Tokyo counts with the memory of its notorious ex-governor
At the heart of Tokyo’s Aoyama Cemetery is a monument dedicated by the city’s former governor, Shintaro Ishihara, to the foreign diplomats, experts and advisers who helped propel Japan into the modern era.
It’s a moving memorial that would seem much more heartfelt if, just before he appeared, Ishihara hadn’t threatened to dig up most of the strangers’ remains and move them to cheaper plots elsewhere.
But that strain of malice was the hallmark of a man who understood the powers of agenda pushing and self-glorification afforded by the management of one of the world’s greatest cities. Ishihara was a nationalist novelist turned politician who made cheekiness, defiance, and offense an art form. But he stamped his character on the metropolis like never before or since and his time as governor of Tokyo, between 1999 and 2012, reveals some uncomfortable truths about the city.
Since Ishihara’s death last week at the age of 89, the Japanese media have given much attention to the words and deeds of a dragon which, although very effective in banning diesel trucks from the streets or declaring war on pest crows, seemed best fulfilled when he breathed fire near the most explosive barrels.
It’s “almost a crime”, he once told an interviewer, that women past childbearing age continue to live. French, he said, in a quip provoking legal action, should not be considered an international language because it renders the number 80 as “four twenty”. The appalling loss of life and property in the 2011 earthquake, he concluded, was punishment for Japan’s selfishness.
They were just words. In perhaps his most notorious gamble, Ishihara hatched a plan in 2012 under which the Tokyo government would buy, from a private Japanese owner, much of a disputed island chain known as Senkaku in Japan. and Diaoyu in China.
Fear of the kind of flag stunts Ishihara might attempt once Tokyo’s governorship extends to a critical geostrategic maritime asset will force Japan’s central government to buy the islands itself. The purchase plunged diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing into a long sour silence.
To Japanese liberals, foreign residents, and those convinced of Ishihara’s destructive malevolence, he was a deplorable and frightening force. He made an easy number for the wider worries about Japan’s worst propensities. In the early 2000s, Ishihara drafted an ordinance mandating the playing of the national anthem at ceremonies in Tokyo schools and punishing teachers who did not cooperate.
His three comfortable re-elections were immediate proof, to those looking for him, that for every famous drop of cool, progressive Japan, there remained in the background a sea of unrepentant misogyny, xenophobia and nationalism.
Yet this view grossly underestimates both Ishihara and its city. During his 13 years as governor, Japanese national politics blundered through nine prime ministers from all political walks of life. The capital’s repeated embrace of its governor during this turmoil expressed a desire for stability more than an endorsement of his program.
At the same time, voters in Tokyo saw Ishihara’s verbal outrages not as blunders (in the sense of misspoken or misjudged screamers) but as the script of someone who had enthusiastically jettisoned the filters that restrict normal Japanese speech. You didn’t have to agree with anything he said (though many might have) to find even saying it delightfully subversive.
Tokyo also felt that Ishihara’s challenge was more than an act. In 1989, he co-wrote The Japan that can say no, with the founder of Sony. The book was published at the height of the country’s bubble and sought to express the affirmation (especially towards the United States) that the authors believed Japan had now won. Ishihara became governor of Tokyo at the end of Japan’s first “lost decade”, when confidence was lower and the zeal of a confirmed believer all the more impressive.
For all his angry old man rhetoric, there are huge practical legacies of his ambitions for the city and his willingness to face any obstacle to achieve them. The 2020 Olympics were, for better or worse, an Ishihara project. Far more enduring, however, is the battle he waged with the central government and the US military to be allowed to open the air above his city, turning Tokyo’s Haneda Airport into a veritable hub. international community and ending the capital’s long and ridiculous dependence on distant Narita. .
The Tokyo electorate embraced Ishihara for pushing boundaries and refusing to dance to someone else’s tune. Japan’s current thoughts on his life are a reminder of how the place secretly worships a rebel.