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Shintaro Ishihara

Shintaro Ishihara is the best-known maverick of Japanese politics. In a world of bland consensus and carefully controlled speech the 70-year-old Ishihara continues proudly to speak his mind. Let’s hope that what he says doesn’t represent a broad cross-section of Japanese opinion.

Since he was comfortably elected Governor of Tokyo in 1999 in what was widely seen as a protest vote against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the controversial former novelist has had a go at everyone: the Chinese, the Koreans, the US and foreigners in general. His xenophobia surfaced most recently when he addressed units of the Japanese Self-Defence Force (JSDF), warning them: ‘With Sankokujin and foreigners repeating serious crimes, we should prepare ourselves for possible riots that may be instigated by them at the outbreak of an earthquake.’

‘Sankokujin’ is a racial epithet used to describe Korean and Taiwanese residents of post-war Japan. Ishihara’s remarks completely distort the actual historical record of the murder of up to 6,000 Koreans and Chinese by Japanese mobs following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 when foreigners were rumoured to be poisoning wells and setting fires. Linking foreigners to crime and drugs (and now terrorism) is pretty much the stock-in-trade of everyone from Jean Marie Le Pen in France to Jorg Haider in Austria. It is gradually seeping into the mainstream even in Japan where such sentiments are usually muted by the use of code words.

Ishihara represents the unrepentant nationalist strain of Japanese political life. His politics resemble those of his fellow novelist Yukio Mishima who disembowelled himself with a sword in front of members of the Japanese Self-Defence Force in order to dramatize the shame of Japan’s commitment to peace as embodied in the country’s antiwar constitution.

Ishihara and others of the Japanese nationalist Right have long run a campaign to cloak Imperial Japan’s war record of atrocities in the rest of Asia. In his tiff with the Chinese, Ishihara combined reasonable criticism of Beijing’s human-rights record and occupation of Tibet with the charge that the Chinese had fabricated ‘The Rape of Nanking’, the notorious 1937 atrocity in which the Imperial Japanese Army massacred 300,000 people. This kind of denial – which has led to the reworking of textbooks to reflect more favourably on the country’s war record – drives Japan’s Asian neighbours to distraction.

Folklore has it that Ishihara’s nationalist inclinations were rooted in an early encounter with the US occupation forces. A group of US soldiers were walking through Ishihara’s village when he was a young boy. All the villagers reportedly bowed to the foreigners but not Ishihara, who walked along, head high, licking his ice cream. One of the soldiers playfully smacked him over the top of the head, took his ice cream and started licking it. Ishihara has reportedly never forgotten the humiliation. As a university student he went on to write a short prize-winning novel, Seasons of the Sun, in just three days. After the novel became a film Ishihara developed a kind of cult following of young acolytes called the Sun Trip whose members dressed in Hawaiian shirts and baggy pants. He spiced a life of bohemian adventure (sex, yacht racing and travelling across Latin America by motorcycle) with more books and plays – even a musical version of Treasure Island.

Ishihara entered politics in the 1980s when he served as both Minister of Transport and Minister of the Environment. His loose tongue started to get him into trouble right away. As Environment Minister, when visiting the victims of the infamous mass mercury poisoning in Minamata, he referred to them as people of low intelligence. In 1989 he co-wrote The Japan That Can Say No with Akio Morita of the Sony Corporation – a kind of manifesto to rally nationalistic Japanese against US domination. He has lobbied (along with much of the Japanese Left) for the removal of US air bases in Japan. Ishihara in 1996 made common cause with another iconoclast, authoritarian Malaysian leader Mahathir bin Mohamad, to publish The Voice of Asia: Two Leaders Discuss the Coming Century. This tome champions the cause of a strict ‘Asian values’ renaissance against the bullying, decadent West.

Ishihara has a nostalgia for the old days of authoritarian grandeur. The ‘japantraveler’ website claims: ‘It may have something to do with the uniforms or when the tanks go rolling by, but every time Ishihara is talking to the police or the military he seems to get some kind of rush of nationalistic fervour... He stands there with eyes glowing and goose bumps running all over his body as if about to climax in the joy of the moment. Then in a fit of xenophobia he opens his mouth, and the inflammatory racist statements start to fly.’

Ishihara rails against everything from the reduction of the time hard-pressed Japanese kids have to spend in school to the country’s non-nuclear peace constitution. He believes Japan can only take its true place as the rightful leader of a resurgent Asia as a nuclear state fully armed to defend its rightful interests. But maybe things in Japanese politics are swinging in Ishihara’s direction despite himself: the current Liberal Democratic Party administration is moving to curtail civil liberties and scrap the Peace Constitution, all in the name of the War on Terrorism. Probably not exactly what Ishihara had in mind – but authoritarianism can take many guises.

New Internationalist issue 352 magazine cover This article is from the December 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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