By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - "What Japan needs most now is a dictator."
Toru Hashimoto, a lawyer and TV celebrity-turned politician,
was quick to add when he made that widely publicized remark last year that a Hitler-style dictatorship was neither desirable nor possible given Japan's democratic checks and balances.
But the call for strong leadership from the charismatic mayor, whom some believe has ambitions to be Japan's next premier, is resonating with voters frustrated by years of political deadlock that has kept the country from tackling the deep-rooted problems of a fast-ageing society.
Rising voter support for the boyish-faced Hashimoto, 42, who was elected as mayor of the major western city of Osaka last year after serving three years as governor of the broader region, mirrors the sagging fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
Noda's ratings have sunk below 30 percent in the short time since he became Japan's sixth premier in five years last September.
In sharp contrast, more than double that number expressed hopes for Hashimoto's new party in a weekend poll.
It is hard to judge whether Hashimoto's Ishin no Kai party, now starting a search for national candidates, can win substantial clout in parliament in an election that must be held in 2013 but is likely to come sooner.
Experts say his party has a chance. Even if the party falls short of a lower house majority, it could form the core of a new ruling bloc if neither the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) nor its rival Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), wins.
"A lot of 'floating voters' who get captivated by the latest flavour could vote for Hashimoto. It's a way of sticking their finger in the eyes of the established parties," said Gerry Curtis, a Columbia University political science professor.
Others, though, say Hashimoto may just end up as the latest outsider to fade after a flurry of media and voter attention.
"Even if his party finishes third ... if they (the LDP or DPJ) can form a majority without Ishin no Kai, they will," said Chuo University political science professor Steven Reed.
"There are a lot of policies he is demanding that neither want to swallow."
Political hopefuls have been tapping into frustration with mainstream parties for decades, sometimes shaking things up before institutional inertia reasserted itself.
The LDP's soundbite-savvy Junichiro Koizumi was propelled to the top job in 2001 by a groundswell of support for his calls to break the grip of vested interests, serving a rare five-year term during which he cleaned up bank's bad loans, deregulated the labour market and privatized the giant postal system.
Three years after Koizumi stepped down, voters fed up with LDP backsliding and lured by the Democratic Party of Japan's (DPJ) promises of change handed the novice party a huge victory.
But the DPJ now faces the same problem, the public disappointed by its struggle to tackle a mountainous legacy of policy problems including debt equal to twice the $5 trillion economy while slipping back into some of the LDP's old habits, including changing prime ministers every year.
"The reason Koizumi won huge victories was his pledge to breakup vested interests," said economist Tatsuo Hatta, who serves on a government advisory panel on energy policy.
"The message from voters is loud and clear."
Hashimoto is playing coy about whether he would run for parliament, a necessary step if he wants to be premier.
But his party is finalizing its national platform and Hashimoto has made clear that agreement with it will be a litmus test for candidates seeking his backing.
The document is being called the "Eight-point plan written on a ship" after a reformist blueprint written by 19th century samurai Ryoma Sakamoto, a popular historical figure who played a leading role in overthrowing Japan's feudal government.
Sticking with that theme, the party's name means "Restoration Group," a deliberate reference to the 1868 Meiji Restoration that opened Japan to the outside world and began a process of modernization.
The party's main demands include the direct election of the prime minister and reform or abolition of parliament's upper house which has become the stumbling block for new laws passed by the lower chamber and is blamed by many for Japan's political stalemate. Both changes, though, need hard-to-enact constitutional amendments.
Hashimoto wants to scale back the government's role to diplomacy, defense and macroeconomic policies while giving the regions more independence, a stance echoed by many other local politicians as well the small Your Party, created in 2009 by former LDP lawmaker Yoshimi Watanabe, now a Hashimoto ally.
Some insiders say Watanabe, like Hashimoto a proponent of business-friendly policies, could become a proxy candidate for premier if the popular mayor doesn't run for parliament himself.
Hashimoto has also adopted an anti-nuclear, anti-utility stance that echoes public wariness about atomic energy and anger at politically powerful utilities after the March Fukushima nuclear accident, the world's worst in 25 years.
His stance already appears to be stiffening the resolve of Trade Minister Yukio Edano to take a tough line with the Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co over how much control it will have to hand the government in return for a massive bailout with taxpayers' money.
"They (Edano and the DPJ) are really scared and have every reason to be scared of Hashimoto," Curtis said.
Noda's government is also revamping Japan's energy policy to cut reliance on nuclear power following the Fukushima nuclear crisis triggered by the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The prime minister's main policy focus, however, is a battle to enact bills to double Japan's five percent sales tax in two stages by October 2015 to fund ballooning social welfare costs.
On this, Hashimoto has yet to make his position clear.
Some worry his populist, right-leaning views could create an opening for a nationalist resurgence in Japan, a concern that has prompted critics to dub his style "Hashism."
"He comes across as a leader who doesn't believe in pluralism. That is shown in his approach to institutional reform (which is that) anything that is obstructive to the chief executive of local government needs to be abolished," said Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano.
Hashimoto has also tangled with the leftist teachers' union over members' refusal to stand for the national anthem, still associated by some with Japan's wartime militarism, a stand that will likely attract ultraconservative voters.
Fans say he's Japan's last chance, the sort of risk-taker the country desperately needs.
Others, however, see chaos at worst and more deadlock at best if Hashimoto's party and its allies seek a key role in a new ruling bloc while the two biggest parties jostle and maybe even split.
"What we would have to look forward to is a long period of instability and ineffectual government," Curtis said.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)