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What's behind Japan Innovation Party's major breakthrough in general election?

Hirofumi Yoshimura, deputy chief of the Japan Innovation Party and Osaka governor, speaks during a press conference in Osaka's Kita Ward as vote counts are underway for the House of Representatives election on Oct. 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

OSAKA -- Following the Oct. 31 House of Representatives election, Japan's conservative opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party, JIP), which tripled its seats in the lower house, has secured its position as the third largest party in the chamber after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), distinguishing itself from other opposition forces that formed a united front against the governing coalition.

    The Osaka Prefecture-based party secured victories in all 15 single-seat constituencies in the prefecture where it fielded its candidates, and also increased its seats on a nationwide scale in the proportional representation bloc. The JIP had diminishing influence since its plan for abolishing Osaka's city status to turn it into a metropolis with special wards came to a standstill, and had been rather overlooked as a "supplementary force of the administration." However, the party made its presence strongly known in the recent general election. What exactly was behind this sudden development?

    "Even though we were able to increase seats, we're a small political party. If we join the administration, our voices would get buried and we wouldn't be able to have our say. We'd like to challenge (the governing parties) as a third force," said JIP leader and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui in a TV program on the night of Oct. 31. He denied speculation that the JIP might join the governing coalition, and indicated the view that the party will confront the administration and ruling parties from a fair and unbiased standpoint, and express approval and disapproval depending on policies. Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, who is the party's deputy chief, stated during a press conference that "the party's attitude of carrying out its promises was highly rated."

    Japan Innovation Party leader and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, front, and the party's deputy chief and Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura are seen during a press conference in Osaka's Kita Ward on Oct. 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

    "The LDP lacks a mindset toward reform," Matsui has said. He has clearly expressed the intention to take a confrontational approach against the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, following his history of building favorable relations with those of former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga. Matsui emphasized that "Japan can have at least one political party pushing for reform," and appealed to the psyche of voters who are dissatisfied with status-quo.

    Yoshimura, who became well-known across the country for his handling of the coronavirus, gathered large audiences whenever he stopped by to give speeches during the campaign period, notably in the Osaka and greater Kansai areas. As crowds flooded squares near train stations and entertainment districts, a JIP lawmaker involved in preparations lamented that they "should have secured a wider space." However, it was not only the promotion of a reformative stance and Yoshimura's popularity that led to the party's breakthrough.

    "We were able to engage in campaign activities while staying grounded. I was supported by local lawmakers who know what needs to be done to win the election," said Hitoshi Aoyagi, 42, a newcomer candidate belonging to the JIP, as he expressed a sense of accomplishment after winning the Osaka No. 14 constituency. Following his careers at the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the United Nations, he joined the inaugural class of the Ishin Seijijuku educational academy for fostering candidates, which was opened in 2012 by regional political party Osaka Ishin no Kai -- the JIP's parent organization headed by Osaka Gov. Yoshimura.

    Aoyagi ran in the lower house election for three consecutive times starting from the 2012 general election, and was fielded as a candidate by the JIP, but failed to win seats in the Saitama No. 4 and No. 9 constituencies. In the latest election, Aoyagi's rich experience overseas was recognized, and he agreed to change his constituency to the Osaka No. 14 district, which includes Matsui's hometown the prefectural city of Yao. Aoyagi has relocated to the area, and lives apart from his wife and three children.

    Aoyagi, who lacked a support base in the new constituency, was backed by a total of 26 JIP members, including local mayors, as well as prefectural and municipal assembly members within the constituency. They each took turns taking the candidate, who was unfamiliar with the local communities, to meet companies and organizations that support the party, as well as voters, for days on end. Since June, Aoyagi had handed out 10,000 business cards within the constituency, home to around 420,000 voters. A total of 2,500 posters were hung, while 300,000 flyers were distributed.

    Japan Innovation Party leader Ichiro Matsui, left, and deputy chief Hirofumi Yoshimura are seen leaving a press conference in Osaka's Kita Ward on Oct. 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

    Aoyagi said, "When I was aboard the election campaign vehicle, people waved to me in various places." As a result, he gained some 126,000 votes, and dominated the race by establishing a difference of over 50,000 votes with a former LDP lawmaker who came in second.

    The JIP assigned prefectural and municipal assembly members in each of the 15 constituencies where the party fielded candidates with the task of overseeing and heading the administration of the campaign. The party headquarters took the lead to build a pyramid-structure that mobilized a total of around 260 municipal mayors and lawmakers in Osaka Prefecture to support candidates of each constituency. Not only did they help with campaign speeches and flyer distribution, but they also stood in front of early polling stations to call on voters for support just as they were about to cast their ballots.

    The JIP occupies both the governorship of Osaka Prefecture and the mayoralty of the city of Osaka, and it appears that the party's policy measures it has pushed forward by securing a majority of seats in local assemblies has also been received favorably among voters. In the Osaka Prefectural Assembly, where the Osaka Ishin no Kai holds a majority, the number of seats was reduced from 109 to 88 in 2011, and the assembly members' remuneration was cut by 30%. The party has actively incorporated policies placing a focus on the working generation, including establishing a de-facto tuition-free scheme for private high schools, and making households exempt from lunch expenses at Osaka municipal elementary and junior high schools.

    In the House of Representatives election campaign, the party highlighted such achievements, while presenting the clear-cut narrative that "politics is about leaving results," and that "in Osaka, the party has generated finances through reform, and has brought policies to life," as stated by Yoshimura. More and more voters are showing favorable responses, such as a self-employed man in his 40s who commented, "The party solves local issues, and gives me hope that society may become a bit better."

    Hitoshi Aoyagi of the Japan Innovation Party, who ran in the Osaka No. 14 constituency in the House of Representatives election, is seen waving his hand to commuters before a train station in Yao, Osaka Prefecture, on Oct. 25, 2021. Yao Mayor Keisuke Daimatsu, pictured in the left-hand corner, also supported Aoyagi on this day. (Mainichi/Yasutoshi Tsurumi)

    However, when stepping foot outside Osaka Prefecture and the western Japan region of Kansai, the JIP has limited influence. Though it increased seats in proportional representation, it was defeated and buried among candidates of the LDP and the CDP in single-seat constituencies.

    Aoyagi reflected on his years in Saitama when he faced consecutive defeats, and said, "More than anything, I didn't have anyone on my side. To begin with, they won't even let you greet people at local events." There were almost no local assembly members belonging to the JIP, nor were there visible accomplishments made in the east Japan region. There is a great disparity between the constituencies of the Kansai region and other areas of the country.

    Regarding the reality in areas outside Osaka Prefecture, Matsui said, "We still lack basic strength. We can't use a magic wand in other areas." The JIP has entered a crucial stage, faced with the question of whether it can emerge as a full-fledged national political party.

    (Japanese original by Yasutoshi Tsurumi and Yumi Shibamura, Osaka City News Department, and Hirokage Tabata, Osaka Science & Environment News Department)

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