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After months of hemming and hawing, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has officially announced his bid for re-election, ending speculation that he might return to national politics. His solid popularity makes it almost certain that he will win a second four-year term in the April 13 election. So far only one other person, Yoshiharu Wakabayashi, the head of the Japan Communist Party’s Tokyo chapter, has announced his candidacy. The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, is said to be considering whether to put up its own candidate.

Mr. Ishihara, who quit the Diet in 1995 after 25 years as a veteran Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, won a smashing victory for the 1999 Tokyo governorship. During his first term, vowing to “change Japan from Tokyo onward,” he has taken a number of aggressive — and controversial — measures, such as levying a surtax on large banks operating in Tokyo.

All the while, however, the possibility has persisted that he might re-enter the national political arena by launching a new party. He has been, and still is, seen by many as a prospective prime minister — a perception that seems to reflect the deep public mistrust of existing political parties and of current Diet members in general. That possibility has disappeared for now. But it will likely revive in the future, depending on how the political situation develops — a question that is closely related to the timing of the next Lower House election.

Gov. Ishihara himself seems dedicated to his present job. He has said time and again that he still has “more work to do as Tokyo governor.” Announcing his plan to seek another term last week, Ishihara declared that he wants to “resolve today’s national crisis, with Tokyo as the lever.”

Mr. Ishihara has received high job-approval ratings from Tokyo citizens during his first four years in office. Probably the most dramatic of his achievements has been the introduction of a new bank tax, a precedent-setting measure that embodies a principle that companies should pay local taxes based on the scale of their business, not on whether they are making a profit. In a suit filed by banks, the tax has been ruled invalid — on grounds that it targets only banks — but the principle itself has been upheld.

The governor has argued, convincingly, that the central government should yield some of its tax-collecting authority to local governments so that they can raise their own revenue. That argument has prevailed, even though he has so far lost the legal battle. Beginning in fiscal 2004, prefectural governments throughout the country, not just Tokyo, will be allowed to levy a size-based tax on large companies in their respective districts.

Gov. Ishihara has taken the initiative to combat air pollution, pledging to “protect the environment on behalf of the central government.” A plan in the works, expected to take effect in October, aims at restricting the use of diesel-engine vehicles in the metropolitan area. He has also tackled noise pollution and other problems involving the U.S. Air Force’s Yokota base by visiting America to negotiate joint use of the base and its eventual return.

Part of his strength lies in his Cabinet experience as an environment and a transport minister as well as his long career as a Lower House member. The outspoken governor has many critics, particularly because of his “ultraconservative” statements on foreign and security policy. JCP chairman Tetsuzo Fuwa has called Mr. Ishihara a “warmonger who justifies (Japan’s) past war of aggression,” saying “such a man should not be allowed to govern the capital of Japan.”

Mr. Ishihara is supported by the LDP and New Komeito this time around. The DPJ is having difficulty finding a candidate capable of challenging the popular incumbent. However, if it really wants to take power, the DPJ should field an official candidate. The party has another strong reason to do so: Its leader, Mr. Naoto Kan, has his constituency in Tokyo.

Over the past four years Mr. Ishihara has maintained close contact with LDP heavyweights, including former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. This, combined with the talk of an early Lower House election, has fueled speculation about his possible return to national politics. Recently, however, national-election rumors have subsided, apparently prompting the governor to run for re-election.

Still, the possibility of his taking the helm of state has not disappeared. In a Kyodo News poll taken last year, 27 percent named Mr. Ishihara as a politician fit to lead the nation, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi coming in second with 20 percent. Political pundits say Mr. Ishihara will continue to hold the trump card even after winning re-election. It is a disquieting analysis that seems to suggest that there is almost nobody in the LDP who can succeed Mr. Koizumi.

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