The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Tokyo’s Grandpa Ishihara Throws a Party

Shintaro Ishiara, the controversial 80-year-old governor of Tokyo, resigned last Thursday to start his own political party in a bid to challenge the gridlocked Japanese establishment. Shintaro, a prize-winning author who was befriended by Yukio Mishima in days long gone by, is the outspoken nationalist who was behind the fundraising scheme to buy the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. His proposal prompted the Japanese government to buy the islands before the governor could get his hands on them.

Shintaro has uttered a range of controversial comments throughout his long career, from calling the recent tsunami “divine punishment” to denying the Rape of Nanking, calling the Chinese insane, making anti-American statements, and saying homosexuals are “missing something.” But it’s precisely this flamboyant personality that makes him popular in a country where many politicians are faceless bureaucrats, and where people increasingly feel threatened by their huge and fast-growing neighbor to the west. The New York Times has more:

“I’m 80 years old, and I ask myself: Why does it have to be me? Why can’t the young get their act together?” Mr. Ishihara said. “But if Japan keeps going like this, it will sink into a pit and die.”

Mr. Ishihara wasted no time on Thursday in hurling insults at China and South Korea, referring to them with the names that Japan used during its colonization of much of East Asia in the early 20th century. He said Japan should do more to develop its natural resources so it can “stop bowing to the will of” its giant neighbor.

With the Japanese government gridlocked and soon to run out of money, Prime Minister Noda is under pressure to call for elections. Ishihara is seeking to capitalize on this, and is looking to combine forces with another flamboyant governor, Toru Hashimoto, whose party has been compared to the U.S. Tea Party in its calls for limited government.

What the two governors have in common is strong nationalism and a desire for radical change, including changing the constitution to allow Japan to have an independent military that can engage in war, which is sure to rankle major trading partners China and South Korea at a moment when tensions are already high. Japan’s broken political system certainly needs change, but a package of change that includes a return to unbridled nationalism is unlikely to quiet the hood.

But if some of Ishihara’s ideas are, well, appalling, he is right that Japan’s current course isn’t sustainable. Demographic decline, exploding debt, passivity in the face of a changing geopolitical environment—business as usual is a kind of national suicide for a country and a culture that still has plenty to offer the world.

Published on November 1, 2012 12:56 pm