Shintaro Ishihara, former Governor of Tokyo

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Shintaro Ishihara
Former Governor of Tokyo
Profile by Andrew Stevens

28 September 2012: To his supporters, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is a gifted politician and robust patriot. His numerous critics however argue that he embodies a resurgent Japanese nationalism and his frequent bellicose outbursts are attempts to distract attention away from his tired administration. A sometimes divisive figure at home and abroad, the four time elected capital city chief stands out against mere identikit bureaucrats turned politicians and retains a strong following among Tokyo voters.

Update February 2022: Former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara died on 1 February 2022

Update February 2014: Yoichi Masuzoe elected as new Governor of Tokyo

Update: 17 December 2012: Naoki Inose elected as new Governor of Tokyo.

Update 25 October 2012: Governor Ishihara announced his resignation to form a new nationalistic party.

Born in 1932 in Hyogo Prefecture, Ishihara initially came to prominence as an author, taking the Akutagawa Prize at 23 for his novel Season of the Sun. He began his political career a decade later, joining the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). His rise to public prominence began when he joined other LDP parliamentarians in founding a new anti-Communist vanguard group by signing their names in blood. Having unsuccessfully sought Tokyo's governorship in 1975, he was elected in 1999 as an independent and re-elected in 2003, 2007 and 2011. Governor Ishihara still has a devoted following, especially among the right-wing press in Japan.

The young Ishihara began a course at Hitotsubashi University, where he edited the college literary magazine, but quit after only six months. After winning Japan’s most prestigious literary prize in 1955, Ishihara began a writing career, with his novels feted by Japanese youth for their frank sexual content. His late brother Yujiro was also a prominent young actor during this period, leading to something of an Ishihara family following and even inspiring a haircut named after them.

Ishihara worked a journalist for the Yoimuri Shimbun newspaper, reporting from Vietnam. Eagerly courted by faction chiefs in the LDP he professed to dislike, Ishihara entered the Diet first as a member of the upper house, then as a member of the lower house. He regained national prominence as a leading member of the fiercely anti-Communist Blue Storm Group. His antipathy to neighbouring Communist states was later to become his most identifiable characteristic. The governor is still known to have a personal aversion to any symbols of China and Korea, political or otherwise. Ishihara’s first attempt to become Governor of Tokyo failed when he was defeated by sitting Socialist Ryokichi Minobe in 1975. However, he remained a prominent lawmaker in the ruling LDP and was rewarded with membership of the Cabinet in 1987. He announced his decision to retire from national politics in 1995 following the LDP’s brief stint out of power under the coalition headed by the Japan Socialist Party.

Ishihara also came to prominence outside of Japan with his avowedly nationalistic book, The Japan That Can Say No. Published in 1989 and co-authored by Sony Chairman Akio Morita, the book caused alarm in the US, which at the time was still feeling the effects of Japan’s manufacturing boom before the economy hit its enduring recession. Though written in an overly provocative style, its core message of ending Japanese dependency on the US in matters of foreign policy has since entered the political mainstream. Morita later distanced himself from much of the book’s conclusions and had his chapters removed from the English translation. Ishihara himself argued against English publication, perhaps worried about its reception in the US. Critics panned the book, arguing it was merely a tool for Ishihara to promote his political career rather than serious analysis of the problems facing Japan. The book’s sentiments on using the Soviet Union as bargaining tool with the US and increasing overseas aid to demonstrate Japan’s global leadership are substantially at odds with Ishihara’s more recent pronouncements on these subjects.

Ishihara’s reputation, and some would say his appeal, among the public is his noted hawkish stance on Japan’s relations with China and North Korea. He has called for pre-emptive strikes on Beijing and Pyongyang on more than one occasion, usually during live television interviews. In 1995 he claimed that the Nanjing Massacre was a fiction and merely Chinese propaganda.

A year later he published, with Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, The Voice of Asia: Two Leaders Discuss the Coming Century, which stated the belief in authoritarian ‘Asian values’ that transcend those of the ‘decadent’ West. Furthermore, he has denigrated the status of Japan’s East Asian neighbours and suggested that measures might need to be taken against foreign nationals in the event of a natural disaster. Puzzlingly he even singled out the French language as being in some way inferior, leading to an unsuccessful legal suit from a Tokyo-based language school. On one occasion the governor used an interview with the London Times to call for a ‘Falklands-style’ war with China to settle the disputed status of an uninhabitable group of islands claimed by Tokyo as failing under its jurisdiction. In 2012 he also used a speech in the US to make further claims on the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, later culminating in an ultimatum designed to provoke national government into a spat with China over their ownership and control, perhaps seeking to end his governorship with a bang should this escalate.

Ishihara is also a noted social conservative, taking a hard line on both crime and moral issues. He famously courted controversy with one remark when he claimed that women who can no longer reproduce have outlived their usefulness to society.

Ishihara has argued that his outlook was formed by childhood experiences during the US occupation of Japan following the war, where he claims an American serviceman struck him with a rifle butt for simply failing to bow as his platoon passed Ishihara’s village. In spite of his professed nationalism and frequent trademark outbursts in the media, Ishihara enjoys a large following among Tokyo citizens, even with those who do not share his outlook or policies.

Despite the misgivings of many, Ishihara’s maverick style sets him apart from conventional Japanese politicians, who are frequently held up by a cynical electorate and media as dull, incompetent and even corrupt. As well as forming an indictment of the failures of Japanese mainstream politics, where the LDP (until recently) presided over a system riddled with bureaucratic inertia, a perceived perpetual one party state and inept opposition, Ishihara’s rhetoric was increasingly lent legitimacy through the statements by members of the Koizumi Cabinet. Then Foreign Minister (and later PM) Taro Aso even appeared to out-Ishihara the governor when he spoke of Japan’s unique racial characteristics compared to the rest of the world, remarks that were not only considered insulting elsewhere in East Asia but also among those of Korean and Chinese descent born in Japan.  For his part, the governor once rebuffed the invite of the London mayor Ken Livingstone to join a G8-style group of world city mayors as he feared it could lead to the ‘mongrelisation of races’.

His hawkish stance on China and North Korea was almost considered de rigueur among those vying to succeed Prime Minister Koizumi when his term of office expired. Given the emotive terms in which salient issues in region are discussed, such as the return of the abductees kidnapped by North Korean agents during the 1970s, China’s burgeoning military and the human rights records of both countries, Ishihara’s interventions could be seen as far from helpful or amusing, even when contrasted to the popular disillusionment incurred by Japan’s technocratic elite.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is constituted of the Governor and a 127 member Assembly. Under Japan’s system of 47 historic prefectures it is recognised as a ‘to’ or county. Tokyo also has 23 smaller councils known as ‘wards’. The Headquarters of the Governor are situated at the Kenzo Tange-designed Metropolitan Buildings in Shinjuku. Ishihara was re-elected by a substantial margin in 2003, though his allies were reduced in the assembly elections of July 2005. The governor appoints three vice governors from the senior bureaucrats to undertake many of his roles in the city administration, though one of these was forced to resign rafter being found to have interfered in the workings of the assembly.

In 2005 Ishihara announced that Tokyo would make a formal bid for the 2016 Olympic Games, which would be 52 years after they were last held in the Japanese capital. Tokyo's bid was successful in beating Fukuoka to become Japanese candidate city in 2006, though eventually lost out to Rio in the IOC vote. Later that year he was a surprise contender in British liberal journal Prospect's 100 greatest living intellectuals poll, coming in at 100 with 57 votes out of more than 20,000 cast.

In the run up to the 2007 gubernatorial elections in the capital Ishihara faced several embarrassing scandals, including being forced to make a public apology over an alleged abuse of entertainment expenses and facing down two separate lawsuits. One of these, brought by French language teachers, concerns his remarks in 2004 that "French is disqualified as an international language because it is a language that cannot count numbers.” Also in 2005 he prompted the exit of Beijing from a pan-Asian capital cities partnership over his insistence that the next year's summit be held in Taipei, contrary to China's stance on Taiwanese sovereignty. Ishihara is a noted enthusiast of the island, both on account of its defiance of the mainland Communist regime and Japan's own occupation of it prior to its independence bid.

A flagship policy of Ishihara’s administration, the ShinGinko bank to aid failing SMEs in the capital, unravelled in 2007 when it became apparent that many loans made by the bank had been defaulted upon, leaving the financial body severely in debt to the city. An unusually contrite and chastened Ishihara apologised to the metropolitan assembly for the bank’s failure, accepting that its officials had provided unsafe loans to failed businesses.

Having contested the 1999 gubernatorial election as an independent but received the support of the LDP at subsequent elections, in 2010 Ishihara supported the foundation of the right-wing Sunrise Party of Japan (Japanese name: 'Rise up, Japan!'), which consisted mainly of ageing defectors from the LDP. Ishihara now envisages an alliance with the regionalist bloc of Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto in order to push for more decentralisation to Japan’s regions and act as a force for the "restoration" of Japan.

Governor Ishihara is married to wife Noriko and has four sons. Two of his sons sit as members of Japan’s legislature, the Diet, while one is a television actor, the other teaches at the Tokyo campus of New York’s Visual School of Art. Nobuteru Ishihara was appointed to the Cabinet of LDP Prime Minister Koizumi in 2001 to oversee his key administrative reforms and then served as Minister for Land, Infrastructure and Transport until 2004, then Secretary General of the party following its first ever election defeat in 2009.

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