Challenges await next Tokyo leader

Ishihara played populist but not always popular


While many familiar faces, among them Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa, former Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru and businessman Miki Watanabe, are likely to be seen in the April 10 Tokyo gubernatorial election, the capital’s most prominent is expected to stand down.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, 78, who has held the post for the past 12 years, is expected to announce Friday that he will not seek a fourth term.

Experts give Ishihara mixed marks for his career governing the 13 million people who live and work in Tokyo.

Among his achievements, they cite redevelopment of the metropolitan area, converting Haneda back into an international airport, rebuilding and maintaining the budget and effecting environmental policies.

On the other hand, Ishihara was slammed for his dictatorial style, his welfare and education policies, the failure of a metropolitan government bank established on his watch and racist remarks targeting foreigners and minorities.

“Ishihara’s 12 years in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government have focused on hardware (infrastructure) and economy,” said Nobuo Sasaki, a Chuo University professor who recently authored the book “Tochiji Kenryoku to Tosei” (“Tokyo Governor — Its Power and the Metropolitan Government”).

Sasaki and other experts said Ishihara promoted the development of downtown districts, including Marunouchi and Shiodome, where eye-catching high-rises were built.

Under Ishihara, construction resumed on the Gaikan Expressway between Nerima and Setagaya wards, Haneda airport expanded its international service, and the Shuto Expressway linking Shinagawa and Edogawa wards was built, Sasaki and the experts said.

Ishihara managed to return Tokyo to the black by instituting an across-the-board 4 percent pay cut for all metropolitan officials, cutting 23,000 civil servants from a workforce of around 165,000 when he first took office and by selling off a number of government properties.

From a record deficit of ¥106.8 billion in fiscal 1998, the general account was running a surplus of ¥54.3 billion by fiscal 2005.

The metropolitan government’s savings are expected to jump to ¥963.5 billion in fiscal 2011. In fiscal 1999, the figure was just ¥86.9 billion. Over the same period, its debt decreased from ¥7.2 trillion to ¥6.7 trillion.

Ishihara also took environmental initiatives, including regulating an emissions curb on diesel-powered vehicles in the capital in 2003 and launching Asia’s first mandatory program to cut greenhouse gas emissions by allowing emissions credit-trading.

Yasushi Aoyama, a Meiji University professor and former vice governor during Ishihara’s first term, praised the incumbent’s achievements, including getting the annual Tokyo Marathon up and running, and ordering the safe evacuation of all residents off Miyake Island when Mount Oyama erupted in 2000.

Aoyama said Ishihara has been “overwhelmingly” popular with Tokyo residents because his comments on national politics and other subjects, including diplomacy, represent some of their views.

Through some of his comments, Ishihara has trod where prime ministers and other senior government officials, fearful of creating trouble with other countries, dared not go, but in the process his directness resonated with some people in Japan, Aoyama said.

“If he seeks a fourth term . . . he will (score) a decisive victory,” he said.

Ishihara advanced his plan to relocate Tsukiji fish market to the Toyosu district of Koto Ward after none of his predecessors made a decision, Chuo University’s Sasaki said.

Despite opposition from the Democratic Party of Japan, which holds a majority in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, Ishihara announced in October he was moving ahead on relocating the market to Koto Ward even though the new site’s soil is contaminated with benzene, lead and other toxins.

Experts also note Ishihara failed to pursue adequate public welfare and medical service policies.

“Ultimately, he has been cutting or making light of policies related to the people’s lives,” said Toshihiko Nagao, a reporter who recently wrote the book “Hinkon Tosei Nihonichi Yutakana Jichitai no Genjitsu” (“Poverty and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government — Realities of Japan’s Richest Municipality”).

In a magazine article shortly after he was first elected, Ishihara called public welfare in Tokyo “luxurious,” according to Nagao.

Nagao said Tokyo ranked second among the nation’s prefectures in terms of elderly welfare expenditures in fiscal 1999, but had fallen to last place in fiscal 2007.

Despite the size of Tokyo’s budget, which is almost equal to that of South Korea, Norway or Saudi Arabia, Nagao said the capital has been witnessing an increase in hunger-related deaths, from 26 people in 1999 to 43 by 2008.

Ishihara had three children’s hospitals closed down and the number of metropolitan-run hospitals halved. And since 2000, no new metropolitan housing has been constructed, Nagao said.

Experts also said Ishihara has done little to improve public elementary and junior high school education, and has downsized metropolitan libraries.

He also failed to introduce effective employment programs, they said.

Chuo University’s Sasaki likened Ishihara’s mode of government “law of the jungle.”

To achieve Ishihara’s pet ploy to support struggling small and medium-size companies, Shinginko Tokyo bank started operations in 2005 with some ¥100 billion in capital injected by the metropolitan government.

However, after many of its loans soured, the assembly in 2008 opted to inject an additional ¥40 billion in taxpayer money into the money-losing venture.

The bank last month reported an unconsolidated net profit of ¥1 billion for the April-December period. For the whole of fiscal 2010, the bank projected a net profit of ¥500 million.

But experts claim the bank is not truly working as a financial institution for small- and medium-size companies, as loans extended to such small firms remain around 60 percent of total outstanding lending.

The bank has also downsized services and now only operates one branch, compared with 10 at its peak in 2006.

One of Ishihara’s so-called casual ideas, “Ishihara(‘s) bank,” as it was dubbed, continues to exist only so that he can save face, writer Nagao said.

Nagao claimed Tokyo’s failed bid for the 2016 Olympics also sprang from one of Ishihara’s casual ideas.

The metropolitan government spent ¥7.5 billion on the bid in 2009, making it the top agenda item in Ishihara’s current term.

“He did not have anything he wanted to do, so he tried to gain popularity by hosting new festivals,” Nagao said, stressing his casual decisions came at the expense of public welfare and medical services.

Despite his successes in bringing financial health to the metropolitan government, Ishihara has been criticized as dictatorial and for allegedly bullying any potential foes into submission.

Such authoritarianism was also seen in Ishihara’s decision to force public school teachers to stand before the Hinomaru flag and sing the “Kimigayo” national anthem at graduation and entrance ceremonies and other school occasions, and ensuring that “refuseniks” were punished, according to Nagao.

Ishihara is also known for insulting minorities.

He was criticized in 2000 for calling Taiwanese and Korean residents of Japan “sangokujin” (people from third countries). The term, used after the end of World War II to refer to citizens from Korea and Taiwan, has derogatory connotations.

At a news conference after visiting a facility for mentally and physically impaired people in 1999, he reportedly said: “Do those people have any personality? I was shocked. . . . They won’t recover. They don’t know themselves who they are. . . . Western people would probably leave this kind of people behind.”

Nagao said this reflects Ishihara’s extreme prejudice against the socially weak.

Although it is now not clear who will become governor, many agree public welfare and education will be the main issues in the upcoming election, in addition to Tsukiji and Shinginko.

Aoyama said securing fiscal resources for social security will be key for the capital as more and more people are falling into poverty, and the ranks of the unemployed and nonregular workers swell.

Instead of trying to win a popularity contest, the new governor should work to address the poverty, employment and education problems and create better social infrastructure, if only for the sake of the younger generations, the former vice governor said.

Nagao voiced hope that the candidates will pursue policies from the standpoint of improving the lot of the socially weak.