TOKYO (Reuters) - A potential ally for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's drive to revise the post-war, pacifist constitution – and one of Japan’s most colourful politicians – has said he'll leave politics after his party suffered defeat in a local referendum.
Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, founder of Japan’s second largest opposition party and perhaps best known abroad for his 2013 comments that appeared to excuse Japan's "comfort women" system of wartime military brothels, said late on Sunday that he would leave politics when his term as mayor expires in December.
The announcement came after Osaka voters narrowly rejected a key plank of his platform to create a western counterpart to the metropolis of Tokyo as a way to revive the city's fortunes.
Abe has been eyeing Hashimoto's right-leaning, small-government Japan Innovation Party as an ally in his push to revise the constitution for the first time ever.
"My life as a politician is over," Hashimoto, a former lawyer and TV talk show celebrity, told reporters after Osaka voters, some worried the plan would weaken social services and others simply confused, rejected his signature plan.
Abe is already easing the constitution's constraints on the military with planned legislative changes, but has made clear he wants to revise the constitution formally, an ambitious target since the charter has not been altered since American's drafted it after World War Two.
But while his Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, the Komeito party, control both houses of parliament, they lack the two-thirds majorities needed to adopt constitutional amendments, which must then be approved by a majority of voters in a national referendum.
"Abe was eyeing getting the Innovation Party on board and splitting the DPJ (main opposition Democratic Party of Japan)," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
"This will encourage the opposition parties in the sense that Abe and (Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide) Suga for the first time in months lost a battle."
Abe and Suga, who is close to Hashimoto, had backed the mayor's plan, putting them at odds with the LDP organisation in Osaka.
Whether the Japan Innovation Party can hang together is unclear, as is Hashimoto's own future, with some speculating that despite his promise to leave politics, he might run for parliament's upper house next year.
"It's difficult to imagine him just disappearing," said journalist Eric Johnston, who has covered Hashimoto for the Japan Times newspaper.
(reporting by Linda Sieg)