Two weeks ago, Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose gave an interview to the New York Times in which he violated International Olympic Committee rules by publicly bad-mouthing Istanbul and Madrid, the Japanese capital’s two rivals to host the 2020 games. On top of that he disparaged Islam. Later he apologized but tried to blame his faux pas on a linguistic misunderstanding, ragging petulantly at reporters who kept questioning his sincerity. “Do you want the Olympics or not?” he said to them.
Actually, that’s something they should be asking him. Inose inherited the job of leading Tokyo’s bid for the games from his predecessor, Shintaro Ishihara. When Inose was vice governor he had his own pet issues, most of which involved making trouble for bureaucrats. It’s the only trait he shared with Ishihara. Despite what some people believe in light of his NYT interview, he is not a pugnacious right-winger. As a young man he was a labor union functionary. However, his world view doesn’t appear to be as broad as he thinks it is.
What Inose’s comments revealed is a lack of political common sense. When the tabloid Gendai complained that his recent trip to New York was unnecessarily expensive, Inose lashed out. “I don’t care that (Gendai) doesn’t like the Olympics,” he tweeted. “But it’s unfair that they don’t cover the other policies of the Tokyo metropolitan government.” But that’s what tabloids do, and getting upset about Gendai’s article only drew more attention to it. Then, while in New York, he inspected the city’s public transit system and announced he would work to make Tokyo’s Toei subway and bus lines run 24 hours a day, thus generating a lot of empty press excitement since as governor he has no control over Toei’s operations. So he had to backtrack on that promise.
The Times interview completed a trifecta of bad choices, and while it wasn’t clear from the article just how much the two reporters who conducted the chat drew Inose into making comparisons he wasn’t supposed to make, it was obvious from the incoherence of his statements that he was extemporizing heedlessly: “The only thing (Islamic countries) share in common is Allah and they are fighting with each other, and they have classes.” The Times had to gain clarification from a “spokesman” to find out what Inose was talking about. Apparently, it had to do with Istanbul’s perceived edge in the race, since the Turkish capital would be the first city with a large Muslim population to host the games if it won. (Istanbul itself has downplayed this aspect, instead boosting its position as a bridge between Europe and Asia.)
The Japanese press was so baffled by the exchange that some wondered if the Times had an agenda. Journalists on the Internet news channel DemocraTV speculated that the interviewers “asked those kind of questions” because the paper thought he was “Ishihara’s protégé,” and on his blog sportswriter Masayuki Tamaki, a strong supporter of Tokyo’s bid, felt that the governor let down his guard because one of his interlocutors was a Japanese woman.
These odd rationalizations nevertheless point to the real source of the problem, which is that Inose has achieved a position where he can make any sort of comment without being challenged by the local media. In an editorial in the Tokyo Shimbun, Hokkaido University Professor Jiro Yamaguchi wrote that the incident reflects poorly on the Japanese press, which tends to “ignore (powerful people’s) irrational statements.” Consequently, Inose’s apology was “reflexive,” a reaction that was not based on any attempt to understand why he said what he did. To make matters worse, he tweeted that if he had learned anything from the incident it’s “who are my enemies and who are my allies.” He doesn’t seem to comprehend the political context that surrounds his public pronouncements.
That’s probably because he still doesn’t view himself as a politician. A nonfiction writer who specializes in 20th-century Japanese history, Inose entered the public realm when former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi asked him to sit on a commission to reform the national highway system, not because Inose had any special expertise in road management but because of his fearless reputation for criticizing people in high places. As other members quit the commission when bureaucrats defied their attempts to change things, Inose became even more combative. The media portrayed him as a crusading hero and the road corporation as a nest of scoundrels. He quickly became a media fixture, the man you went to for scathing commentary on the evils of entrenched officialdom. It’s why Ishihara picked him.
Inose didn’t become actively involved in the Olympic bid until he ran for the governor’s seat after Ishihara resigned. It would have looked strange if he didn’t take over the reins of the committee, and while it’s difficult to gauge his enthusiasm for the task, he seems to have assumed the responsibility without giving much thought to what it entails.
Ishihara also denigrated rival cities. During the unsuccessful campaign for the 2016 Games, his mantra was that Tokyo was “safe,” a claim which automatically implied Rio de Janeiro wasn’t. If no one wagged his finger at him it’s because he let others carry the message abroad, aware that his contentious image as a zealous nationalist might endanger Tokyo’s chances. It’s why he resented the Imperial Household Agency for not letting the Crown Prince participate in promotional activities.
Inose hasn’t been governor long enough to acquire a firsthand understanding of these diplomatic niceties, but he also doesn’t have Ishihara’s Teflon carapace. His self-regard as an intellectual is high enough that he thinks he can discuss any topic off the top of his head. He can get away with that on TV Asahi’s political free-for-all “TV Tackle,” but not when talking to America’s newspaper of record. If Tokyo loses to Istanbul or Madrid in September the blame — or the credit, depending on how you feel about the Olympics — will fall squarely on him.