By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto formally launches a bid for national power on Wednesday with a new political party that critics say taps simmering nationalist sentiment just as Japan faces increasingly strained ties with China and South Korea.
That tension has been growing in recent weeks as Beijing and Seoul both clash with Tokyo over rival claims to islands in the region, disputes that trace back to lingering resentment over Japan's wartime rule in the region.
"He's definitely pushing Japanese political discourse further to the right," said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo ahead of a fundraising bash in Osaka for Hashimoto's party. "A lot of Japanese are looking for a messiah who will turn things around and make everything wonderful."
Some opinion polls show that Hashimoto's Japan Restoration Party is more popular than the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). In one TV survey it even ranked higher than the biggest opposition rival
Japan has had six premiers since 2006 as it struggles with an ageing population and fading competitiveness. Hashimoto's party could influence who becomes the seventh after a general election expected within months that the Democrats look set to lose.
Hashimoto plans to run hundreds of candidates in that election, although he insists he won't be one of them. He only took over last year as mayor of Osaka, Japan's second largest metropolitan area. He has already lured away seven lawmakers from the DPJ and other parties, and more may follow.
A former lawyer and TV talk show celebrity, the boyish-faced 43-year-old Hashimoto has promised to break Japan's prolonged political deadlock and stressed U.S. Tea Party-style domestic policies to shrink the role of the central government, give more power to local authorities and promote free-market competition.
And in an apparent effort to woo right-leaning mainstream allies and voters, he is calling for Japan to beef up its ability to defend itself - while keeping ties with security ally Washington tight - and urging a public referendum on revising Japan's pacifist constitution.
He has also echoed some ultra-conservative views on wartime history that touch raw nerves among neighbors.
"He has gone out of his way to say that sexual slaves in wartime was a fiction," Nakano said, referring to Hashimoto's remark that there was no evidence Japan's Imperial Army forced Korean and other Asian women to work at military brothels.
Ties with China, where bitter memories of Japan's occupation of parts of the country in the 1930s and 1940s run deep, have been badly strained by a feud over disputed islands.
Relations with South Korea have also been chilled by a separate territorial row, as well as Seoul's view that Tokyo has not done enough for the "comfort women", as they are euphemistically known, forced to work in the wartime brothels.
"Hashimoto hasn't seemed to have much interest in history or national security and foreign policy," Nakano said. "It seems he is using that instrument to appeal to his possible allies."
Among those potential allies are ex-prime minister Shinzo Abe, who plans to run in a September 26 election for a new leader of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) this month. Abe's rival, former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba, is another.
LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara, also vying for the top party post, might feel more comfortable tying up with defeated Democrats but also has ties to Hashimoto through his father, Shintaro, the nationalist governor of Tokyo.
Pundits see the long-dominant LDP re-emerging as the biggest party but falling short of a majority, even with a smaller ally.
"If Hashimoto's party gets more than 100 seats, the LDP will have to tie up with it," said Nihon University professor Tomoaki Iwai. "If it wins only 60-70, the LDP might favor the DPJ."
Others say Hashimoto, who makes much of his outsider status to woo disillusioned voters, will steer clear of a coalition with mainstream parties and bide his time until he can run for parliament himself, perhaps in a upper house poll next year.
Some predict Hashimoto's appeal will fade over time as voters scrutinize his policies and candidates. Others disagree.
"There is a vacuum that these people are looking to fill," said Jesper Koll, head of equity research at JPMorgan in Tokyo.
"You have a country that is lost, and as a result, all things are possible."
(reporting by Linda Sieg, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)