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Sunday, Nov. 10, 2002


Ishihara could be spiked with his own barbs

Exactly a year ago in the weekly women's magazine Shukan Josei, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara shot off a few of his patented provocative statements. His remarks about middle-aged women were particularly noteworthy. "Old ladies have proved to be the biggest obstacle to the progress of civilization," he said. "It's pointless for women who've lost the ability to reproduce to continue living."

Given the governor's well-known history of making provocative statements simply for the sake of making them, it's obvious he was having a bit of wicked fun with the magazine's readership. However, given the governor's position as one of the few public figures who is expected to say what he really means, he may also genuinely feel that baba (old ladies) are something of a worthless burden.

A group of women have been trying to extract an apology from the governor for the past year, and, having been unsuccessful, they have taken to the streets. Not by accident, they chose as their launching site the JR station in Sugamo, which is affectionately referred to as "the grannies' Harajuku." Last Monday, they stood outside the station holding aloft two big banners with Ishihara's offensive statement written on it and passed out pink leaflets blasting its blatant sexism.

The group, which goes by the unwieldy moniker "The Association Angered by Gov. Ishihara's 'Baba Statement' Who Demand an Apology," says that it is collecting signatures for a petition and will file a suit with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations accusing Ishihara of violating human rights.

Though one can understand the group's anger and frustration, a legal solution sounds more desperate than logical. Ishihara's barb was irresponsible and dumb, but, as always, he was simply exercising his right to say what he wants. He did not target any particular person or organization by name.

The association's most sensible recourse would be to use Ishihara's statement against him during any future campaign he might launch for public office, whether that be re-election as Tokyo governor or something else. In that regard, they should join forces with others who have taken issue with the governor's indelicate remarks.

Then again, they may think there's no point in that. The governor's willingness to broadcast his extreme views is exactly what makes him the most popular politician in Japan. Even at Sugamo, many of the "old ladies" confronted by the banner and the pamphlets who should have been offended didn't seem bothered at all. In fact, they acted as if they got a kick out of it. In other words, what Ishihara says isn't as important as the fact that he has the guts to say it.

A year-and-a-half ago, when he told an assembly of Self-Defense Forces soldiers that they may be called upon to quell rioting sangokujin in the event of a major earthquake in Tokyo, he was upbraided more thoroughly. Sangokujin is a derogatory term once used for Asians, and the remark reminded many people of the thousands of Koreans who were hunted down and murdered during the chaos that accompanied the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923 simply because they were not Japanese.

Ishihara didn't retract or apologize for that remark, either, and told one journalist, "I did mean what I said," but also that he was somehow misquoted. He often tells reporters and friends that he purposely makes these outlandish statements because he wants to provoke a reaction from the normally complacent Japanese and make them think for themselves. These interlocutors, like the little old ladies who laughed at the baba remarks, buy this excuse. Ishihara means to give the impression that only dolts don't know what he's really trying to say, but he's a notorious dissembler.

Ishihara's defenders also say that personal opinions and public policy are two different things. So Asians don't have to worry about being targeted by the SDF and little old ladies don't have to worry about being rounded up and dumped in the mountains. Nevertheless, some of the policies he does come up with seem to contradict his opinions. Ishihara's current pet project is legalizing casino gambling as a means of producing revenue for Tokyo, ignoring the real possibility that gambling will be exploited by those Asian criminal elements who are the real targets of his xenophobic ire.

Like a kid with a toy gun, Ishihara is more interested in making a big noise than in actually hitting something. But, of course, he always does hit something, and then says that the offended party shouldn't really be offended. This sort of behavior is the opposite of politics, and is normally practiced by somebody who is insulated from the world.

Ishihara has certainly led a privileged existence, first as a botchan (pampered son), then as an award-winning novelist, and now as a politician whose popularity obviates conventional discourse. When his boldness backfires, he can always claim he's misunderstood. But recklessness is recklessness, even when an idea has merit. At a news conference two weeks ago, he said that he would not appeal a court ruling in favor of a group of residents who sued Tokyo because of respiratory illnesses caused by diesel pollution. Ishihara is against diesel-powered vehicles, and he brought a PET bottle filled with black diesel particles to the room and dumped it right there on the floor at the conference. It was, characteristically, a dramatic gesture, but somebody still had to clean it up.

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