24, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 16
Stuart Isett/Corbis Sygma for TIME
Ishihara's acid tongue has gotten him in trouble but has made him Japan's most popular politician.
Ishihara seems to get into trouble every time he opens his mouth. But
Japan's most controversial politician is one of its most popular
politics just got interesting. No, really. The country's most provocative
politician, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, has been shaking things
up since taking office a year ago. He announced plans to open casinos
in Tokyo's waterfront Odaiba district, even though gambling is illegal
in Japan. To improve air quality, he proposed banning diesel trucks from
Tokyo roads. He has been a busy diplomat, too, taking steps calculated
to irk neighboring China. Ishihara invited the Dalai Lama to visit his
office when the Tibetan religious leader came to Japan earlier this month.
He invited outgoing Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to meet him in Tokyo
Last week, Ishihara crossed the line, once again. In an April 9 speech
to Japan's Self Defense Forces (the nation's term for its military), he
warned that foreigners could be expected to riot in the aftermath of a
natural disaster such as an earthquake. "Atrocious crimes have been committed
again and again by sangokujin [a derogatory term for foreigners] who have
illegally entered Japan," he railed. His comments elicited calls for his
resignation, demands for an apology and fears among residents of Korean
descent that Ishihara's charged language might be perceived as a green
light for Japanese to discriminate against them.
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here's the really alarming part: Ishihara is probably the most popular
politician in the country. "In Japan, we have two heroes," says Yasunori
Fukagawa, a local legislator in the Tokyo suburb of Ichigawa. "One is
Shigeo Nagashima [manager of baseball's Tokyo Giants]. The other is Ishihara."
Despite, or perhaps because of, his often abrasive personality, the Tokyo
Governor has masterfully tapped into the public zeitgeist. There is growing
unhappiness with the establishment in Japan--everything from big banks
to big government to big companies. Japanese have watched those institutions
allow the country's economy to disintegrate over the past decade. Ishihara
has a knack for spotting such disenchantment, and his attacks on those
institutions play well to the crowd. Many Japanese say they want reform;
Ishihara is a rarity in that he is actually willing to risk everything
to effect change. If he succeeds, he could revolutionize how the country
is run, by shifting authority away from the central government and bringing
it back home, to the cities, towns and prefectures.
edition's table of contents
No one would call Ishihara publicity-shy. The tart-tongued troublemaker
of Tokyo never met a headline he couldn't grab. Before he became Governor,
however, his longrunning harangues against bureaucrats and the political
establishment risked becoming tiresome. He had all the answers, but that
was easy for an outside agitator looking in. When Ishihara won election
last year, naysayers figured the populist know-it-all would get his
comeuppance. Even Ishihara acknowledges that his fiery independence and
sharp tongue often work against him in a world of consensus politics.
"One newspaper said, 'Obuchi could never be Governor of Tokyo, and Ishihara
can never be Prime Minister of Japan.' I think that is true," Ishihara
told Time last week.
As it turns out, the 67-year-old Ishihara has been an effective, creative
Governor. He has aimed his sights on Tokyo's budget deficit and bloated
debt by calling for big cuts in public housing and public-works projects,
including downscaling a new subway line. He plans to slice nearly a third
of the city's budget and trim government salaries. He wants Tokyo to sell
off some of its property, and even proposed that the government rent out
the Governor's official residence. His most deft maneuver was an assault
in February on the powerful Ministry of Finance. Ishihara took advantage
of a little-known provision in the country's tax code that allows local
governments to impose certain kinds of taxes normally considered the central
government's prerogative. Tokyo's legislature approved a 3% levy on the
revenue of large banks operating in the capital. The tax is expected to
yield an estimated $1 billion a year, erasing Tokyo's deficit. It was
classic Ishihara: playing on the public's anger that banks were being
shielded from the ill effects of the nation's soured economy. "This kind
of rhetoric is what he's good at," says his son and political confidante
Nobuteru Ishihara, who is a member of the national parliament's lower
house. With his radical plan, the Governor made municipalities realize
they, too, could exert their muscle. The banks, meanwhile, say they will
fight the plan in the courts.
The national politicians that Ishihara despises have little time for his
gunslinging style. "He's like a movie actor," sniffs Ichizo Ohara, a parliamentarian
and one of the top economic advisers of the ruling Liberal Democratic
Party (LDP). "He wants to be in the spotlight all the time." Eisuke Sakakibara,
the former deputy Finance Minister known as "Mr. Yen" for his influence
on currency markets, recently compared Ishihara's brand of leadership
with Hitler's. "I am not saying he is a right-wing dictator, but that's
what his tactics remind me of, and I'm worried," Sakakibara told reporters.
Ishihara first earned a reputation as a firebrand from his writings. In
1956, at the tender age of 23, he published A Season of the Sun, a novel
that won Japan's most prestigious literary prize. It became a social phenomenon
among Japan's youth, who mimicked the book's rebellious "sun tribes."
In 1982 Ishihara wrote Lost Country, a novel that imagined Japan under
the control of the Soviet Union. He stirred things up further in 1989
when he co-authored a national call-to-arms, The Japan That Can Say
No, with the late Sony chairman Akio Morita. The book railed against U.S.
dominance of postwar Japan.
As a politician Ishihara has seldom ducked a controversy. He has said,
for example, that reports of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre that Japanese troops
inflicted on China have been exaggerated, and he has called for Japan
to abandon its pacifist constitution and develop a full-fledged military.
Ishihara steps into the minefield of racial politics so often, and with
such disastrous results, that one of his top aides conceded that he was
relieved his boss took a day last week to inspect a forest on the outskirts
of Tokyo. "I am not xenophobic," Ishihara insisted in an interview with
Time. "I'm just patriotic."
But to many, Ishihara's rhetoric seemed unforgivable last week, as he
told the Self-Defense Forces that he planned to hold a big emergency
drill in September, to prepare for a disaster such as an earthquake. It
was in that context that he spoke about the dangers of rioting foreigners.
"I hope you will not only fight against disasters but also maintain public
security on such occasions," he said. "I hope you will show the Japanese
people and the Tokyo people what the military is for in this state."
His comments were made in a prepared speech, not in off-the-cuff remarks.
And his use of the inflammatory term sangokujin rekindled images of xenophobia
that Japan has been trying to shake off for half a century. Sangokujin,
literally "people from third countries," was a derogatory word used by
Japanese when referring to laborers brought from Taiwan and Korea before
and during World War II and then expelled after Japan's defeat. Ishihara's
use of the term was particularly hurtful, because of the race-baiting
that erupted after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. With no evidence,
Koreans in Japan were accused of poisoning wells, setting fires and looting
stores and homes. As those rumors spread, thousands of Koreans were rounded
up and killed by mobs of Japanese.
Whatever the roots of Ishihara's attitudes on race, many believe that
his rhetoric should disqualify him from higher office. "If a person with
such 19th-century nationalistic thinking is in power, there is no guarantee
that a nightmare will not be repeated," says Shin Sug Ok, a business consultant
of Korean descent. Treatment of foreigners is a sensitive issue in Japan.
Residents of Korean descent, even those whose families have lived in Japan
for several generations, still do not have the right to vote. Last year,
there were several brawls between Japanese and Brazilians of Japanese
ancestry. There are still onsen, or public bathing facilities, that bar
foreigners from entering. Makoto Sataka, a prominent political commentator,
calls Ishihara "ignorant and irresponsible," adding: "If similar comments
had been made about Japanese nationals living overseas, how would they
Ishihara is unrepentant. At a press conference three days after his comments,
he said he used sangokujin to mean only "foreigners who are committing
serious crimes. These people are troublesome beings for us." He said he
was misunderstood and promised not to use the word again. But he refused
to apologize, saying: "I have done nothing to be sorry for." When asked
to explain why there were no foreigner-instigated riots following the
1995 Kobe earthquake, the Governor painted a dark image of the troubles
outsiders have brought to his city. "The quality of foreigners here is
different from those in Kobe," he said. "Drugs are rampant because of
those illegal foreigners. Try walking in [entertainment district] Kabukicho
at certain hours of the night. Even yakuza are afraid to go there after
Blaming foreigners for a country's problems is a time-honored device
around the world. What has been particularly disappointing in Japan is
the lack of outrage expressed by the country's political leaders. The
new Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, who has his own history of verbal blunders,
offered a weak rebuke. "If Mr. Ishihara ... did indeed use that word as
Tokyo Governor, it may have been inappropriate," Mori told reporters.
The Tokyo government said it received 6,085 messages by e-mail, fax,
phone or letter in response to Ishihara's comments. More than 70% supported
the Governor. On Friday, Japan's largest daily, Yomiuri Shimbun, editorialized
in support of Ishihara and criticized the "inappropriate way" in which
his speech was reported.
Japan's bumbling national government is the perfect foil for a take-no-prisoners
guy like Ishihara. When parliament degenerated into chaos earlier this
year, as opposition party members boycotted sessions for two weeks, Ishihara
was crafting his tax plan. After Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi had a stroke
and lapsed into a coma earlier this month, LDP bosses quickly anointed
a replacement behind closed doors. The move smacked of old-style politics
at a time when many people are yearning for transparency.
In steps Ishihara. A populist of his ilk probably can't be elected Prime
Minister in Japan's parliamentary system, which is dominated by the ever-cautious
LDP--and where blue-suited drones rise to senior party positions precisely
because they remain dull and predictable. But at the local level, leaders
are elected by popular vote. Even before Ishihara, voters were picking
comedians, actors and personalities to head their local governments. But
unlike other populists who have dabbled in politics, Ishihara has an agenda.
He is intelligent and well-schooled, and his right-wing politics appeals
to a large segment of the population. That scares the tradition-bound
LDP, because its support base is the same as Ishihara's.
Will Ishihara launch a party to challenge the LDP, as some political insiders
predict? In his interview with Time, Ishihara dismissed such talk as "nonsense."
But it's easy to be skeptical about the protestations of such an ambitious
man. If he can rule Tokyo, why not all of Japan? His pet issues include
foreign policy and Japan's place in the world, and the governorship offers
few opportunities to do more than spout off occasionally about China and
the United States. Japan's opposition parties have been so rudderless
in recent years that it's not hard to imagine one of them seeking out
a savior like Ishihara. In particular, conservatives who are disenchanted
with the LDP have nowhere else to turn since many of their colleagues
have joined the LDP's ruling coalition. Ishihara could be a magnet for
The only problem with such a scenario is that those party members would
have to work with him. "He has made a career out of being an outsider,"
says Keith Henry, a political analyst in Tokyo with the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology Japan Program. "He has made a career of sticking
his index finger in the eye of bureaucrats. It's hard to be a populist
when you're in power." So is this Ishihara's last act? "I used to want
to be Prime Minister," he says, emphasizing the past tense. Even if ambition
and personality don't take him to the leadership of the country, though,
don't expect him to fade away quietly. We haven't heard the last of Ishihara.
With reporting by Sachiko Sakamaki/Tokyo
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