In Other Words

Japan’s Right Stuff?

Ishihara Shintaro no Tokyo Dai-kaikaku (Shintaro Ishihara’s Overhaul of Tokyo) By Akio Sakurai and the Tokyo Shimbun "Ishihara Watch" Team 207 pages, Tokyo: Seishun Shuppansha, 2000 (in Japanese) People may not always deserve the kind of politicians and governments they get. But in the case of Japan — a fully developed democracy with a free ...

Ishihara Shintaro no Tokyo Dai-kaikaku (Shintaro Ishihara’s Overhaul of Tokyo)
By Akio Sakurai and the Tokyo Shimbun "Ishihara Watch" Team
207 pages, Tokyo: Seishun Shuppansha, 2000 (in Japanese)

People may not always deserve the kind of politicians and governments they get. But in the case of Japan — a fully developed democracy with a free press and an informed public — voters cannot escape some responsibility for electing a succession of governments with little imagination and less leadership. After running through eight prime ministers heading six different coalitions over the last 10 years, Japan has fallen from grace. In what the Japanese now call "the lost decade," their country has gone from being the envy of the world for its financial and technical prowess to being the basket case of the industrial nations, with rising unemployment, declining productivity, and its largest fiscal deficit in history.

Given these circumstances, the Japanese understandably seem to have lost confidence in their politicians and political system. A series of national and local elections in recent months turned into routs for veteran politicians and the candidates of the traditional parties, as voters turned to political novices with no party backing. Public support for Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has hovered between 19 and 25 percent, with a disapproval rating consistently over 50 percent. His predecessor Keizo Obuchi, whose term was cut short by a fatal stroke, didn’t do much better in the polls.

So, isn’t there anyone among established political figures who stirs the imagination of the Japanese people and gives them hope for a healthier and stronger Japan? Yes, there is: Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. Having served in the Diet (parliament) for 25 years, the 68-year-old, ultranationalist ex-novelist is no stranger to Nagatacho, Japan’s Capitol Hill. When he first ran for office in 1968, Ishihara was already a household name in Japan, having won a national literary prize at age 23 with his controversial first novel, whose most famous scene depicts its youthful hero breaking the thin white paper on a shoji sliding door with his erect penis. With his brother Yujiro, Japan’s most popular movie star, Ishihara was an icon of youth culture in the 1950s and 60s. Americans may know him as the author, together with Sony’s Akio Morita, of the controversial 1989 book The Japan That Can Say No, which argued that Japan should respond to U.S. demands on trade and security by threatening to cut off the supply of the semiconductors that U.S. industry needed for everything from toys to fighter planes.

Sensing another opportunity to make a splash, Ishihara entered the Tokyo governor’s race as an independent in April 1999 and thrashed several big-name candidates fielded by the major political parties. Shintaro Ishihara’s Overhaul of Tokyo is essentially a reporter’s notebook about Ishihara’s comings and goings since he took office, compiled by a team of Ishihara watchers at Tokyo Shimbun, the largest local newspaper that circulates in and around the metropolis. A compilation of snippets of his words and deeds in the last year and half, the book — one of several in the "Ishihara corner" of Japanese bookstores — provides a good sense of his philosophy and talent for political theater.

Why care about a week-by-week account of the doings of a city governor? Because Ishihara aims to use his position as chief executive of the capital as a platform to challenge the national government and remake the country. "By rebuilding Tokyo, I want to rebuild Japan which is already sinking," Ishihara told voters during the election campaign. Ishihara’s proposed reforms go well beyond domestic issues such as taxes and the environment. For example, despite warnings from Beijing and the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Ishihara has used his bully pulpit as governor to critique China’s policies regarding Taiwan and Tibet, inviting the Dalai Lama to visit his office earlier this year. His campaign pledges also included eviction of the U.S. military from its Japanese headquarters at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo’s western suburbs — a reflection of his long-standing resentment of U.S. military dominance in the region. In fact, his latest book, just out last November, is titled Let’s Stop America-Worship.

Halfway through his four-year term, Ishihara’s record is mixed. He hasn’t evicted any GIs and His Tibetan Holiness decided not to drop by after all. But as Sakurai and his team document in detail, Ishihara has made a number of unconventional policy moves that were loathed by big business and the bureaucrats but cheered by the electorate. Last fall, he announced a plan to ban all diesel-powered vehicles — virtually all trucks — from the streets of Tokyo unless they were fitted with filters to reduce their emissions of soot. Both truck makers and the trucking industry protested vigorously that doing so would be enormously expensive and perhaps technologically impossible. However, Ishihara held firm and set a 2005 deadline for enforcement. As if by magic, the auto industry produced a plan to develop cleaner vehicles in time.

Last February, he stunned the country by announcing that his municipal government planned to tax big banks on their operating incomes. Financial institutions had been avoiding tax payments to the city by taking credit for huge bad-loan write-offs that allowed them to report net losses. Though the banks are suing Tokyo on the grounds that the new tax violates the constitution’s guarantee of equality under the law, the measure has been extremely popular with ordinary people, whose taxes — in the trillions of yen — have been used to bail the banks out of their bad-loan crisis. Now other municipalities, and even the central government, are considering similar measures.

In both cases, Ishihara has certainly helped to "change Japan by changing Tokyo" and has been much more effective than, say, conservative Austrian politician Jörg Haider at using his provincial governorship. Like Haider, Ishihara already has a significant following in national politics. One fervent fan is Shizuka Kamei, the current policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), of which Ishihara’s 43-year-old son Nobuteru is an influential member. In fact, every time discord rumbles through the LDP, there is talk of Ishihara and his supporters forming an "Ishihara Party." Ishihara has also made cunning use of his popularity to diminish Japan’s "military allergy," a condition that manifests itself not just in public support for Japan’s "no-war" constitution but in a low public regard for the armed forces in general. He asked the navy to send a half-dozen warships to help evacuate the residents of Miyakejima, an island 120 miles south of Tokyo, after a volcano eruption there last summer. Last September, Ishihara mobilized 7,100 troops, along with 18,000 rescue workers, for the largest earthquake drill Tokyo has ever staged. He took visible pleasure in personally cheering soldiers in green fatigues performing "rescues" on city streets — and in "securing" transportation by taking control of buses and subways. In an episode again reminiscent of Haider, Ishihara had lectured the Tokyo garrison that one of its most important tasks in a disaster would be to protect the city from an uprising of resident "third country nationals," a derogatory term used to describe Koreans and Chinese.

Sakurai and his team often marvel at Ishihara’s selective use of the media to maximum advantage in selling his agenda. They are also in awe of his leadership skills and creativity. But his total lack of humility and his general intolerance make him a potentially dangerous figure for Japan, the book argues. The real danger is that the Japanese people, tired of indecisive, nebbishy, and often corrupt politicians, may at some point decide they need a strong leader like Ishihara in order to feel good again about their country.

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