Sitting in his dilapidated office in Tokyo filled with the stench of cigarette smoke and the leftover decor of the Chinese restaurant it once was, Taisuke Ono is the unlikely face of a populist wave that has overthrown Japanese politics.
The 47-year-old former Accenture consultant lost in Tokyo’s gubernatorial race last year, but made a wonderful 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 to become the country’s third largest political power.
With an almost quadrupling of its representation to 41 seats in the Diet’s powerful lower house, the once fringe party Japan’s ruling bloc could provide the necessary votes if the government decides to continue with a review to Japan’s pacifist constitution.
“This is simply 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 have delivered in Osaka,” he added, referring to the need for constitutional amendment and regulatory reform to revive the stagnant economy.
Conservatives have long sought to revise Japan’s constitution denying war to make explicit the legitimacy of the country’s armed forces. But an amendment requires considerable political capital and public momentum, which has made it impossible, even for Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister, to achieve his lifelong ambition.
On the economic front, Ishin wants to address what he said was the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s failure to keep promises of radical structural reform to promote growth and escape decades of deflation.
Ishin was founded about a decade ago as a regional organization led by Toru Hashimoto, a charismatic and sharp-tongued former governor of Osaka and the closest Japan has ever had to a Donald Trump-style populist.
The right-wing party is widely supported in the country’s second largest city for its success with the privatization of the local subway system and for populist policies such as free education and wage cuts for parliamentarians.
Hirofumi Yoshimura, Ishin’s 46-year-old deputy principal, who inherited Hashimoto’s playbook, became known for his high-profile media appearances during the Covid-19 crisis as Osaka governor.
“Mr Yoshimura’s popularity was a major factor in our ability to become a third party,” said Tsukasa Abe, a 39-year-old Ishin member who was elected to Tokyo for the first time.
In addition to his newly accumulated parliamentary influence, analysts said Ishin’s election success puts greater policy pressure on the new administration of Fumio Kishida.
Ishin supports the LDP’s effort to increase Japan’s role in national security and defense spending to address China’s threat, as well as the need for constitutional review.
But the party sharply criticized the prime minister’s vision for new capitalism to bring about the redistribution of wealth and “warm-hearted reform”. It argues that “reform with pain” is needed to open up tightly regulated markets for growth.
“I think the fact that you had a party with a new way of thinking that increased the number of seats shows that there is a desire for change and a more radical solution among the voters,” says Richard Kaye, a portfolio manager at French Asset Manager. Comgest and a veteran investor in Japanese equities.
“This is a welcome development, because it pushes the country further towards reform and deregulation.”
Aside from the crushing of the LDP in Osaka, Ishin garnered votes outside his stronghold in western Japan by exploiting public disillusionment with the ruling party. It also exploited skepticism towards the main opposition camp’s failed election strategy to ally with the Japanese Communist Party, despite their ideological differences.
Yet Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University, said Ishin faced an uphill battle to become a powerful force in national politics. Ishin, she said, had to work out how he could maintain his distinctive identity as an opposition force while working with the LDP and his coalition partner Komeito on policy initiatives.
“The LDP is likely to weigh its options and make the Komeito and Ishin compete against each other,” Nakabayashi said. “The challenge is how much Ishin can demonstrate his presence in national politics.”
One crucial area of cooperation between all 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 retain a comfortable majority by winning 293 out of the 465-seat lower house, they still need Ishin to reach the two-thirds threshold.
But with a high-profile election looming next summer, analysts question whether Kishida is willing to take the huge political risk of pursuing a controversial agenda that could antagonize both the public and Komeito, a pacifist, Buddhist party.
Ishin also only raised the issue of constitutional amendment during the election in the context of legalizing free education rather than promoting a change in the war-denying Article 9.
Party members acknowledge that Ishin runs the risk of losing his identity if he cooperates too closely with the LDP, and repeats his erratic history of gaining and losing seats.
“The general concern for the third force is the loss of momentum after a boom,” Ono said. “Our main DNA is reform, so we need to move forward without compromising.”