“It was a chilling moment,” said Toshio Sato, 75, a former political reporter for Kyodo News, recalling the presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Dec. 14, 1956, in which Kishi was regarded as the sure winner.
In the first round of voting, Kishi was the top vote-getter, but he failed to win a majority. He was followed by Ishibashi and Mitsujiro Ishii, later speaker of the House of Representatives. In the runoff, followers of Ishibashi and Ishii formed an alliance, beating Kishi by a margin of seven votes.
Ishibashi hammered out an expansionist fiscal policy by proposing 100 billion yen in tax cuts and 100 billion yen worth of economic measures. On the diplomatic front, he was eager to restore diplomatic relations with China, and on relations with Washington, he said, “We will tie up with the United States but are not pro-America through and through.”
At a party to congratulate him on becoming prime minister, Ishibashi came down with a cold and was told by his doctor he would need months of treatment. Without hesitation, he resigned in February 1957, only two months after assuming power. “As long as I am not able to take part in budget deliberations, I should resign,” he said at the time.
Amid popular admiration for his actions, he was succeeded by then Foreign Minister Kishi, a wartime Cabinet minister who earlier had been jailed as a suspected war criminal but never tried. Kishi rushed headlong toward revising the Japan-U.S. security treaty, over which the public was sharply divided. One of his grandsons is the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
The close alliance with the United States has been in place for the last 50 years. “From that point of view, Ishibashi’s resignation was a matter of deep regret,” Sato said.
Shusei Tanaka, 66, a professor at Fukuyama University and a secretary to Hirohide Ishii, a former labor minister and a top aide to Ishibashi, said, “If the Ishibashi Cabinet had been in power longer, Japan’s course would have moved toward collective security, not toward the right to ‘collective self-defense’ with Japan and the United States as the linchpin, now under discussion.
“The transfer of power from Ishibashi to Kishi was a turning post in postwar Japan,” he added.
In an editorial for the Toyo Keizai Shimpo (Eastern Economic Journal) in 1921, Ishibashi, then a journalist, called on the government to end its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and Karafuto (southern Sakhalin) as a policy to be presented to a disarmament conference in Washington that fall.
Japan gained no economic or military benefit from having colonies, he argued.
“Our nation’s abandoning of the greater Japan principle will instead give us great benefits, I declare,” he said. Japan, however, had sought great power status since the 1868 Meiji Restoration.
In other editorials, Ishibashi’s opinions differed from the prevailing views of the day. He objected to the construction of Meiji Shrine in Tokyo but advocated popular elections and the liberation of women.
“I was surprised to read many of his articles. His stance toward the times was firm,” said Tadashi Yamaguchi, 73, a former editor at the Toyo Keizai Shimposha publishing house who edited Ishibashi’s complete works.
Jiang Keshi, 53, a Chinese professor at Okayama University who came to Japan in 1983 to study Ishibashi at Waseda University, his alma mater, said: “At first, I studied democracy in the Taisho Era (1912-1926), but there was only (a quest for) imperialism abroad and democracy at home. Ishibashi got over that thinking, and as an Asian, I could sympathize with him.”
After the war, Ishibashi joined the political community but was ousted by the Occupation authorities in 1947 because he opposed their austere fiscal policy for Japan. He rejoined politics after his ban was lifted in 1951.
In 1952, he unveiled a tentative political platform and said the Constitution’s Article 9, which banned Japan from rearming, represented the belief of the Japanese people but the global situation did not allow this pursuit.
“We should maintain the arms necessary and effective for carrying out our international responsibility. Article 9 should be amended,” he said.
While Jiang said that platform was inevitable as Ishibashi joined the political community and its power struggles, Tanaka said for Ishibashi, the Cold War was an unexpected turn of events.
Ishibashi appeared to be wavering between rationalism and idealism concerning rearmament and Article 9.
In his later years, he inclined toward idealism, visited China and the Soviet Union, and called for an alliance of peace that included Japan, China, the United States and the Soviet Union. “Ishibashi’s thinking is rare in Japan and important as a warning for modern politics,” Jiang said.
In Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, from where Ishibashi hailed, a two-story structure is being built that will open late this month. “On the second floor, we will exhibit materials and panels to introduce Ishibashi’s thinking,” said Tamotsu Asakawa, 61, a lecturer at Yamanashi Prefectural University who is promoting the building.
“Now that there is a growing movement to amend the Constitution, we want to hand down to young people Ishibashi’s deep thoughts about peace, the people’s rights and liberalism,” Asakawa said. Ishibashi died in 1973. He was 88.