is an indication of a widely held view that he lacks a successor. (Abridged)

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