The re-election last Sunday of Shintaro Ishihara as Tokyo governor has demon- strated once again that the people of Japan’s capital city remain attracted to the policies of this outspoken author-turned-politician.

Ishihara benefits from what might be called the “chutzpah factor” in Japanese politics. Many voters — on the national level as well — have ceased to support politicians who appear meek, bumbling or apologetic. They may not agree entirely with what a politician advocates, but they like uncompromising, blustery rhetoric: The message is in the delivery.

It wasn’t always so. It is crucial to bear in mind that there was once another school of politics in Tokyo — and today is the perfect day to recall it.

On Apr. 15, 1967, exactly 40 years ago, Ryokichi Minobe was elected governor of Tokyo. He was to remain in office until 1979. (In fact, in the 1975 election, he defeated that self-same, outspoken Shintaro Ishihara.) The Tokyo that we know today was, to a great extent, fashioned by Gov. Minobe.

The decade of the 1960s was characterized by grassroots idealism. In the West, the anti-nuclear movement, bolstered by mass protests against the war in Vietnam, was gaining momentum. Ordinary people were becoming conscious of the environmental deterioration around them. Many young people were opting for lifestyle alternatives to capitalism’s seductive and greedy dreams.

This was no less true in Japan. The Japanese did not need anyone to tell them of the horrors of nuclear destruction, and students here were actively questioning their country’s commitment to U.S. interests in Asia.

The result was that progressive governors and mayors were brought to power in a wave that swept mainly from Shiga, Osaka and Okayama in the west of the country to Saitama and Kanagawa in the east. Citizens’ grassroots movements were involved in high-profile debates in the areas of education reform, child- and elderly-care and pollution control. This social and political atmosphere was evident until the late 1970s, when the country made the choice to put welfare reform on hold in the interests of unbridled corporate expansion and speculative real-estate investment.

Joy and dense smog

Minobe came to power in that progressive ’60s wave. By 1962, Tokyo’s population had topped 10 million for the first time, and the Olympic Games it hosted two years later gave to the city a sense of confident joy. But readers who lived in Tokyo then will also recall the dense smog hanging over the metropolis, and rivers that were as much sludge as water. Every year there were tens of thousands of individual claims filed with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government by people suffering from smog-related ailments.

Gov. Minobe’s slogan was: Let’s Bring Back Blue Skies to Tokyo.

He created Tokyo’s first hokosha tengoku, literally “pedestrian paradise” — actually meaning car-free pedestrian malls. He froze funding for some major highway construction in the city. In 1969, his government enacted the Tokyo Metropolitan Pollution Control Ordinance, encouraging heavy industry to relocate away from the city. Thanks to this, the smog problem was essentially eliminated in less than a decade.

Minobe was an early advocate of the decentralization of power, as well — a policy that is only gaining true force in the country now. In 1972, he created a corps of volunteers to aid elderly people living on their own, the forerunners of today’s home-helpers. He instituted exams for metropolitan government employees, ensuring that promotion would be based on merit, not old academic or personal affiliations. In stark contrast to the present governor’s policy of shock and confrontation, Gov. Minobe also created a rapprochement with Tokyo’s Korean community.

He saw that the welfare of the capital’s citizenry had been given a back seat to economic development after World War II, with Tokyo as the industrial hub of the nation.

And there’s the rub, equally for us today, 40 years after the Minobe era dawned. What kind of society do people wish for? Everyone aspires to a prosperous and fulfilling life. But should this be realized at the expense of those individuals who are obliged to struggle inordinately toward it for reasons of age, gender, background or disability?

In a speech at the International Symposium on Land Subsidence in Sept. 1969, Gov. Minobe said, “Our Tokyo is suffering from imbalance or distortion stemming from high-degree development.”

These appear to be prophetic words. But, in actuality, millions of Japanese people were aware at the time of the imbalances and distortions created by rapid growth in the 1950s and ’60s. They were waiting for leaders such as Gov. Minobe to rectify the distortions and restore a harmonious balance and compassion for life in Japan.

Opponent of Imperial system

Ryokichi Minobe was born in 1904, the oldest son of Tatsukichi Minobe, a celebrated Meiji intellectual who had studied in Europe and was an expert on constitutional law. Though elected to the House of Counsellors (the Upper House of the Diet), his father was a forceful opponent of the Imperial system. Then, as that system became increasingly dominant throughout Japanese life, he resigned from parliament and was effectively silenced.

Before the war, Ryokichi Minobe taught at Tokyo Imperial University, the present University of Tokyo, and at Hosei University. After the war he was one of Japan’s most respected economists, running the Cabinet Statistics Office, writing editorial comment for the Mainichi Shinbun newspaper and lecturing around the country. In 1949, he even taught a summer course at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He was a socialist who was respected by big business and the powers-that-be in the bureaucracy.

During the last years of his incumbency, Minobe found himself outnumbered in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. He withdrew his candidacy in the 1979 election and, instead, ran the next year for the Diet. He won the seat, which he retained until his death in 1984.

Minobe vs. Ishihara makes for an illuminating comparison: While students around the world were “sitting in” for peace, and ordinary people in developed countries were becoming aware of the needs of the planet and its inhabitants, 40 years ago today the people of Tokyo chose to address their real and present problems by electing Minobe. Last week, they chose posturing and pride-inspired sloganeering in re-electing Ishihara.

The past is not always reimagined out of a graying nostalgia for something as hackneyed as “the good old days.” Sometimes, it serves to remind us that there is an alternative to the directions we are taking in the present.

Tokyo’s admirably clean environment and, indeed, the nation’s commitment to welfare, such as it is, owe an enormous debt to Minobe. He stood not for any unachievable, radical agenda of the left or right, but for a caring and compassionate society.

So it is not always out of nostalgia that we may wish for history to repeat itself. His example gives us the hope that we may see a compassionate Japan again. You can’t run a government on chutzpah alone.

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