Expose of Gangster Past Roils Japan Politics

By Todd Crowell

TOKYO – It has never been a secret that Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s father was a yakuza, or that his gangster father hailed from a social underclass that has often been discriminated against in past years. Newspaper and magazine articles have alluded to this without making much of an issue of it -- until now.

The mayor, who aspires to turn his regional-based political party into a national force, went ballistic recently over a magazine article that he said delved unfairly into his family’s past using terms that in other countries might ban as “hate speech” on the cover. It was the first article in the Shukan Asahi magazine in what was to be a four-part exposé of his background.

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What riled Hashimoto was the magazine’s decision to print a variation of his name -- Hashishita -- on the cover. Hashimoto is a common Japanese name, but the Chinese characters that comprise the name are open to some ambiguity. The mayor was not upset that his name was misspelled, but that the magazine deliberately used a variant associated with an outcast class.

The magazine printed the name in katakana, a Japanese alphabet, just to make sure that nobody missed the import of the name. Hashimoto loudly proclaimed the series to be character assassination, and the term a kind of hate speech that might be banned in other countries. 

The Shukan Asahi is a weekly publication of the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s three most important and widely read newspapers. Hashimoto has had a running feud with Asahi, which tends to lean to the left in its coverage while the mayor is mostly conservative. In this instance, the Asahi apologized for using the term and canned the series.

The burakumin are a class of Japanese stigmatized since feudal times because they engaged in work that Buddhists consider unclean or associated with death, such as being undertakers, executioners or leather workers. They were relegated to isolated villages (the term literally means “village people”) or to urban ghettos.

Hashimoto’s father reportedly was born in one such village near Osaka. Like so many in the stigmatized class, he drifted into the underworld of the yakuza. Later he committed suicide when Hashimoto was in the second grade; he and his mother moved to Osaka. It is unclear whether their neighborhood was a burakumin ghetto.

The future mayor went to Waseda University in Tokuyo, one of Japan’s most prestigious universities, obtained a law degree, became a television personality and a politician. He looks on himself, with good reason, as a person who pulled himself up by his own efforts. As mayor he has even promised to end some of the subsidies to burakumin that are made to compensate for prejudice against them.

Ironically, the burakumin are more prevalent in the Kansai area of Japan (Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe), which is also Hashimoto’s political base. Relatively few live in Tokyo or to the northeast. Over time, prejudice has abated; there are a couple burakumin in parliament, and one served as chief cabinet secretary in a previous government.

Hashimoto and his allies control the governments of Osaka and Osaka prefecture, and they plan to field some 200-300 candidates in the next general election, which must be held by the summer but probably earlier. Some pundits give them a chance to win 50 seats or more in their region, denying the two major parties a majority.

But the mayor isn’t the only intriguing new politician on the scene, if the term “new” can be applied to the 80-year-old Shintaro Ishihara. He recently resigned as governor of Tokyo after serving more than 13 years in the post. He said he wanted to enter national politics at the head of some new but, as of now, unnamed political party.

 

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Todd Crowell is the author of Farewell, My Colony: Last Years in the Life of British Hong Kong. He is compiling a Dictionary of the Modern Asian Language and comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable (www.asiacable.blogspot.com).
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