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Ishihara resignation a gift for the media

by Philip Brasor

When Shintaro Ishihara announced on Oct. 25 that he was resigning as governor of Tokyo so that he could form a new political party before the next general election, some of the dailies printed gōgai (extra editions) to report it, thus indicating it was really big news that everybody needed to know about right away. But these days you have to wonder how effective it is handing out free newspapers on street corners for the purpose of relaying a breaking story. By the time the broadsheets were distributed most citizens had already read about it on their smartphones.

The gōgai treatment was mostly symbolic. Last week on TV Asahi’s political variety show “TV Tackle” pundits and politicians discussed Ishihara’s move, and someone remarked that journalists seem overly grateful for the story. Since early summer, mainstream media have been obsessing over another right-wing politician, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, and his own newly formed political party, since it was believed voters were enamored of his plain-talking pugnacious style, which is somewhat similar to Ishihara’s. But that belief proved to be premature, and the media have backed away from Hashimoto as they’ve come to realize people aren’t as enamored as they thought. With Ichiro Ozawa in the doghouse and national politics going through a puzzling rerun phase now that disgraced former prime minister Shinzo Abe is back at the helm of the Liberal Democratic Party, the political press doesn’t know what to do, so Ishihara’s announcement was like a gift from heaven.

Even NHK, which normally tries to be even-handed about such matters, couldn’t contain its glee when reporting the news. Resorting to that most pointless of journalistic gambits, the man-on-the-street interview, NHK-FM gave the impression that everybody was just so thrilled that Ishihara was doing whatever it was he was doing. It seemed odd that they couldn’t find one civilian who thought Ishihara was carrying out another bit of public theater for the sake of his ego, and when the announcer reviewed his record as governor he glossed over the verbal gaffes regarding foreigners and women and ignored his disastrous Shinginko Tokyo bank, which has lost the city billions of yen.

Ishihara’s popularity always needs to be qualified. He wins elections because he’s a famous person and voters seem to appreciate his candor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they like everything he does. Last week, Tokyo Shimbun published a letter from a 60-year-old woman who complained about the media’s failure to scrutinize Ishihara’s irresponsibility as a public official. By quitting mid-term to pursue a quixotic and vague goal of returning Japan to a state of glory that exists only in his imagination, Ishihara is betraying the people who elected him. This aspect of his personality is especially galling given that when he last held national office as an LDP lawmaker he resigned that post halfway through his term, too.

He insists he’s his own man, beholden to no one, including, presumably, his constituency. During the Oct. 25 press conference, he seemed so happy until a reporter brought up the question of his age. Ishihara is 80 years old and suddenly he wants to chart a new political course. According to Tokyo Shimbun, Ishihara responded to the query in his usual defensive and “defiant manner” by mumbling to himself, “Nande ore ga?” (“Why am I doing this?”) in response. He thinks he is the only person in Japan who can do this, even if he isn’t entirely clear what “this” is. He turned on the reporter and said, “You’re young, why don’t you do it?” In other words, if you want something done around here you have to do it yourself.

The press is not only intimidated by this attitude, it has come around to the idea that it constitutes a political stance. People who admire Ishihara for his honesty mistake his lack of calculation for forthrightness. Actually, all it represents is a sense of entitlement that one prominent politician, Makiko Tanaka, recently characterized as “reckless.” He doesn’t so much hold positions as succumb to whims.

In an interview that appeared in last week’s Asahi Shimbun, the British Japan expert Ronald Dore mentioned how Ishihara famously confronted Japan’s No. 1 ally, the United States, in 1989 with his bestseller “The Japan That Can Say No,” an essay that claimed Japan could and should stand on its own, but earlier this year when he wanted to provoke China and assert Japan’s strategic dominance in northeast Asia, he announced his planned purchase of the Senkaku Islands in Washington because he wanted China to understand that America would defend Japan in a fight. According to Dore, it was as if he were trying to show off the U.S. as “the stronger big brother.”

Quitting the governorship is just another example of his incoherent sensibility. When he ran for the office in 1999, he said he wanted to change Japan from the position of Tokyo’s leader. Now he says he thinks he can “serve the citizens of Tokyo better” if he holds national office.

At the moment, all the media care about is whether or not Ishihara can get his new party off the ground, and they seem to have little interest in what the party may be able to accomplish. It probably won’t accomplish anything, since Ishihara himself has already said he isn’t concerned with policy, only with creating a “third force” in Japanese politics that will “destroy” centralized power, meaning the bureaucracy. Good luck with that.

It’s also generally assumed that Ishihara thinks this is his last chance to become prime minister, another long shot. Reportedly, he is angry that his son, Nobuteru, was passed over for LDP chief in September. With that possibility gone, he has determined that if he wants to see an Ishihara in the PM’s seat before he dies, it’s going to have to be him. And if some people find that inconvenient, well, that’s their problem.