The Man Who Would Be Warlord

Meet Japan's most controversial, most notorious politician.


TOKYO — These days, the name Shintaro Ishihara tends to provoke laughter in Japan. As Tokyo’s controversial but popular governor from 1999 to 2012, he enraged the Chinese by attempting to purchase the Senkaku Islands, a small group of windswept rocks in the East China Sea, that Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu. He is now the co-head of the small and marginalized Restoration Party, an 80-year-old who will never again have a shot at becoming Prime Minister. An influential Japanese journalist smiled when I mentioned Ishihara, and said that last year’s affair "was sad."

And yet, the mess he made continues to roil the region. Last September, the Japanese government, under Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, overruled Ishihara’s attempt to purchase the Senkakus and instead nationalized them. China erupted in massive protests, and since then, tensions, have remained worryingly high, as both sides engage in behavior the other finds provocative. China flies military aircraft over Japanese territory, and Japan responds by scrambling fighter jets: in late October, this pattern repeated itself for three consecutive days. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Oct. 26 that if China "changes the status quo by force," then "it won’t be able to emerge peacefully."

And on Oct. 31, China’s Defense ministry accused the Japanese army of disrupting a Chinese live ammunition military drill. The high level of mistrust, sowed in part by Ishihara, means that a mistake could lead to a skirmish, or even a war.

In a half-dozen off-the-record meetings with senior Japanese government officials and policymakers in early September, the general view towards Ishihara was embarrassment expressed by an awkward laugh, followed by a small intake of breath, a shifting of the hands, an averting of the eyes. Ishihara has brought democratic, committedly pacifist Japan closer to war than at any point since 1945. "Ishihara has no power anymore," snorted one government official affiliated with Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to which Ishihara formerly belonged, following up his comment with a wistful and self-conscious chuckle.

There is never anything awkward however, about the way Ishihara laughs — a natural and comforting extension of his soft smile. Tall, imposing, and well-spoken, 23 years ago, an interviewer from Playboy called him "strikingly handsome," and noted that he was partial to Savile Row suits and Armani ties. Now 80 and a member of the lower house of Japan’s Diet, or parliament, Ishihara is still attractive, in a way unique to certain men who have never admitted they’re wrong.

It is hard to square his charismatic, nearly regal bearing with his outrageous views. "They will not stop at a few islands. After China hijacks the Senkakus, I am afraid of the eventuality where Japan becomes the second Tibet," he says, comparing the sparsely populated, impoverished region that fell to China in 1959 with the world’s third-largest economy.

It is Sept. 4, and I am interviewing Ishihara with three other American journalists, in a conversation arranged by the non-profit Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which brought us to Japan. One of the journalists asks if he thinks that China will invade. "Yes, I think there is that possibility. First it would be Okinawa," he says. I refrain from mentioning that this island group in Southern Japan is where the United States maintains the bulk of the 38,000 military personnel it has stationed in the country. "I wonder how much risk China is willing to take to invade Japan," says Ishihara. "I am quite fearful of this."

If you’re looking for an American parallel to Ishihara, think of him as an extreme version of Pat Buchanan, the Nixon speechwriter and right-wing pundit who has labeled white Americans "an endangered species." And like evangelical preacher Pat Robertson, who blamed Hurricane Katrina on U.S. abortion policy, Ishihara said the March 2011 Japanese tsunami that washed away thousands of people was "divine punishment" for Japanese selfishness. Indeed, Ishihara has a knack for incendiary statements: No U.S. politician could have weathered the political storm that would have rained down after making such comments as people who are going to commit suicide should just "get it over with" and "it is a waste and a sin that women who have lost their reproductive capabilities are alive." Atsushi Kobayashi, a 34-year-old business owner and Tokyo resident, says Ishihara "gets things done, and sometime he has good results, but he says a lot of problematic statements. I don’t have a good image of Ishihara as a person."

And yet Ishihara had a long and fruitful political career. He ruled Japan’s most important city — its political and economic capital — for longer than Michael Bloomberg’s soon to be ending 12-year tenure. Tobias Harris, a Japanese political researcher, thinks Ishihara survived for so long because of his competence — he is an effective fundraiser and good judge of character, but also because of the prominence he attained for being in the public eye for nearly six decades. "There’s a certain artfulness in how he acts," he said. Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Kyoto’s Doshisha University, told the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post that Ishihara "appeals to the kind of people who don’t want to worry about their lives, who like to be told what they should be thinking and why." He’s popular, she said, because he has the ability to "hypnotize people into intellectual laziness."

This is bizarre because Ishihara, like his successor Naoki Inose, is a popular and well-regarded author. Born in 1932 to the manager of a shipping company, at the age of 24, Ishihara won the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards, for his novel Season of the Sun. That same year, three of his books were turned into films. Ishihara, who covered the Vietnam War for a Japanese newspaper in 1967, a year before entering politics, kept writing fiction and non-fiction throughout his career. His best-known book is probably The Japan That Can Say No, co-written with the then chairman of Sony Corporation Akio Morita, which argues that Japan should be more assertive in its relationship with the United States. Ishihara’s brother Yujiro became a famous actor, while Ishihara himself made a few films, then stopped. "If I had remained a movie director, I can assure you that I would have at least become a better one than Akira Kurosawa," he told Playboy. Instead, he became a politician, winning a series of parliamentary elections, before being elected governor of Tokyo in 1999.

Ishihara, who denigrated the French language, claimed to "hate" Mickey Mouse, and stated that Tokyo’s World War II campaigns saved Asia from colonization by white people, reserves a special brand of opprobrium for the Chinese. He has denied the Rape of Nanking, and sometimes refers to the Chinese with a derogatory name used during World War II. He said he visited Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, but didn’t meet with any Chinese there, because "I didn’t think there was anything I could learn." He said he doesn’t want to go back to China because he feared "he’d get poisoned."

Ishihara understands his Japanese audience, but simply refuses to, or "cannot fathom," how non-Japanese will receive his statements, says a Western diplomat familiar with the matter, who asked to speak anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue. Atsushi put it more politely. "Most Japanese politicians and governors say things without causing a commotion, but Ishihara is very direct," he said.

No one in the diplomatic community even bothered "to try to justify" Ishihara’s behavior in trying to purchase the Senkakus, said the Western diplomat. "It was so obvious to everyone" that what he did showed a blatant disregard for international norms.

Everything felt very normal, however, in Ishihara’s quiet meeting room in his office in the Diet. Two of my last questions to Ishihara were, in retrospect, softballs. Does he regret any of his controversial statements? Would he like to set the record straight, looking back on the end of a long career? "No," he said, baring his world-eating smile. "So I am the most notorious Japanese politician in the United States. You know that book I published — Japan Can Say No? I want to continue saying no."

Angela Kubo contributed reporting from Tokyo.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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