Shintar Ishihara
Shintar Ishihara; drawing by David Levine


Junichiro Koizumi, the new Japanese prime minister, has a most unusual hairdo—unusual, that is, for a conservative Japanese politician, not for a dashing country-and-western singer or an aging croupier. It is a long, voluminous affair wrapped around a narrow, hawkish head like an elegant gray bird’s nest.

The hair is part of the new prime minister’s image of fresh nonconformism. He likes to be known as a maverick, a henjin, a bit of a rebel in the musty chambers of Japanese power. Koizumi is an opera buff with a showman’s sense of timing, an admirer of Winston Churchill who promises to reform the political system and “destroy” all those who would stand in his way. Friends claim “he says what he thinks”; opponents accuse him of being a grandstander.1

As the conservative heir of a political family, he is perhaps not quite the rebel he appears to be, and has sometimes played to a right-wing gallery, but he is certainly the most arresting figure in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). His televised performances in the Diet are watched by a huge audience fascinated by a politician who actually speaks without notes. Traditionally, mavericks have not thrived in Japanese politics; they tend to get cut down by blander men, whose general air of mediocrity often belies a gift for vicious infighting.

That Koizumi was elected LDP leader at all was owing to a minor revolt at the party convention held at a Tokyo martial arts stadium in March. Forty LDP members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly stood outside the stadium handing out leaflets and calling for “the regeneration of the LDP.” They criticized the LDP leadership for clinging to an outmoded, opaque system, in which government posts are divvied up according to seniority and factional strength. LDP factions, or cliques, like parties within the party, revolve less around ideological differences than leaders who can generate enough cash to provide jobs—and campaign funds—for the boys. The system is designed to give all the bigger boys their turn in power, regardless of competence or popular support. The protesters warned that if this system persists, the LDP would “face the most tragic and worst scenario—that is, death as a political party.”

The protests hit a nerve, for the LDP has not been doing well of late. The last prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, was a disaster, a typical case of a mediocrity thrown up by factional horse-trading. (Before striking out on his own, Koizumi was in Mori’s faction.) The party suffered heavy losses in Lower House elections last June. Support in the cities is especially low; six incumbent and former cabinet ministers failed to hold on to their seats in Tokyo. So after ignoring the protests for as long as they could, the party elders decided, reluctantly, to let ordinary LDP members take part in party leadership elections. Seventy percent of the 487 votes would still be cast by Diet members, but for the first time the rank and file would have a say too. The other candidates besides Koizumi were Ryutaro Hashimoto, an uninspiring former prime minister, Taro Aso, a vague aristocrat, and Shizuka Kamei, a right-wing party hack whose prescription for Japan’s economic ills was to shovel more money into the construction business.

Hashimoto is leader of the party’s largest faction, and Kamei, a former construction minister, is also a formidable figure. In the old days, the two of them would have crushed the likes of Koizumi in a backroom deal. But things are different now. Koizumi won 87 percent of the party members’ votes, enough to give him the leadership. And instead of keeping the faction bosses happy by forming a cabinet of senior time-servers, Koizumi appointed five women and several men still in their forties.

One of his most interesting appointments is Makiko Tanaka as foreign affairs minister. Ms. Tanaka is the daughter of ex–prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, which counts for a lot in Japan’s dynastic politics, but her manner is so abrasive that no faction would have her. The public, however, bored with the usual platitudes spouted by LDP ministers, love her gravelly-voiced indiscretions. That is one reason why Koizumi chose her. And his 80 percent approval rating, making him the most popular prime minister in postwar history, shows the level of public support for such moves.

All this looks like good news. Here, at last, is an LDP prime minister who would seem to represent the interests of the modern, urban middle class instead of the old constituencies, such as subsidized farmers, large corporations, and the construction business.2 Koizumi says he wants to end factional politics, revise the pacifist constitution, privatize the postal system, cut back on debt-financed spending, have direct prime ministerial elections, and deregulate the economy. He has even promised to staunch the huge amount of money going into highway construction. If he were to succeed, he could be the Japanese Gorbachev who brings down the LDP state, even as he promises to save his party by reforming it.


Koizumi has a few problems to overcome, however. For one thing, the LDP is too weak to govern alone, and since its coalition partner, the Buddhist Komeito Party, is absolutely dedicated to pacifism, Koizumi can’t really touch the famous article nine of the constitution, which won’t allow Japan to wage war. Also, to expect senior LDP rivals to let him break up their factions is to expect them to commit political suicide. And even if Koizumi is serious about deregulation, he is unlikely to have the wherewithal to defy the bureaucrats who actually decide on such matters. Bureaucrats don’t like deregulation.

Koizumi’s most controversial plan is to privatize the postal and savings system. Here he touches on the very core of the LDP state. The state-run post office is the source of Japan’s “shadow budget,” or Zaito. Citizens are encouraged by tax breaks and higher-than-average interest rates to deposit their savings in post office accounts. This money, about $3 trillion, managed by the Ministry of Finance, is used as a huge piggy bank to finance projects that remain hidden from Diet scrutiny. In effect, bureaucrats, not politicians, control the public purse in Japan, and they do much of their work in secret, drawing on Zaito funds. At least $250 billion goes to public works, such as highways, dams, and so on, carried out by government-linked enterprises. The Zaito is also used to pump up the sickly stock market, or to buy government bonds, or to pay for shell agencies that provide comfortable nest eggs for ex-bureaucrats.

The huge debt accumulated through these dubious schemes puts an extra burden on the public in the form of absurdly expensive highway tolls, airport taxes, and the like. What the savers gain from their postal accounts, they lose in extra taxes. But the LDP state could not survive without the Zaito. The tight network of bureaucrats, politicians, and businessmen that constitutes that state would collapse, and the LDP faction bosses would be starved of funds to pay for the campaigns of their members.

This, then, is what the bright new prime minister is up against, and though one should always hope for the best, his chances don’t look good. There are too many vested interests stacked against him. And besides, to really open up Japanese politics, Koizumi would have to change the electoral system as well. For under the current rules, the system is rigged to favor rural voters. Sparsely populated rural areas are better represented in the Diet than many cities, in some cases at a four-to-one margin. This helps to keep the LDP in power, but goes against the urban, middle-class interests Koizumi appears to stand for.

Since you cannot expect the LDP to radically alter the electoral rules, or break up its factional system, or harm its warm relations with bureaucrats and industry, a catastrophic LDP defeat would have to be a first condition for change. Not long before Koizumi was chosen as party leader, I had a gloomy lunch with a Japanese diplomat. We discussed the various candidates, their merits and demerits. And then came a surprise. He hoped, he said, that Shizuka Kamei, the rightwing party hack, would win, since he would be such a hopeless prime minister that popular disgust would almost guarantee an LDP defeat in the next general election. When diplomats start telling you they hope things will get so bad they can only get better, you know their country is in deep trouble.

If the diplomat is right, then Koizumi’s election may actually be bad news for Japan, for he might raise hopes just enough to give the LDP another lease on life. Koizumi’s failure, however, is bound to deepen the political cynicism of Japanese citizens, who are fast losing trust not only in their elected representatives but in the postwar democratic system itself.


Because Japan is a relatively isolated country on the far side of Asia, many people, including many Japanese, assume that everything about Japan is unique. In fact, parallels with Japan’s political problems come readily to mind. Italy, though in many ways a very different place from Japan, bears some striking resemblances. Both were Axis powers which became front-line states in the cold war, ruled, seemingly forever, by conservative coalition parties supported by big business and the US government. Both the Christian Democrats and the LDP had intimate connections with organized crime. And opposition came in both countries from strong Communist parties and violent radical groups, the Red Army in Japan, the Red Brigade in Italy.


In Italy, the end of the cold war meant the end of Christian Democratic domination. The center-left had a chance to take over, but was too fractious to hold on to power. And now we have a right-wing populist in the shape of Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi is typical of a new breed of rich telegenic populists. Jörg Haider is another. Such figures tend to do well in countries where political systems have been sewn up for too long. Haider’s Freedom Party would never have come to power if so many Austrians had not been fed up with the Socialists and the People’s Party monopolizing government. The right-wing Hindu nationalists of the BJP managed to exploit similar discontents with Congress Party dominance in India.

Is there a Japanese Berlusconi or Haider hiding in the wings? Indeed there is. And he is hardly hiding. His name is Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo. Koizumi is the most popular politician of the hour, but Ishihara has been a national figure for many years, and a political star since he was elected governor of Tokyo in 1999. Something interesting has been going on in gubernatorial elections in Japan. Japanese mayors (or “governors” in Tokyo and Osaka) often come from outside the mainstream, as is true in Italy. Communists and popular eccentrics are frequently elected. Osaka was governed for years by a comedian, Kyoto had a succession of Communists, and Ishihara’s predecessor in Tokyo was a vaudevillian. Voting for outsiders is a way for the urban public to show disaffection with the LDP state. Now the same thing is happening in the provinces.

In October 2000, a forty-five-year-old best-selling novelist, Yasuo Tanaka (no relation of the foreign minister), was elected governor of Nagano prefecture. After vigorous campaigning, he defeated the man picked by the outgoing governor, a traditional party-backed ex-bureaucrat. One of Tanaka’s first moves was to stop the building of more dams. This pleased local conservationists, but seriously annoyed government bureaucrats who are not used to taking orders from elected officials. Another successful opponent of dam-building is the popular new governor of Tochigi prefecture, Akio Fukuda. He replaced an ex-bureaucrat, who had governed for sixteen years with the backing of all major parties. Most remarkable of all, however, is Yoshihiro Katayama, governor of Tottori prefecture, who decided to break all precedents by opening government expenditures to public scrutiny. “In order to realize public administration in which residents are the main players,” he said, the prefectural government “must shake itself from consensus-building and bid-rigging and hold open discussions under the disclosure of information.” This was quite extraordinary, given that Katayama was himself a long-serving official in the Home Ministry.

Shintaro Ishihara is neither an ex-bureaucrat nor a provincial outsider, but has benefited from the same public disaffection as the prefectural governors. Like them, he has acquired the image of a can-do leader who is prepared to buck the system and tell the bureaucrats what’s what. His first measure as Tokyo governor was to tax banks on their gross operating revenue. This popular “Ishihara tax” was seen as a poke in the eye of the Ministry of Finance, which had been propping up broken banks with large amounts of public money.

The tall, handsome, telegenic Ishihara, with his fine head of silvery hair and plump, smirking lips, is a more experienced showman than Koizumi, but a rather peculiar reformer. For he is the man who claims that the Japanese war in Asia was a noble anticolonial enterprise. He is the one who says that Japan should scrap the Security Treaty with the US and become “the world’s strongest defense nation.” And it is he who believes that Japan should use its financial power to cut loose from the US, divide China, and create a “Greater East Asia Yen Sphere.” The language is often deliberately provocative, designed to titillate Japanese who are tired of hearing about war guilt and of subservience to the US. Ishihara has even flirted with ethnic violence, with wild talk of using military force to protect Japanese citizens from Korean and Chinese illegal immigrants. All this rhetoric, which, so far, is all it is, reflects (and further inflames) the increasingly nationalistic mood in Japan. From the beginning of his colorful career as novelist, yachtsman, essayist, politician, and public provocateur, Shintaro Ishihara has been nothing if not a master at reading the national mood.

Ishihara’s rise to stardom began in 1955, the year when the LDP came to power, and one year before the Economic White Paper declared: “The postwar is over.” The peace treaty had been signed in San Francisco, General MacArthur had gone home, and the race for economic recovery was on. Ishihara was a twenty-three-year-old student then, running around with a bunch of rich kids in a wealthy seaside resort south of Tokyo. Bored with postwar austerity and cynical about the earnest new mood of national rehabilitation along American lines, Ishihara and his friends affected the nihilistic attitudes of yakuza mobsters. Values and morals, in their eyes, were all crap. They had watched their elders switch overnight from Japanese militarism to abject parroting of American propaganda. The quasi-gangster look of Ishihara’s crowd was typical of their postwar ambivalence. Their Hawaiian shirts were a symbol of American-style hedonism, but their macho posturing was a show of defiance aimed at American domination as much as Japanese conservatism. Ishihara’s first novel, published in 1955, entitled Season of the Sun, was a tale of casual sex and adolescent bravado. It caught the mood, became a best seller, was made into a movie starring Ishihara’s brother, Yujiro, and soon the style of the “Sun Tribe” was imitated everywhere. The distinctive short back and sides with long hair on top, sported by the Ishihara brothers, was known as the “Shintaro cut.”

Yukio Mishima was an early supporter of Ishihara. They went nightclubbing together and visited boxing gyms.3 Like Ishihara, Mishima was a rebel from the right who railed against the postwar order, which had, in his view, robbed the Japanese of their dignity and spirit. Although Ishihara claims to have deplored Mishima’s poor taste, his neo-rococo house, and so on, Mishima’s style displayed the same ambivalence as Ishihara’s Sun Tribe. Either he adopted samurai poses, having himself photographed scowling in a white loincloth, brandishing a Japanese sword, or he would sit in his rococo room, smiling in an aloha shirt. It is as if he could never quite make up his mind; it had to be one or the other, and both were theatrical, indeed camp. This was typical of Mishima, a rum figure if ever there was one, but it reflected the trauma of his times too.

In 1968, Ishihara began his career as a right-wing LDP politician. He was elected to the Upper House, and four years later to the more powerful Lower House. Although he was too quirky to make it to the very top, he had a good career, becoming transport minister in 1988. But he only gained fame, or rather notoriety, outside Japan in 1989, when he published a best-selling little book entitled The Japan That Can Say ‘No.4 The main theme was Ishihara’s hobbyhorse: Japanese submissiveness to the US. Various claims were made. The Japanese liberated Asia in the war. The US was a “racist” power. Just as the Russians overcame Stalin, Japan should overcome the legacy of World War II. Since the Americans take Japan for granted, the Japanese should teach them a lesson by withholding vital technology. And so on.

As with Mishima’s poses, one senses that Ishihara’s braggadocio is partly a way of acting out a psychodrama that stems from the childhood shock of defeat. In a recent publication of Ishihara’s dialogues with various well-known Japanese, including his son, Nobuteru, a young LDP legislator, his ideas are far stronger on emotion than logic. “OK,” he says to his son, “this is what the self-defense specialists in the Diet should say: ‘If the Americans are so keen for us to boost our domestic demand, let’s go ahead. The US–Japan Security Treaty has lots of problems anyway. They [the Americans] can’t predict North Korean missile attacks, and even if they can, they won’t tell us; they don’t have the military capacity. So let’s create our own defense system. The treaty will eventually come to an end but then we will build up Japan as a formidable defense state. The Chinese and the Americans will really hate that, won’t they. So let’s go for it.”5

Ishihara’s emotionalism actually obscures a necessary debate. More and more Japanese recognize that the postwar Yoshida doctrine and the pacifist constitution have created a skewed relationship with the US. Even though constitutional change has been a right-wing preoccupation, you don’t have to be a hawk to see merit in it. For with a revised constitution, Japan would be able to enter into a more equitable security relationship, which would no longer feel like a coercive legacy of MacArthur’s occupation. It would also be a boost to the democratic system if politicians were to have serious debates on defense issues, instead of just leaving things to Washington.

This appears to be Koizumi’s thinking too. Because he has courted the LDP’s right wing by endorsing a nationalist slant in school textbooks and talking about restoring the emperor as head of state, Koizumi is distrusted by some liberals. But his arguments on the constitution are in fact not unreasonable. He has pointed out the incongruousness of keeping a constitutional prohibition against maintaining armed forces, while having had Self-Defense Forces since 1954. And why, he asked, should the US have to defend Japan, if Japan has no such obligation toward the US?6

In any event, neither Koizumi nor Ishihara is in a position to change the constitution just yet. The more pressing question is whether Ishihara will be able to become the prime minister of Japan. True to his sensitive antennae for the changing national moods, Ishihara left the LDP in 1995, just as it was plagued with corruption scandals and poor election results. Having spent his entire political career playing factional LDP politics, Ishihara could now present himself as an outsider, a maverick, a man who could say what he thought, unlike all the stuffed shirts he has left behind. Indeed, he could do so more convincingly than Koizumi, for he had long cultivated a bad-boy image. Interviews in glossy magazines, in which he held forth about the war or article nine, would be illustrated with photographs of Ishihara drinking champagne in a tuxedo, or leaning on a Japanese sword, surrounded by half- naked bimbos.

Like Berlusconi, the cruise ship entertainer who made good, Ishihara is a shrewd political manipulator of his own legend. Urbane, successful, perhaps a little dangerous, he is much more attractive to citified Japanese than the provincial bumpkins normally thrown up by the LDP. Many people admire him, and would like him to be their next prime minister. But first he would have to regain a seat in the Diet, which would not be hard. Several Diet members in opposition, themselves defectors from the LDP, have indicated that they would welcome his leadership. There is talk of a new Ishihara Party. There is even a Citizens’ Federation to Make Shintaro Ishihara Prime Minister, set up by Torao Tokuda, a Diet member, leader of a group called the Liberal Alliance, and an old Ishihara crony. Ishihara, meanwhile, does the rounds of television talk shows, and bookstores all over Japan are filled with books that bear his name, books on politics, on Japan–US relations, on literature, on Japanese culture, on child-rearing—on anything, really, that happens to pop up in the great man’s many interviews and can be instantly slapped between hard or soft covers.

Is Shintaro Ishihara dangerous? It is certainly irritating for Japanese liberals that the man most likely to break the LDP state should be a right-wing nationalist. A young politician in the opposition Social Democratic Party, Kiyomi Tsujimoto, warned in a newspaper interview that the popular demand for a strong leader could lead to fascism. She argues that direct prime ministerial elections, without closer scrutiny of candidates’ backing and intentions, and other checks and balances, would “result in a dictator being elected to lead the nation.” She worries that Japan today is like pre–World War II Japan, when the economy was down and public trust in parliamentary politics was low.7

Possibly. But there are reasons to be more sanguine. Strongmen, let alone dictators, have never been a feature of modern Japanese politics. Politicians who stick out too much, or want too much power for themselves, attract the jealousy of rivals and their backers. That is why LDP factions made sure every boss had his turn at the top. Even during the war, General Tojo, the closest thing to a Japanese strongman, was brought down in the end. Also, despite his tough talk, it is doubtful whether Ishihara could impose his will on the Japanese bureaucracy much more effectively than other politicians have before him. The ministries have the manpower, the information, the institutional memories, and the expertise that have enabled them to run Japan for the past hundred years or more, and they will not let go of their privileges easily. As far as relations with the US are concerned, Ishihara can bark all he wants on television or in newspaper columns, but the idea of Japan going it alone is unlikely to survive his actually coming to power, with or without a change in the pacifist constitution.

Of course, Ishihara may not run as an outsider at all, but may rejoin the LDP at an opportune moment to make common cause with Koizumi and other younger Turks, in which case we would hear a lot about rejuvenation without seeing much of a change. But if, like Berlusconi, he does start an alternative conservative party, and breaks the monopoly of the LDP, and if that breakthrough were to result in a more representative electoral system, he would have done Japan a good turn. We might get a great deal of hot air about the superiority of Japanese culture, the justice of Japan’s war, the racist arrogance of the US, the need for a strong Japanese defense state, and so on, but if the end result is a more open, more democratic Japan, that might just, but only just, be worth putting up with.

June 20, 2001

This Issue

July 19, 2001