When Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara finally announced March 7 his intention to run for re-election, some people in the media speculated that it was the end of the colorful politician-novelist’s aspirations for national office.

This speculation was based mainly on Ishihara’s age. He’s already 70, and the fact that he made up his mind to run for another four-year term as governor seemed to indicate he’s not as serious about being prime minister as some have thought. However, in last Monday’s Washington Post, Ishihara said that, while he has no plans right now to enter the national fray physically, he is already there spiritually. The Tokyo governor’s office affords him a podium from which he can comment on “the issues that hold sway over the destiny of Japan,” he said. “When Japanese politics gets in an impasse and confused, then in an instant I may come out” to run for national office.

It wasn’t the first time Ishihara has used an overseas medium to clarify views that he usually dances around when talking to the Japanese press. He takes a perverse pleasure in shocking foreign interlocutors by owning up to charges of blinkered nationalism, xenophobia and warmongering, all of which he says makes him a “realist” rather than a rightwing loony. In a sense, he values the more matter-of-fact reporting style of the West, though he may not fully comprehend that his abrasive sensibility wouldn’t survive that style if he had to confront it on a day-to-day basis. The Japanese media, which is uncommonly intimidated by celebrity, is easier for him to manipulate.

Politicians, who are always quoted anonymously, feel that Ishihara is approaching the April 13 election as nothing more than a vote of confidence. He could afford to wait until the last minute to announce his candidacy. That way he could assess his potential competition and see which issues they’d raise. But by the time he actually did announce it, only one person, Yoshiharu Wakabayashi of the Japan Communist Party, which Ishihara doesn’t take seriously anyway (he refers to JCP members of the Tokyo assembly as “hyenas” with “personality flaws”), had thrown his hat into the ring.

Ishihara can presumably run on his record rather than his reputation. He has proposed and enacted more legislation during the last four years than most politicians in positions like his do during their entire careers. He has promoted an international airport scheme (involving both Haneda and the U.S. military base at Yokota), attempted to restrict diesel-powered vehicles on Tokyo highways, imposed several controversial tax plans, and introduced legislation to legalize casino gambling.

He’s also fired belligerent verbal broadsides at North Korea, visited Yasukuni Shrine in his official capacity as governor and insulted middle-aged women and Asian immigrants. In other words, he provides plenty of fodder for both his supporters and his detractors.

Detractors, however, have always been hamstrung by public opinion, which tends to give Ishihara the benefit of the doubt for the simple reason that he is frank; a quality that shouldn’t be the determining factor in deciding an officeholder’s worth, but one that, in Japan at least, is considered refreshing.

The war in Iraq has supposedly upset this idea. With up to 80 percent of the Japanese public saying they oppose the war and Ishihara wholeheartedly supporting it, the public opinion factor becomes less of a sure thing. Support on matters of principle (honesty of intentions) now clashes with nonsupport on matters of policy (aggressive militarism).

Enter Keiko Higuchi, born the same year as Ishihara, and his ideological antithesis. Just as Ishihara announced his candidacy for governor in 1999 after 18 others had announced theirs, Higuchi entered this year’s race as an independent very late. She came out as a candidate March 19 when it was already accepted that Ishihara had the election sewn up.

It probably still is, but it’s important to note that Ishihara has welcomed Higuchi’s candidacy with the kind of defensiveness he doesn’t normally betray. Higuchi, a professor of welfare and women’s issues at Tokyo Kasei University, may simply be positioning herself as the receptacle of anti-Ishihara sentiments. At the press conference where she announced her candidacy, she blasted Ishihara’s “intimidating style” of governance, and immediately characterized the race as one between a “peace-drunk old lady (heiwa-boke basan)” and a “militaristic old man (gunkoku ojiisan).” Ishihara, who normally demonstrates derisive contempt for such remarks with one of his childish, squinty smiles, this time said with a straight face, “I’m not a militaristic old man.”

Some supporters are apparently worried that Ishihara is underestimating the public mood. In the magazine Aera, political analyst Makoto Sataka put forth an equation: the existing “No Ishihara” element + the antiwar sentiment = hope for Higuchi. The determining factor is, as always, voter turnout, which was expected to be very low when Ishihara had no real competition.

The more significant question is how will the campaign affect Ishihara’s larger ambitions, and, in turn, the general makeup of the Japanese political landscape. Everyone assumes that the governor, an independent, will have to form a new party before he can become prime minister if and when the Lower House is dissolved, and apparently there are plenty of people in national politics just waiting for that to happen. One Liberal Democratic Party member of the Diet told Sunday Mainichi that he would join Ishihara’s party in an instant, because “ideology is secondary to winning.”