No informed Japanese would have been surprised to hear Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara using dead but racist language in his speech at a Ground Self-Defense Force anniversary last Sunday. He has been known for repeatedly indulging in a poor choice of words, for his complacent tendency to confuse arrogance and outspokenness, and for his penchant for seeing the complicated global ties among nations from a simplistic perspective.

Some aspects of such traits have been variously seen as representing his frank and unreserved personality, his guts or his leadership quality. These traits could at times, although not always, have been signs of eccentricity. But, in reality, they have conspired to form an image of Mr. Ishihara as a political leader of outstanding individuality and originality, which has greatly helped him in winning votes in elections.

For all that, however, his latest remark containing the obsolete word “sangokujin” (third-country nationals) puts on the line his integrity as the capital’s top administrator. Mr. Ishihara reportedly said that residents from other countries might riot should a major disaster hit. He later said he will no longer use the word because it is “liable to cause misunderstanding.” However, he refused to retract or apologize for the remark.

The statement has discriminatory connotations, not only for people of Korean and Taiwanese stock but also for foreign residents in general. It is extremely inappropriate, coming as it did from the highest official of Tokyo, who ought to take the lead in promoting international exchanges and cooperation in the age of globalization.

More specifically, Mr. Ishihara said at the ceremony, “Looking at Tokyo today, many sangokujin or foreigners who have illegally entered the country have repeatedly committed heinous crimes. In the event of a major disaster, they could even cause large-scale disturbances.” He also said, “Police power is not sufficient to cope with that kind of situation. I hope you will maintain public safety as one of your major objectives if your unit is mobilized at our request.”

These comments seem problematic in more ways than one. First, Mr. Ishihara used an outdated term with derogatory overtones. It was hardly a slip of the tongue, for he had used the same word earlier while speaking to the metropolitan assembly in February. Asked for a clarification later, the governor said, “I used it in the sense of people from other countries. It is not a familiar word, so I quickly added “gaikokujin” (foreigners). . . . I meant foreigners who have illegally entered the country.”

The fact is that the term sangokujin, or “daisangokujin,” was coined to distinguish those people from other foreigners at the end of World War II, when ethnic Koreans and Taiwanese who had been treated as “Japanese” before suddenly became foreigners as Japan relinquished territorial control of the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan. So there is a discriminatory ring to it.

Mr. Ishihara, who is also a writer, should be particularly careful about his choice of words. It is hard to think that he used the term sangokujin without knowing its special implications. It is certainly not the kind of expression that a public officeholder should use on a public occasion.

Second, Mr. Ishihara referred to the possibility that illegal residents might engage in such massive riots in the event of a major disaster that SDF troops might have to be mobilized to maintain law and order. It is true that serious crimes by such people have increased, making it urgently necessary to take effective countermeasures. But the growing incidence of such crimes seems to reflect the ongoing globalization of country-to-country relations in all domains of activity.

Crimes are committed by a handful of people, whether they are Japanese or non-Japanese. Most people are good citizens. There is no reason why foreign residents should be singled out as a possible source of rioting. And why should Mr. Ishihara have singled out Pakistanis in his reference to drug trafficking? This only further reveals his insensitivity.

The Ishihara statement brings to mind the massacre of Korean residents after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that was triggered by rumors that they might go on the rampage. The governor himself may not harbor any prejudice against people from other countries, but his comment could create or foster unnecessary misunderstandings about them.

There is nothing wrong with the Tokyo governor considering crisis-management measures to prepare for a worst-case scenario, for it is his duty to ensure the safety of Tokyo’s residents. But statements such as the one he made this week will only do them a disservice.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.