Tokyo’s Hawkish Governor Stirs the Pot

Japan's most volatile politician is making a splash in the South China Sea -- and the Chinese are beating the drums of war.

Ian Walton/Getty Images
Ian Walton/Getty Images
Ian Walton/Getty Images

BEIJING — "I do what I do because I want to," Shintaro Ishihara wrote in his 1956 novel The Punishment Room. "Do what you please, and sooner or later you'll find out where you are."

BEIJING — "I do what I do because I want to," Shintaro Ishihara wrote in his 1956 novel The Punishment Room. "Do what you please, and sooner or later you’ll find out where you are."

Ishihara put those words in the mouth of Katsumi, one of the angry young protagonists who made the author a Jack Kerouac-style cult hero to a sullen generation of youth in postwar Japan and that year’s winner of the country’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize.

Fifty-six years later, Ishihara — now 79 and in his fourth term as the outspoken governor of Tokyo — is still following Katsumi’s mantra: doing what he wants, in this case pushing Japan toward a confrontation with neighboring China that he believes is inevitable. Ishihara warned in May that "Japan could become the sixth star on China’s national flag" if it appeases Beijing. In his public speeches, he refers to the People’s Republic as "Shina," a derogatory term associated with Japan’s 1937-1945 occupation.

In an island country where xenophobia is commonplace, though often hidden behind polite smiles and bows, Ishihara has made himself the most prominent right-wing figure by bluntly saying what many Japanese are quietly thinking. Crime in Tokyo was on the rise because Japan allowed in too many foreigners, he said shortly after first being elected governor in 1999. In March 2011, he called the massive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that smashed Japan’s northeast coast that month and left almost 20,000 dead and missing "divine punishment" for Japan’s materialistic lifestyle; he was easily reelected to a fourth term just weeks later.

He hates Mickey Mouse, who lacks "the unique sensibility that Japan has," and he thinks French is unworthy of being an international language. In his most notorious outburst, he told a Playboy interviewer in 1990 that the extensively documented 1937-1938 Rape of Nanking, in which the Imperial Japanese Army slaughtered more than 200,000 Chinese, "is a story made up by the Chinese."

But for the first time, one of Ishihara’s provocations may come with real consequences. In April, Ishihara announced that he planned to purchase the Senkaku Islands, five uninhabited rocks southwest of Okinawa and east of Taiwan, four of which have been privately owned by a Japanese family for the past four decades, but which both China and Taiwan also claim. China is embroiled in tense territorial disputes in other spots as well — in late July it sent soldiers to an island in the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam. But it’s the Senkakus (known in China as the Diaoyus) where a wider war could break out. A group of activists from Hong Kong is planning to visit the islands to protest Japan’s claims and could arrive as early as Aug. 16. On Aug. 14, the English-language version of the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper published by the official People’s Daily, warned that if Japan sends military forces to block Chinese activists "it will force China to send warships to the Diaoyu Islands’ waters."

More acrimony exists between Japan and China than between China and any other country. Fierce anti-Japanese sentiment — stemming from the sense Japan has never fully atoned for World War II atrocities — is disturbingly common both in China’s official media and online among ordinary netizens. Meanwhile, Japanese government polling conducted last year found that more than three-quarters of Japanese — the highest level since 1978 — consider relations with their giant neighbor to be "unfriendly." That’s troubling for the United States, which under the terms of a mutual security treaty, has an obligation to defend Japan. (In July, Japan’s Kyodo news agency quoted an unnamed U.S. State Department official saying the scope of the treaty includes the Senkaku Islands.)

The last time Japan tried to take a stand over the Senkakus, in September 2010, China replied by seeming to tighten its exports of rare-earth metals, a resource crucial to Japan’s high-tech industries (though China denied exports were affected). After just 18 days, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan was forced into a humiliating climb down, releasing a Chinese fisherman who had rammed two Japanese patrol boats in the disputed waters.

"What China is doing is very similar to what organized crime groups do to expand their turf," Ishihara spat in disgust after Kan — a politician he condemned as "not Japanese" — decided to end the confrontation.

Strengthening Japan’s hold over the Senkakus caught the public’s imagination at a time when many Japanese are worried that their country is unprepared to deal with the rapid rise of their giant neighbor. Since Ishihara announced his purchase plan, more than $17 million in donations have poured in via a special website established by the Tokyo government’s "Senkaku Islands Project Team." Members of the Kurihara family, the family that owns the islets — who admit they haven’t set foot on the islands for 15 years — have come out in favor of Ishihara’s bid.

"For nearly 50 years this politician [Ishihara] has been contacting me directly, urging, ‘Would you please sell the islands to the government, for the purpose of defending the territory of Japan?’" 65-year-old Hiroyuki Kurihara, the unofficial spokesman for the family, told Foreign Policy in a telephone interview.

Three of the five Senkaku islets are in the name of Hiroyuki Kurihara’s older brother Kunioki, who holds the deeds and has no heirs. The family, which made its fortune renting out land in its hometown of Omiya, now part of the dense suburbs of northern Tokyo, finally decided in April that Tokyo’s government was the safest pair of hands to transfer the islands into. The price is still under negotiation, but the Kuriharas are said to be seeking at least $250 million. "Ishihara is a person of logic and rationality. He is the person who knows which choice is the best. He is sharp, rather than clever," Hiroyuki Kurihara said.

The island purchase effort seemed to catch Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government by surprise, and it left him few options other than to promise in July that the central government would buy the islands from Tokyo, if only to make sure the prime minister’s office — not the Tokyo governorate — would be in control if the dispute with Beijing were to escalate. Meanwhile, China’s state-controlled media have predictably turned up the anti-Japanese rhetoric, with the official Xinhua news wire issuing an editorial after Noda’s announcement warning that the effort to nationalize the islands was "playing with fire."

Another humbling confrontation with China might be exactly what Ishihara is seeking. Although he ran for office as a political independent, his eldest son, Nobuteru Ishihara, is secretary-general of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, the center-right party that polls suggest could win power if the unpopular Noda were forced to call a snap election. (The Tokyo governor’s office said the elder Ishihara was too busy to accept an interview request.)

The sensitivity of the moment likely explains why Ishihara has decided to force the Senkaku issue now. "China’s ever-growing clout is generally felt with greater apprehension year by year, and it is easier for a political entrepreneur to exploit [that anxiety] for his or her own purposes," said Yuki Asaba, associate professor of international relations at Yamaguchi Prefectural University in southern Japan.

China won’t back away from another game of chicken over who owns the islets. Nationalists have suggested Beijing should reply to the Senkaku purchase plan by extending its claim to the entire Ryukyu archipelago, including even the main island of Okinawa, which happens to host a major U.S. air base.

Ishihara’s challenge to the status quo comes at a particularly sensitive time in Beijing. The Communist Party is set to shuffle its leadership deck this fall, with seven of the current nine members of the supreme Politburo Standing Committee likely to retire. No one harboring any hope of being selected to the next Standing Committee can sound anything less than strident on an issue of territory.

"Japan mustn’t be shepherded by politicians such as Ishihara," thundered the English-language version of the Global Times. "Rationality must come back to Japanese politics, otherwise confrontation in Asia will spiral out of control."

"Rationality," from the Chinese government’s perspective, would mean accepting its claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Japan annexed the atoll in 1895; the United States occupied it in 1945 and returned it to Japan in 1971. Beijing’s claim is based on the uninhabited islands appearing on Chinese maps for centuries before that. Actually, neither side had much interest in the islets until 1969, when United Nations surveyors determined there were potentially large oil and gas deposits in seabed near the archipelago.

The nationalist one-upmanship began in the 1970s, a good deal of it involving animals. Fishermen on each side learned they could earn national acclaim by trawling in the disputed waters. This summer, Ishihara proposed that the offspring of two giant pandas on loan from China to Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo be named either "Sen Sen" or "Kaku Kaku" (the panda cub died a week after its birth in July, before anyone could name it).

In the late 1970s, a group of Japanese right-wingers marooned a pair of goats on one of the bigger islets. "I think they hoped some people would move there, as goat is the favorite meat of the local people in Okinawa," Hiroyuki explained. But so far, no humans have decided to follow the free food, he sighed. "I am told that today, in the islands, there are about 1,000 goats living there."

Those goats are about to become residents of greater Tokyo, waiting — like everyone else — to see what their impulsive governor does next.

<p> Mark MacKinnon is a Beijing-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail newspaper of Canada. </p>

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