Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is a gracious host, settling comfortably into a white leather chair and patiently listening to a question from a visitor.
Then he opens his mouth, launching into a tirade.
China is “very dangerous,” he thunders. Japan’s critics are “just jealous.” Tokyo’s bloody conquests of the 1930s and ’40s saved Asia from colonization by “white people.”
At 72, Japan’s best-known nationalist politician says he’s too old to pursue the prime ministership that pundits have long predicted — and opponents have feared — he would one day capture.
But in a recent interview with AP, the coauthor of 1989’s “The Japan That Can Say No” still growls with the energy that has made him perhaps Japan’s most divisive and popular political figure.
“I’d say I’m a realist,” Ishihara declared in the 40-minute interview at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government tower. “Everyone misunderstands, though.”
Even without gaining the prime ministership, Ishihara is far more influential than his position suggests. He leads one of the world’s largest metropolises, with a population of 12.5 million people and an economy bigger than Canada’s.
Ishihara, who gained fame as a bad-boy novelist in the 1950s, has grown more popular with time. First elected Tokyo governor in 1999, he stomped his way to re-election last year with more than 70 percent of the vote.
At the same time, Ishihara is widely vilified here and abroad for his blunt nationalist talk, acerbic criticism of illegal immigrants and unapologetic view of Japan’s militarist past.
Outspoken in his prodefense views, he accuses China of threatening Japanese security with its territorial claims against tiny islands held by Japan.
“We should properly rebuild the military,” Ishihara said. “We don’t need nuclear weapons, and even saying we should discuss that possibility would create misunderstanding. But we should protect our airspace and territorial waters. We can’t allow China (to) take what they are trying to take.”
Ishihara, who called for greater Japanese independence from the United States in his 1989 book, has campaigned strenuously for returning to Japan’s control the Yokota Air Base, now run by the U.S. Air Force. He railed against Japan’s willingness to go along with Washington — alleging the Foreign Ministry was a “branch office” of the State Department.
“Japan is a vassal of the United States,” Ishihara said. “Pretty soon it will be a slave.”
Riling others in Asia, Ishihara insists that Tokyo need not apologize for its bloody wartime invasions of neighbors and argues that Japan did Asia a favor by delivering it from Western imperialism.
“If Japanese hadn’t fought the white people, we would still be slaves of the white people. It would be colonization,” he said. “We changed that.”
While such blunt talk embarrasses some Japanese, supporters say Ishihara is simply saying out loud what many people believe but hesitate to say.
“Among Japanese leaders, Shintaro Ishihara is a rare politician who has a clear will, talks about it and is convincing,” Kazuya Fukuda, a Keio University professor, wrote in the preface to a collection of essays on Ishihara published last year.
Still, Ishihara’s popularity in Tokyo is also based on parochial concerns. At his initiative, for example, Tokyo and three neighboring areas won high grades from voters last year by banning older diesel-powered vehicles to reduce the crowded metropolitan area’s pervasive air pollution.
Tokyoites — angry at a massive public bailout to help large banks overcome mountains of bad debt — also cheered his attempt to slap a new tax on the banks. His move was struck down in the courts, but was later put into the national tax code.
He is also tough on law and order, fanning fears that illegal immigrants are behind a surge in crime and promising to deal swiftly with threats to public security.
Now, Ishihara’s government is cracking down on public school teachers who refuse to stand for the rising sun flag and national anthem under the argument that these symbols are associated with wartime militarism.
Such views on immigration and patriotism show the dark side of Ishihara’s popularity, said Jin Igarashi, a professor at Hosei University.
“He’s used the fears and frustrations of the masses to carry out antidemocratic, nationalist policies and make nationalistic remarks,” Igarashi said. “He’s a modern-age fascist.”
Ishihara brushes off such criticism, declaring: “I’m no fascist.”
Whatever his appeal, however, it’s unlikely Ishihara will ever be prime minister. He failed in an attempt to take control of the Liberal Democratic Party in 1989, and his decision to run for re-election as governor last year was taken as a sign he had scaled back his ambitions.
Ishihara cites his age as the main factor.
“I’m not young. Yesterday or the day before I pushed myself a little hard when I went diving and I almost died! That never used to happen,” he said. “Younger people have to come to the fore now.”
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