Political hawk, 80, still bent on creating a tough Japan


Staff Writer

When Shintaro Ishihara abruptly resigned as governor of Tokyo at the end of last month to form Taiyo no To (The Sunrise Party), it was unclear what his political aims were.

Some speculate the 80-year-old wants to trigger a political realignment and become a key player in Nagata-cho. Others say he wants to become prime minister, the seat he yearned for but failed to get in 1989 when he lost the presidential race for the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Toshiki Kaifu beat him and became prime minister.

But Ishihara this time has flatly denied that his goal is to come to power. Asked Thursday if he is determined to become prime minister, he said: “No I am not. It’s not possible at my age.”

The prime ministership may be too tough a job for an octogenarian, but it also may be Ishihara’s last chance to push forward his agenda. Looking back on his political career and the comments he repeats, two key words pop up — conservatism and decentralization — through which he hopes to create a “tough and strong” nation.

“There are many inconsistencies I would like to resolve on the national level. The greatest of all is the Constitution that was handed to Japan by the Occupation Forces,” he said.

His stance was more clearly stated in his best-selling essay “The Japan That Can Say No,” which he coauthored with the late Sony Corp. founder Akio Morita in 1989. In the book, Ishihara called on Japan to stand up on its own and be more assertive on the world stage.

The platform of Ishihara’s Taiyo no To, now merged with Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) headed by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, also stipulates that the party will strive to establish an independent Constitution and beef up the nation’s defenses.

This position has been watered down now that Taiyo no To has been absorbed by Ishin no Kai, but Ishihara and Hashimoto agreed upon their merger that their party will push China to join a planned lawsuit to be filed with the International Court of Justice for a ruling on the sovereignty of the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands.

“Ishihara has a very strong sense of nationhood,” said Yasushi Aoyama, a Meiji University professor and former vice governor during Ishihara’s first term between 1999 and 2003.

“In a way, Japan lost its independence and dignity during the nearly seven years of the postwar Occupation. . . . For us, Ishihara’s (1955 debut novel) ‘Taiyo no Kisetsu’ (‘Season of the Sun’) was a message that Japan no longer is under occupation and we can lead vibrant lives,” Aoyama said. “I believe Ishihara’s political stance is an extension of that message.”

Ishihara, whose late younger brother, Yujiro, was a famous actor, entered politics at age 35 in 1968, winning a seat in the Upper House with an unprecedented 3 million votes. He served as Environment Agency chief and also as transport minister under Liberal Democratic Party administrations.

Four years after he resigned from the Diet, Ishihara won the Tokyo gubernatorial race in 1999, and then was re-elected three consecutive times.

Ishihara said that is when he faced the “self-righteous attitude” of elite central government bureaucrats who try to keep the political status quo.

When Ishihara proposed that the U.S. Air Force’s Yokota Air Base be shared by the military and commercial flights, the bureaucrats said they didn’t want to anger the U.S. Defense Department.

“The (shared use of) the Yokota base is something that will benefit the people of the nation,” said Ishihara. “There are many issues that will be resolved only when the authority of the central government diminishes.”

But whether Ishihara can exert such authority depends on whether he can remain popular.

Political watchers say Ishihara’s popularity has waned due to his recent action over the Senkaku islets and his abrupt, unapologetic resignation as governor part way into his fourth term.

“Ishihara lost public support because he went too far (with the Senkakus),” said political analyst Minoru Morita.

He may have gained support for his plan to have the Tokyo Metropolitan Government purchase three of the uninhabited Senkaku islets, but there are also many people who are fed up with his excesses. His bid to have the capital buy the islets forced Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government’s hand. The central government stepped in to pay for and effectively nationalize the islets, triggering violent outrage in China against everything Japanese, Morita said.

Ishihara, known for his anti-China rhetoric, made headlines when he abruptly announced in April he wanted the metropolitan government to purchase the islets to protect them from China, and called for public donations for the purchase.

The public couldn’t keep up with Ishihara’s extremism, Morita said.

“Ishihara’s popularity has already declined. He is a person of the past,” Morita said. “He wants to be the idol of the political world once again. But he is just going around in circles.”

Hiroshi Miura, head of Ask Co., a political PR consultancy in Tokyo, agrees, saying Ishihara’s sudden exit as governor midterm didn’t sit well with the public.

Miura also slammed the way Ishihara threw away the job without taking responsibility for the roughly ¥1.4 billion in public donations for his Senkaku purchase plan.

“There may be a lot of Ishihara fans out there, but there won’t be an Ishihara boom,” he said.

With his popularity in decline, Ishihara may be hoping to boost public support via the Nippon Ishin no Kai tieup and by linking with other small parties, but it still won’t be enough to raise his approval rating, Miura said.

When Ishihara’s party was folded into Hashimoto’s Nippon Ishin no Kai on Saturday after huddling over ways to present a common platform for the Dec. 16 Lower House election, Ishihara emerged as the overall party leader and Hashimoto as the deputy.

The merger came just two days after Ishihara had said Taiyo no To would merge with Genzei Nippon (Tax Reduction Japan), which is headed by Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura. That deal didn’t happen.

Whether the minor Your Party will tie up Ishin no Kai remains to be seen.

Aoyama of Meiji University said Ishihara is not good with troublesome matters and, if he hopes to be an effective party leader, will need experts to coach him.

“Ishihara’s political style (as governor was) to work on things in secret and release information based on timing and effect,” while asking metropolitan officials to handle complicated matters, Aoyama said. “That’s why he was able to deliver messages so powerfully.”

But now as the head of a political party, Ishihara needs to deal with complicated details as well, Aoyama said.

“The key for him to execute policies (like he did as governor) is to have a task force for each problem,” he said. “I hope he maintains his distinctive character.”