By Yoshiyuki Osada
OSAKA, Japan (Reuters) - Popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto formally launched 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.
"Our glorious country Japan has fallen into a state of decline," Hashimoto told a crowd of backers at a fund-raising party in Osaka, western Japan, after announcing his local party would go national. "Let's fight together ... to once again revive a glorious Japan."
The beginning of Hashimoto's de facto campaign for a national election coincides with deepening disputes between Tokyo and Beijing and Seoul over islands in the region, feuds rooted in a legacy of resentment over Japan's wartime rule.
"He's definitely pushing Japanese political discourse further to the right," Koichi Nakano, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, said earlier. "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 survey, it ranked higher than the biggest opposition party.
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 an election expected within months that the Democrats look set to lose.
Hashimoto plans to run hundreds of candidates in the 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 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 the United States tight - and urging a 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 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."
Asked about the island rows on Wednesday, Hashimoto gave a low-key response. "It's natural to defend territory ... (but) on territorial issues, diplomacy and security, I don't think it's the role of politicians to clamor loudly," he told reporters.
Among Hashimoto's potential allies are ex-prime minister Shinzo Abe, who is running in a September 26 poll for a new leader of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). 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.
Some predict Hashimoto's appeal will fade over time as voters scrutinize his policies and candidates. Others disagree.
"You have a country that is lost, and as a result, all things are possible," said Jesper Koll, head of equity research at JPMorgan in Tokyo.
(Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Robert Birsel)