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Your money’s no object for Ishihara and his ‘fourth son’

by Philip Brasor

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is the most transparent politician in Japan, which is good in that transparency is always welcome in matters of public policy and Japanese politics is prominently lacking in it.

Since Ishihara is a celebrity before he’s a politician, the media pays special attention to him, and he likes this attention. His regular press conferences are reproduced in the daily newspapers, and you can see them in almost complete form on Tokyo TV station MXTV or the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Web site.

Though his manner tends toward the gruff and patronizing, there’s nothing he won’t talk about. He addresses criticism and is thorough about explaining his position. Sometimes he’s too thorough. Last month, Japan Communist Party members of the Tokyo Assembly held a press conference where they explained an investigation into money spent by Ishihara’s son Nobuhiro in his position as an adviser to Tokyo Wonder Site, a project created by the governor to help up-and-coming artists. The JCP pointed out that Tokyo Wonder Site was a “top-down” scheme, meaning that the governor called it into being on his own, without input from the assembly. The budget for the project in 2002, when it was launched, was 55 million yen. This year it was 471 million yen.

The increase is conspicuous considering that Ishihara is always talking about the need to slash spending. It’s doubly conspicuous since he has been particularly hard on culture. From 2002 to 2006, the Edo-Tokyo Museum has seen its municipal funding cut from 2.5 billion yen to 1.6 billion yen; Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, the city’s leading classical music venue, has had its budget halved; and the financial input into the Museum of Modern Art was reduced by more than 300 million yen.

The JCP said that Tokyo Wonder Site is a “personal project” in which the governor has installed his “friends and family at the expense of the city administration.” In March 2003, Nobuhiro flew to France and Germany to do research for TWS and spent 550,000 yen of the taxpayers’ money. In February 2005 he attended a Public Art Summit in New York City and again Tokyo paid for it.

Ishihara obviously anticipated the blowback, because even before a Nihon TV reporter finished her question about the JCP investigation at the Nov. 24 press conference the governor interjected, “Have you been to Tokyo Wonder Site?” The woman said she had not.

Ishihara then asked for a show of hands of journalists who had actually visited TWS and then described how small it is and that most of the people who work there are volunteers. His son, whom he referred to as “a fine painter,” did not receive a salary for his work as an adviser to TWS. He also pointed out that a committee approved his son for the position.

It was a defensive outburst, and somewhat beside the point once the reporter finished her question. Regardless of Nobuhiro’s qualifications and the relative worth of TWS, doesn’t the governor agree it looks suspicious when his son is chosen for a publicly-funded project that has no legislative oversight?

Ishihara fell back on what he thought was logic and common sense, explaining in melodramatic detail how TWS was going to sponsor a “noh opera” by a famous Japanese composer and that, in order to save money, Ishihara himself, being one of Japan’s most famous novelists, would write the libretto for free. Nobuhiro, who knew the man, offered to negotiate.

This was more information than the reporter asked for, and what it revealed was that Ishihara was giving his son something to do. Too many times the governor defended his son as a “great artist” who was “working for free.” At one point he said, “I told him, ‘You don’t have to work for [Tokyo Wonder Site]. Do your own work,’ ” and at another point he said that he simply asked Nobuhiro to get involved “because it was more convenient” than asking someone else. One imagines Nobuhiro lazing around his bedroom at home looking at a blank canvas and Dad popping his head in and saying, “I’ve got a job for you.”

However good an artist Nobuhiro is, he is not famous; which is odd, considering how famous his father and siblings are. When reporting the JCP’s concerns, the media all referred to him as Ishihara’s “fourth son.” Unlike his three older brothers, two of whom are politicians and one of whom is a TV tarento, Nobuhiro is not a public person, so the press is squeamish about mentioning him by name, but even Ishihara thought it strange that they keep referring to him as “the fourth son.” “I feel sorry for him,” he said, “always being called that.”

It may seem natural for the governor to defend himself against accusations of favoritism in such a way, but the aim of the JCP investigation has more to do with profligacy than with nepotism. The party has complained in the past about his travel expenses. City employees are limited to 40,000 yen a night for business-trip accommodations, but Ishihara usually pays three times that amount. “I don’t pick my hotel rooms,” he said in response to a reporter’s question about these expenses, and suggested the reporter go ask the travel office about them.

He should do that. The governor’s arrogant sense of entitlement has been cultivated by the people who serve him, and they should be held accountable. Did any of them have the courage to question the wisdom of starting a new art project while existing cultural programs were being gutted? Have they ever dared to book anything less than the best hotel suites when he travels overseas? Didn’t Nobuhiro worry how it would look if his father hired him, even for free?

Ishihara has come to resemble the proverbial emperor who parades around in his underwear while sycophants praise the fineness of his non-existent raiments. Transparency comes in many forms.