Tokyo dynamo may rock Japan

Yesterday's election of a top nationalist as Tokyo governor might not

Tokyo voters are tired of the "yes" men in Japanese government. They made that clear Sunday by electing a man famous for saying "no" as the next governor of Tokyo.

Shintaro Ishihara, who co-wrote the 1989 anti-American treatise "The Japan That Can Say No," made the election an affair of international interest by calling for the US to relinquish one of its major military bases near Tokyo.

That demand, along with Mr. Ishihara's reputation as a nationalist, might suggest that his victory is a reflection of growing Japanese assertiveness. Indeed, the perception of rising nationalism may cause problems for Japan's leaders, but analysts and ordinary Tokyoites say Ishihara's victory is mainly a vote against politics-as-usual.

"Voters aren't really looking at Ishihara's policies," says Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst who points to more pressing issues like Japan's long recession and record unemployment. "They're leaning toward Ishihara because they want someone outspoken, a man with leadership. They want the complete opposite of the [ruling] Liberal Democratic Party [LDP]."

'He's outspoken, he's cool'

Ishihara, who quit the LDP in disgust four years ago and ran as an independent, received at least 25 percent of the vote, enough to ensure his victory in a crowded field. Despite day-long rain that stripped blossoms from the cherry trees, almost 58 percent of Tokyo's voters came out to choose from 19 candidates.

"People found no value in the existing parties and that's why they voted for me," Ishihara said in declaring victory, which must have tasted sweet.

Ishihara lost his first bid for the Tokyo governor's job in 1975, when the incumbent made Ishihara's hawkish views a campaign issue.

Takayuki Mochizuki, a young company employee in soaked blue jeans, pedaled his bike through the downpour to vote. "I wouldn't have come if Ishihara hadn't been running," he said. "He's outspoken. He's cool. I voted for his leadership."

Ishihara, a handsome man who campaigned with a bevy of celebrity supporters, entered the race late and immediately led the polls. "Younger voters like his decisiveness, older voters feel nostalgic about him," explains Takashi Mikuriya, politics professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University.

Ishihara burst onto the Japanese scene as a university student in the mid-1950s when he won a prestigious literary prize. Since then, fame has become an Ishihara family franchise. His late brother was a major film star, one of his sons is an actor, and another is a legislator - all of which helped his campaign.

Ishihara himself entered national politics in 1969 as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party. He quit in 1995 with a speech eviscerating his fellow legislators for their lack of vision.

Stressing self-reliance

His own vision for Japan stresses independence and self-determination, and the country's dependence on the US for security rubs him the wrong way. "We do not need the US-Japan security treaty," he said at a recent luncheon with foreign reporters. "Japan has technology and capability to build up a very strong military - exclusively for defense."

But even as governor, there is little Ishihara could do to force the US to leave or share part of the Yokota Air Base in suburban Tokyo. The country's security is the business of the national government, and local politicians have no say in defense policy.

Still, Ishihara may try to emulate Masahide Ota, the former governor of Okinawa, the southern prefecture where nearly two-thirds of the US forces in Japan are stationed. Mr. Ota made the bases a major political issue and used public opinion to force the national government and the US to make changes.

But analysts don't think that approach would work in Tokyo, which has a smaller and less obtrusive troop presence. They add that while the antibase rhetoric is good for getting headlines during a campaign, Ishihara is too much of a political realist to pursue the issue.

Tokyo residents face a slew of local issues that have much more bearing on their lives than a military airport on the edge of town. The city government is overloaded with debt, the pension system is shaky, and youth drug use and truancy are rising.

And with neighbors like the North Koreans - who launched a missile over Japan last summer and allegedly sent spy ships into its waters last month - Tokyoites might like the idea of a strong US security presence these days.

"Ishihara is quite flexible as a politician," notes Terumasa Nakanishi, an international relations professor at Kyoto University. "He's only a troublemaker in his books," which include "The Asia That Can Say No: The Card to Play Against the West," and "Declaration of War: The Japanese Economy That Can Say No."

Image problem abroad?

But the image Ishihara presents in those books may be enough to create problems for the national government. His victory comes at a time when Japan seems increasingly interested in playing a larger security role in the region.

Like most analysts, Morita stresses that Tokyo voters are not ideologically driven, but that China and the US might interpret their vote for Ishihara as a vote for nationalism. Ishihara has irritated Chinese sensibilities by calling the People's Republic of China "Shina," a word used during Japan's occupation.

"Those countries may say Japan has become anti-US or anti-China, that Japanese people have changed," says Morita. "This would frustrate Japanese people and may cause a confrontation. It will definitely raise tensions between the US and Japan and Japan and China."

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