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Tokyo reckons 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 to propel Japan into the modern age. 

It is a touching memorial that would feel considerably more sincere if, just before its appearance, Ishihara had not threatened to dig up most of the foreigners’ remains and move them to cheaper plots elsewhere.

But this strain of mischief was the trademark of a man who understood the powers of agenda-pushing and self-aggrandisement granted by running one of the world’s top cities. Ishihara was a nationalistic novelist-turned-politician who made brazenness, defiance and offence-giving an art form. But he imprinted his character on the metropolis like none before or since and his stint as Tokyo governor, between 1999 and 2012, reveals some uncomfortable truths about the city.

Since Ishihara’s death last week at the age of 89, Japanese media has dwelt heavily on the words and deeds of a dragon who, while highly effective in banning diesel trucks from the streets or declaring war on havoc-causing crows, seemed best fulfilled when breathing fire near the most explosive kegs. 

It is “almost a crime”, he once told an interviewer, for women beyond childbearing age to continue living. French, he declared, in a lawsuit-provoking quip, should not count as an international language because it renders the number 80 as “four twenties”. The appalling loss of life and property in the 2011 earthquake, he concluded, was punishment for Japan’s egoism.

These were just the words. In perhaps his most notorious gambit, Ishihara crafted a plan in 2012 whereby the Tokyo government would buy, from a private Japanese owner, a large part of a disputed island chain known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

Dread of the kind of flag-waving stunts Ishihara might attempt once Tokyo’s governorship extended to a critical geostrategic maritime asset forced Japan’s central government to buy the islands itself. The purchase plunged diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing into a long, embittered 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 cipher for broader worries about Japan’s worst propensities. In the early 2000s, Ishihara drew up an order that made the playing of the national anthem compulsory at ceremonies in Tokyo schools, and punished teachers who would not co-operate. 

His three comfortable re-elections were ready evidence, to those seeking it, that for every celebrated drop of cool, progressive Japan there remained in the background a sea of unrepentant misogyny, xenophobia and nationalism.

Yet this view hugely underestimates both Ishihara and his city. During his 13 years as governor, Japan’s national politics blundered through nine prime ministers from across the political spectrum. The capital’s repeated embrace of its governor during that turmoil expressed a yearning for stability more than an endorsement of his agenda. 

At the same time, Tokyo’s voters saw Ishihara’s verbal outrages not as gaffes (in the sense of misspoken or misjudged clangers) but as the script of someone who had thrillingly jettisoned the filters that restrain normal Japanese discourse. You did not have to agree with anything he said (though many might have) to find the mere saying of it deliciously subversive.

Tokyo also sensed that Ishihara’s defiance 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 articulate the assertiveness (particularly towards the US) which, in the authors’ view, Japan had now earned. Ishihara became governor of Tokyo at the end of Japan’s first “lost decade”, when confidence was lower and the zeal of a proven believer that much more impressive.

For all of his angry old man rhetoric, there are huge practical legacies of his ambitions for the city and willingness to confront any obstacles to achieve them. The 2020 Olympics were, for better or worse, an Ishihara project. Far more lasting, though, is the battle he waged with the central government and US military to be allowed to open the air above his city, transforming Tokyo’s Haneda airport into a true international hub and ending the capital’s long and ludicrous reliance on the distant Narita.

Tokyo’s electorate embraced Ishihara for his boundary pushing and his refusal to dance to anyone else’s tune. Japan’s current reflections on his life are a reminder of how much the place secretly adores a rebel.


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