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APRIL 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.

Rabble Rouser
Shintaro Ishihara seems to get into trouble every time he opens his mouth. But Japan's most controversial politician is one of its most popular
By TIM LARIMER Tokyo

Japanese 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 next month.

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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COVER: Mouth of the People
Japan's Shintaro Ishihara triggers controversy once again, but hidden within the furor is the reality that, for disillusioned citizens, Tokyo's populist Governor has become an important symbol of change
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Power Politics: The local pols begin to assert themselves
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CRICKET: Bad Form
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TRAVEL WATCH:
Ho Chi Minh City -- An Intriguing Mix of Past and Present

But 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.

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 feel?"

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 midnight."

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 disenfranchised voters.

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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