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Monday, Nov. 28, 2005


Ishihara fails to measure up to his image

NEW YORK -- Earlier this month Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara gave a speech in New York City, and I went to hear him. That's one thing you do in this city: go hear or see some of the more famous visitors from your home country.

Over the decades I saw kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando dance in his asexual splendor. I heard former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata give a resounding speech. I watched film director Akira Kurosawa speak briefly in his tall, though not imperious, dignity. Once I even found myself in a crowd gathered for Sony Chairman Akio Morita.

With Ishihara, though, it was not just fame that made me go. Beyond his vaunted display of nationalism, I have carried a large dose of curiosity about the man since I was young.

Half a century ago, Ishihara suddenly became a celebrity and affected me as no movie stars, singers or sumo wrestlers ever did. Still a university student, in 1955 he published a story called "Taiyo no Kisetsu" (The Season of the Sun) in a monthly, which won the Akutagawa Prize. Turned into a book, it sold 300,000 copies. Turned into a film, it became the rage. The author, along with his brother Yujiro, appeared in it -- in bit parts but apparently as members of the gang he described. The craze spawned three fad words: "sun tribe," "Shintaro cut" and "dry."

I did not read the story or see the movie, but I absorbed its Zeitgeist, to use an ancient term, and was envious. Ishihara's world was clearly beyond my reach: inhabited by sullen youth loitering on a sun-bathed resort beach (the sun tribe) flaunting a rich kid's crew cut with substantial hair left toward the top (the Shintaro cut), casually, indifferently, indulging in violence and sex (which was what "dry" meant in Japan).

In retrospect, it was a somewhat delayed reflection of James Dean's world. Yujiro, with his "grungy look" (in today's parlance), went on to become a popular movie star, reinforcing the "sun tribe" image for a while.

In 1968, the year I arrived in New York, Ishihara was elected to the upper house of the Diet by winning an unprecedented 3 million votes. Later he served as director general of the environment agency and minister of transport. He also led "an expedition" to Loch Ness to find out whether Nessie really existed. These things I learned years later. Then, at the height of the Japanese bubble, he won instant notoriety in this country with "The Japan That Can Say No," his book with Morita.

More recently, looking into Yukio Mishima's biography, I learned Ishihara's sudden advent forced the older (but still young) writer to change course. Mishima's latest work then, "The Sound of the Wave," had turned out to be another success, but the world Ishihara depicted sharply differed from that of the innocent romance based on the Greek tale of Daphnis and Chloe. Mishima was quick to recognize this. In February 1956, when he sat down with Ishihara for one of those perennially favored forms of discourse in Japan known as taidan, he started out by saying he was ready to hand over to him the role of "regimental flag-bearer," which he'd been playing among Japan's writers since the early postwar years.

Not that Mishima admired Ishihara as a stylist. The meticulous writer judged Ishihara's to be "a prose common to literary-minded college students, a prose that was exactly the opposite" of what its subject matter required: athleticism, violence, sex. Mishima's assessment was not amiss. It is said that Ishihara's publishers maintained a team of "Ishihara-deciphering" editors. I read "The Season of the Sun" only recently and haven't read anything else, but the famous story is certainly turgid in places.

Ishihara's speech at the Foreign Policy Association on Nov. 7 was an embarrassment. He started out by saying he must be "the first and last Japanese writer" whose book sold half a million copies in the United States. The book, of course, is "The Japan That Can Say No." Yet Ishihara did not connect his boast to what was to be the main part of his talk: In the face of the growing Chinese threat, Japan needs to strengthen its military alliance with the United States, and that calls for a greater U.S. military presence in the western Pacific. His book with Morita was subtitled "Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals."

I remembered what Joseph Nye had said at another FPA session a few years earlier. Discussing the undesirability of the U.S. going it alone, the Harvard professor asked: Who will remember today that just a decade ago there was talk of Japan taking over the world? The audience tittered.

Ishihara was discursive, anecdotal and, despite his boast in the handout that he is "a rare strategic thinker" among Japanese politicians, unstrategic. Japan need not rely on the Chinese market, he argued. It can always develop natural resources in Siberia and turn to India as an alternative market. Well, who said Siberia is part of Japan? Is India as an optional market a given?

Ishihara was unthinking. China is the only country in the world that hasn't experienced civil society in the past thousand years, he said. It doesn't mind killing millions of people, including its own, and will think nothing of annihilating the U.S. base in Okinawa with a nuclear bomb. The first assertion is flat wrong, and the second out of place, though wiping out an entire enemy military base is not a Chinese monopoly but every strategist's dream.

Ishihara was thoughtless. He ominously predicted the Americans would be shaken if a U.S. aircraft carrier with a 5,400-man crew were surrounded by Chinese submarines and sunk. He then nonchalantly admitted he didn't know how many American soldiers were killed in Iraq, whether the number was 1,000 or 2,000.

A young Japanese friend who went to the talk with me observed afterward that Ishihara is known for being "weak on final details" (tsume ga amai) or lacking intellectual rigor. Little wonder that Mishima is said to have despised him though he engaged in several more taidan with him.

The only relief that day was the audience. It mostly consisted of my compatriots, a large portion of it the Japanese mass media.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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