Politicians often get elected because of promises they make. In his one term as governor of Tokyo, comedian Yukio Aoshima didn’t accomplish anything noteworthy, but he did keep the one promise that got him elected: He canceled the World City Exposition that many constituents thought would be a waste of tax money.

Aoshima’s administration ended in 1999 and is mostly forgotten, which is understandable given that he was a modest politician and his successor, Shintaro Ishihara, now in his second term, is a media hog. Ishihara didn’t have to make promises. His status as an award-winning novelist, brother of the most popular dead actor in Japan, and the country’s loudest chauvinist mischief-maker guaranteed him the governor’s seat.

Unlike Aoshima, Ishihara wants a legacy, which is why he keeps coming up with big projects. His latest scheme is to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to the capital. A man who believes in the power of eyebrow-raising pronouncements, Ishihara isn’t satisfied with the kind of civic boosterism that municipal leaders fall back on when they undertake such a project. To him, the Olympics in Tokyo will do nothing less than spark a spiritual reawakening of Japan, which he sees as mired in a malaise brought about by the demands of a materialist world and reinforced by a media that is obsessed with bad news.

He clarified this idea on Fuji TV’s morning talk show “Hodo 2001” last Sunday. Following newsreel footage of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Ishihara and the other guests, none of whom were opposed to his plan, talked about how the 1964 Games showed the world that Japan had risen from the ashes of World War II and was on the road to becoming an international player again.

“The Japanese people underestimate their own capabilities now,” the governor said, implying that in order for them to regain their confidence they need to impress the rest of the world in a big way. What better way to do that than to invite everyone to Japan for the Olympics and show them what Japan is made of? And, of course, Tokyo is the only city in Japan that can realistically handle such a task.

There seems little doubt in the governor’s mind that the Japan Olympic Committee will choose Tokyo over its only rival as the JOC’s candidate for the 2016 Games. Ishihara has dismissed Fukuoka for both its financial shortcomings and its lack of sophistication.

“Hodo 2001” interviewed the mayor of Fukuoka, Hirotaro Yamasaki, who said that his city can meet all the conditions that Ishihara says Tokyo can meet, and added that the capital should “yield” to a smaller city on principle.

Ishihara replied that Fukuoka couldn’t possibly afford to build the proper facilities without help from the central government. In other words, it’s foolish to compare a regional capital like Fukuoka to the nation’s most powerful city.

And he’s right. Tokyo already has the infrastructure and most of the facilities that the International Olympic Committee demands. It also has a cosmopolitan flair that only enhances the kind of culture and hospitality that Ishihara wants to show off. And it has perhaps the most efficient public transportation system of any city in the world.

But Yamasaki is also right. Tokyo is the capital. It has a special status, as does Ishihara. The IOC doesn’t select a country to host the Olympics, it selects a city. In that regard, Fukuoka is more deserving than Tokyo, which is more than a metropolis. Tokyo is Japan.

In a recent Asahi Shimbun editorial, Tokyo University professor Kang Sang Jung supported Fukuoka’s bid by saying that historically Kyushu has closer ties to Asia than Tokyo does.

The “20th century-style Olympics” was born in Berlin in 1936, he says, when Hitler tried to show off Germany’s power to the world. This became the model for all the subsequent Olympic Games, including Tokyo in 1964, whose overt message was “Japan is back.” China means to show that it has arrived as the next great world power with the Beijing Games in 2008, and Ishihara’s self-serving reasons for Tokyo’s 2016 bid aren’t really much different.

Kang thinks that Fukuoka really could help inaugurate a new kind of Olympics for the 21st century, but if Tokyo is chosen it would simply perpetuate the current nationalist model. He also pointed out that some Fukuokans are opposed to the Olympics, and that this is a “healthy sign” of the city’s viability as a dynamic community. There seems to be no opposition in Tokyo whatsoever, presumably because Ishihara is so monolithic that the media doesn’t see any point in finding out if there is an opposition.

But that may change once the more practical reasons for Ishihara’s Olympic goals become clear. Two weeks ago the Tokyo Metropolitan Government filed for court protection for various joint ventures initiated during the 1980s for development of the reclaimed waterfront area along Tokyo Bay. Originally intended as a commercial “subcenter,” the area has been nothing but a money sink. In fact, it is where the World City Expo that Yukio Aoshima shot down was supposed to take place. Ishihara is eyeing this area for the 2016 Olympics. (Fukuoka also has reclaimed land it wants to use for the Olympics.)

Last week, Ishihara indicated he would run for a third term next year, because if Tokyo is selected by the JOC it would be irresponsible of him to pass the buck to a new governor — the IOC won’t select the 2016 city until 2009. Consequently, the next governor’s race could end up being a referendum on the Tokyo Olympics in much the same way that the 1995 governor’s race was a referendum on the Expo. The difference is that this time it’s personal. It’s Ishihara’s Olympics and nobody else’s.