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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Tokyo's Controversial Governor

In the BBC today, Tokyo's Governor Shintaro Ishihara has got himself into hot water for insulting the French language:

A group of French speakers in Japan are suing the governor of Tokyo after he described French as a failed language.

The 21 teachers and researchers are demanding compensation and an apology for the "insulting remarks" from Governor Shintaro Ishihara.

"I have to say that it should be no surprise that French is disqualified as an international language because French is a language which cannot count numbers," he said.

This is in reference to the French system of counting, which can seem quite strange for non-native speakers (for instance, 93 is quatre-vingt treize or four-twenty thirteen, as opposed to the straight-forward ninety-three that we use in English). I have no idea how the Japanese count, though.

This is not the first time that the ultranationalist has got in trouble, which reminded me of an article about him from last year that I had saved:

Ishihara, who gained fame as a bad-boy novelist in the 1950s, has grown more popular with time. First elected Tokyo governor in 1999, he stomped his way to re-election last year with more than 70 percent of the vote.

At the same time, Ishihara is widely vilified here and abroad for his blunt nationalist talk, acerbic criticism of illegal immigrants and unapologetic view of Japan's militarist past.

Outspoken in his prodefense views, he accuses China of threatening Japanese security with its territorial claims against tiny islands held by Japan.

"We should properly rebuild the military," Ishihara said. "We don't need nuclear weapons, and even saying we should discuss that possibility would create misunderstanding. But we should protect our airspace and territorial waters. We can't allow China (to) take what they are trying to take."

Ishihara, who called for greater Japanese independence from the United States in his 1989 book, has campaigned strenuously for returning to Japan's control the Yokota Air Base, now run by the U.S. Air Force. He railed against Japan's willingness to go along with Washington -- alleging the Foreign Ministry was a "branch office" of the State Department.

"Japan is a vassal of the United States," Ishihara said. "Pretty soon it will be a slave."

Riling others in Asia, Ishihara insists that Tokyo need not apologize for its bloody wartime invasions of neighbors and argues that Japan did Asia a favor by delivering it from Western imperialism.

"If Japanese hadn't fought the white people, we would still be slaves of the white people. It would be colonization," he said. "We changed that."

While such blunt talk embarrasses some Japanese, supporters say Ishihara is simply saying out loud what many people believe but hesitate to say.

"Among Japanese leaders, Shintaro Ishihara is a rare politician who has a clear will, talks about it and is convincing," Kazuya Fukuda, a Keio University professor, wrote in the preface to a collection of essays on Ishihara published last year.

Still, Ishihara's popularity in Tokyo is also based on parochial concerns. At his initiative, for example, Tokyo and three neighboring areas won high grades from voters last year by banning older diesel-powered vehicles to reduce the crowded metropolitan area's pervasive air pollution.

Tokyoites -- angry at a massive public bailout to help large banks overcome mountains of bad debt -- also cheered his attempt to slap a new tax on the banks. His move was struck down in the courts, but was later put into the national tax code.

He is also tough on law and order, fanning fears that illegal immigrants are behind a surge in crime and promising to deal swiftly with threats to public security.

Now, Ishihara's government is cracking down on public school teachers who refuse to stand for the rising sun flag and national anthem under the argument that these symbols are associated with wartime militarism.

Such views on immigration and patriotism show the dark side of Ishihara's popularity, said Jin Igarashi, a professor at Hosei University.

"He's used the fears and frustrations of the masses to carry out antidemocratic, nationalist policies and make nationalistic remarks," Igarashi said. "He's a modern-age fascist."

Ishihara brushes off such criticism, declaring: "I'm no fascist."

Japan is one of the most homogenous societies in the world, with less than 1% of its population drawn from foreign sources (and even then they are mostly Chinese and Korean, with only a fraction of a percent of the population being non-East Asian in origin), so such cultural misunderstandings are not surprising. Hell, when I went to Tokyo, I got stared at a certain amount of the time, not necessarily in a malicious way, more out of curiosity than anything else, especially when we wandered off the beaten path.

|| RPH || 4:39 PM || |