TOKYO A maverick politician's re-election as mayor in the central Japanese city of Nagoya sends a U.S. Tea Party-like message of contempt for the ruling party less than two years after it took power with pledges of sweeping change.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan's DPJ.L defeat in Nagoya and a governor race the same day portends a thrashing in a string of local polls in April, only making it harder for unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan to implement a workable budget and craft tax reforms to curb massive public debt.
But while Japanese voters are echoing the disaffection that has fired up U.S. Tea Party activists, analysts question whether it will translate into the sort of grassroots movement that sent Tea Party lawmakers to Congress with promises to get government out of people's lives.
"It's certainly a reflection of popular disgust with the status quo and what is perceived as an inability of the established parties to do any good," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
"But it is not so much grassroots as the Tea Party ... It's much more passive," he said.
The Democrats themselves swept to power for the first time in 2009 on a similar wave of voter frustration, then directed at the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party LDP.L, which had ruled almost non-stop for more than half a century.
But support for the party has since sagged, eroded by flip-flops over costly promises to put more cash in consumers' hands, diplomatic missteps, bickering over a scandal-tainted powerbroker and voters' perception of weak leadership.
The Democrats were trounced in last year's election for parliament's upper house after Kan's predecessor abruptly quit and he himself clumsily floated a possible rise in the 5 percent sales tax hike to fund rising social welfare costs and curb a public debt already twice the size of the $5 trillion economy.
Now Kan is struggling to enact laws to implement a $1 trillion (620 billion pounds) budget for the year from April in a divided parliament where the opposition-controlled upper house can block bills.
He is also urging opposition parties -- so far to no avail -- to join talks on social welfare and tax reform.
"SENSE OF STALEMATE"
The DJP admitted that voters were fed up.
"A sense of stalemate in Japan's political circles seem to have pushed voters to a third candidate, who is non-DPJ and non-LDP," DJP Secretary General Katsuya Okada told reporters after the local votes.
Things were no better for the LDP which also fared badly in the weekend polls, in which both victors were independents.
Nagoya's Takashi Kawamura, a colourful former DPJ lawmaker first elected mayor in 2009, had resigned his post to force a vote after clashing with the city assembly over his proposal to cut residential taxes by 10 percent and slice assembly member's salaries in half.
A frequent guest on TV talk shows who often appears wearing a local baseball team cap, Kawamura argues the tax cut makes economic sense despite creaking local finances.
The populist thrust of his "Tax Cut Japan Party" has some in Japan's mainstream media worried.
"'Theatrical politics' that garners support by putting forward policies that are easy for people to swallow and playing up conflict with the local assembly carries a risk," said the Yomiuri newspaper in an editorial.
The anti-tax stance mimics Tea Party rhetoric, but Kawamura has said little specific about scaling back services as a result.
"Everyone agrees lower taxes are nice but if he were like the Tea Party, he would talk about rejecting central government subsidies, cutting social services and instituting 'small government'," said Keio University professor Yasunori Sone.
Kawamura's local party is one of several set up recently by local mayors and governors, including popular Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto, that are critical of national politicians and want more local autonomy.
But translating local popularity into clout at the national level has always been tough in Japan's parliamentary system, despite repeated hopes in the past that reform-minded governors would breathe change into the stale central political world.
"Building a party is serious business and building a party from scratch is even harder," Nakano said. "A new party of that type relies on the 'wind' of popular mood. It can be very successful with media but for real politics you need more grass roots organisation and they do not really have much so far." (Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, editing by Jonathan Thatcher)