China-bashing ex-Tokyo Governor's Last Hurrah

At age 80, when most people might be thinking about taking it easy and spending more time playing with grandchildren, former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara has taken on another kind of mission – to save Japan.

Save Japan from what?

The self-described “wild man” of Japanese politics wants to save Japan from bureaucrats, from the Chinese, from weak, vacillating and spineless politicians and even from genetically modified foods shoved down Japan’s throat by Americans.

Ishihara recently resigned as governor of Tokyo to found a new party, the Sunrise Party. This new political entity lasted all of two days before Ishihara dissolved it and merged it with rising Osaka politician Toru Hashimoto’s new Japan Restoration Party (JRP).

The Restoration Party is making a bid to become a “third force” in Japanese politics. Public opinion polls show it running second to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the upcoming Dec. 16 general election. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) headed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is running third.

The merger, with Ishihara becoming party president and Hashimoto vice-president, required some major concessions on both parts. In deference to Ishihara’s pro-nuclear power views, Hashimoto had to bury, at least temporarily, his support of “zero” nuclear power. Ishihara had to tone down his opposition to an enlarged Asian free trade zone.

A leader of the DPJ, ex-finance minister Jun Azuma, noted the fundamental differences of the two leaders by calling it an “unholy alliance,” The LDP says similar things about the new party. For his part, Ishihara shrugs off such criticism, saying all parties make compromises for unity.

The advantages of the tie-up for Hashimoto’s new party are obvious. Ishihara potentially gives the Restoration Party, now based entirely in and around Osaka, Japan’s second city, some critical support in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures.

It is uncertain how this “unholy alliance” will last after the election, no matter what the outcome. Ishihara is not known to be a team player. He resigned from the LDP nearly 20 years ago and has run successfully for governor four times as an independent, regularly crushing candidates endorsed by the major parties including the LDP his onetime political home.

Hashimoto and Ishihara do see eye-to-eye on some issues, especially those that are connected with conservative causes such as revising Japan’s American-written constitution and eliminating the famous Article 9 which technically prohibits Japan from possessing a military. (Shinzo Abe, the new LDP leader shares similar views on the constitution.)

Ishihara created quite a stir when, during a speech last week to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo he said Japan should “simulate” having nuclear weapons. “It’s high time that Japan made simulations of possessing nuclear arms,” he said. “That would become a form of deterrence against China’s possible military encroachment.”

Simulation in nuclear weapons’ terms means the testing of existing weapons to ensure they are battle worthy without conducting underground explosions in violation of treaty obligations. How this applies to a non-nuclear weapons state like Japan is not clear. Ishihara probably doesn’t know either.

Whatever the purpose of the remark, it is undeniable that Ishihara almost single-handedly created the current crisis over the disputed Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call the Daioyus, when he proposed that the city of Tokyo buy the islands and made a call for private donations to accomplish this.

He essentially sand-bagged PM Noda, whose government was quietly seeking to buy the islands which at the time were actually owned by a private individual. That forced Noda to have the national government openly buy the islands with taxpayer money.

Noda apparently hoped that Beijing would understand that it was far better to have the islands in the hands of the national government than the “wild man”, China-bashing Ishihara. The Tokyo governor would have used ownership to build a small port or erect a lighthouse in contradiction to government policy.

Tokyo has resisted numerous attempts by Japan’s super nationalists to erect permanent fixtures on the Senkaku as a sign of ownership. If they were in Ishihara’s hands this would have been harder. Beijing, however, does not see things that way, and the dispute over the island’s sovereignty continues to percolate.

The official Restoration Party stance on the disputed islands, however, is more moderate. The platform says that the party will urge China to bring the Senkaku dispute to the International Court of Justice for a ruling on which country has sovereign jurisdiction over the island.

Ishihara was a teenager in the final days of World War II and the difficult years immediately after the surrender, which helps in understanding his views today. In many ways he is stuck in that era. For example, he still refers to China as “Shina”, the name that was often associated with Japan’s invasion and occupation.

He insists that Shina is not a derogatory word, and that the current word for China, “Chugoku”, meaning center country or middle kingdom, is overly fawning of the continental neighbor and subject to some confusion as the same word also refers to the region centered on Hiroshima in the far western part of Honshu.

While it is clear what Hashimoto gets out of this unwieldy alliance of convenience, one has to wonder what Ishihara gets from it. Perhaps he was bored after 13 years as governor of Tokyo. Perhaps he simply wants one more season in the sun or a platform where he can pontificate on his views. Or, to take him at his word, perhaps he believes he is the man to save Japan.

If the Restoration Party enters a coalition with the LDP after the election, which is one widely assumed scenario, however, he will probably have to leave the saving to others. Though he is certain to win a seat in parliament at the head of the Tokyo proportional representation list, he says he will not accept a ministerial post. “I’m too old,” he says.