Shintaro Ishihara, the 74-year-old governor of Tokyo, is one of the most popular and controversial politicians in Japan. Since the 1950s, when his bestselling novel Taiyo no Kisetsu (Season of the Sun), made him a literary celebrity in his early twenties, he has relished his role as the country’s most outspoken public figure.
As a journalist, member of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan’s Diet (parliament), and now governor, he has delighted the right and infuriated the left with his views on the alleged criminality of immigrants, the iniquities of the Chinese government, and his unapologetic stance on Japan’s wartime history. As well as being a novelist, non-fiction author, and screenwriter, he is a keen sailor and diver. Monocle spoke to him in his offices in Tokyo’s 48-storey City Hall building.
Monocle:Tokyo has changed dramatically over the years. Is it for the better?
**Ishihara:* We have two pictures of Tokyo on the wall in the corridor here: Tokyo today and Tokyo in the late-19th century. Present-day Tokyo looks like vomit [laughs]. Because we didn’t have any proper city-planning, it has turned into a mess. I think old Tokyo, or Edo as it was called then, was beautiful.
M:Do you think the planning situation has improved in the Japanese capital?
I: Right now we are focusing on “greening” the city. We’re turning an area of 1 sq km – about the same size as the Imperial Palace – into a forest. We’re also planning to cover state school grounds with grass. There are around 470,000 trees in the streets of Tokyo. We will increase that to one million.
M:Where is this new forested area?
I: It’s an island of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay: we will turn an island of garbage into an island of trees. I’m also thinking about renovating Tokyo’s rivers. In the Edo era, there were many canals in Tokyo. Eiichi Shibusawa [founder of the First National Bank of Japan] wanted to make Tokyo the Venice of Asia but the bureaucrats were idiots and covered the riverbanks with concrete and made them look artificial with no atmosphere at all. We don’t use the rivers any more. I want to change that. I am also thinking about controlling the colours of neon signs and advertisements, just as André Malraux did in Paris under de Gaulle. If we do, well, left-wingers might oppose it and start talking about freedom of expression, but I will do it anyway.
M:Are green issues your top priority?
I: Of course the environment is important but recently, before the election, we conducted a survey and found that Tokyo residents were more concerned with security. In terms of crime Tokyo is far better than New York, although a certain kind of crime, which we didn’t have before has increased – crimes by Chinese people who have entered illegally or overstayed their visas, for instance.
Measures to counter natural disasters such as earthquakes are also a security issue. As for the environment, we passed a law in Tokyo controlling diesel exhaust. We worked with four neighbouring prefectures and cleaned the air. Unfortunately we don’t have a ring road around Tokyo because the previous, Communist, governor destroyed the project. Otherwise there would be fewer traffic jams and less pollution. Travelling to and from the capital would be made quicker too. I am working on it now; we will have it in 10 years.”
M:Do you think the national government does enough for the environment?
I: Well, I’ve tried to push them but they continue to make excuses and haven’t done anything yet.
M:At the C40 Climate Conference in New York in May, you said that the US should have signed the Kyoto protocol. Do you think the message got through?
I: It was a meeting of mayors from major cities. I told the Mayor of New York that although he was making an effort, his country was not. The US, China and Brazil, all big countries, should participate in the Kyoto Protocol. I wanted this to be included in our joint communiqué but it wasn’t.
M:Why do you think Tokyo attracts fewer tourists than other Asian cities such as Hong Kong or Singapore?
I: We Japanese are bad at promoting ourselves. The president of Michelin came to Tokyo. He wanted to do a restaurant ranking for Asia, and he decided to do it in Tokyo. People outside Japan have no idea how good Japanese food is in Tokyo. Sushi only became popular because Americans introduced it to the world. Japanese people can be too timid. We bow so often. Even TV announcers bow [laughs].
M:Your favourite restaurant in Tokyo?
I: I have many of those. One I didn’t like was a popular restaurant from New York which opened in Roppongi. The food tasted terrible and it was noisy and full of Americans. I would never go back there again. It was awful!
M:What do you think Tokyo’s chances are of hosting the 2016 Olympics?
I: It will be a tough competition. I don’t think Chicago will be a strong contender. Judging by the international situation, it will be between Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro or Tokyo and Madrid. I think the US will spend a lot of money but America is isolated in the world these days.
M:What do you say to people who argue that the Olympics are too commercial and too much of a financial burden?
I: The Games would have a major economic impact. I went to New York and decided to follow their example and held the Tokyo Marathon [in February]. We spent about ¥1.5bn [€8.9m] but generated ¥18bn [€106.7m] in one day. I want to have the Olympics not so much for the economic benefit but for the legacy. Young Japanese people are lethargic – they’re not tough enough. I saw the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. I still have vivid memories of how impressive it was. I want to create that legacy for young people in Japan.
M:You recently wrote the screenplay of “For Those We Love”, a film about Second World War kamikaze pilots. Were you trying to say something to young people in Japan?
I: I wanted them to know that there was a totally different kind of youth then.
M:Is it an anti-war movie?
I: It is not anti-war or pro-war. It describes a very beautiful but tragic youth. Kamikaze attacks were totally different from the fanatical Islamist suicide attacks we see today. I was in Washington DC on 11 September 2001 and saw the Pentagon burning in front of my eyes. Some used the word “kamikaze” to describe this terrorism which offended me because it was totally different. Today’s bombers kill indifferently, even their own people. It is mere fanaticism.
M:Do you think young people in Japan know enough about their own history?
I: Students these days don’t seem to know that Japan fought a war against the US. Some even ask, “Who won?”
M:You are often described in the media as “outspoken” and “controversial”. Would you say you are misrepresented?
I: Well, I was once called a Japanese devil incarnate, by The Washington Post. I am very proud of that! Americans might find me strident but I think they are arrogant.
M:So, you say what you think.
I: Yes, I say what I think. I am not a nationalist in a bad sense. That’s why I promote a sensible change in the country’s immigration policy. I am patriotic, however, and people might get the wrong idea about me.
M:What will happen in the future? Demographically, the Japanese population is ageing and there aren’t enough children. Will Japan have to allow immigration to fill the gap in the workforce?
I: You are absolutely right. The labour force won’t be large enough and there are no wives for the men in rural areas. So I say, let them come in. I have been saying that since I was a national politician. I don’t know why but others opposed this. After all, Japanese roots are in many places in Asia. I don’t think Japan is homogeneous at all. Japan’s monarchy came from the Korean peninsula.
M:Why did you leave national politics?
I: I was frustrated because it takes so long to do anything.
M:Would you go back again in the future?
I: I am an old man!
M:So, you can get to do more as a governor of Tokyo than as a member of the Diet.
I: It might sound like I am making a grand statement but, I’ve been saying “Change Japan from Tokyo” – and that’s what I’ve been doing. Although I’ve done good things in Tokyo, the national government won’t copy them!
M:What is your favourite city in Japan?
I: Kamakura – one of Japan’s three ancient capitals. It has changed very little. It is close to the sea in an area called Shonan – I call it Japan’s Côte d’Azur.
M:What is you favourite city in the world?
I: There’s an overload of information in cities. I prefer the wilderness. I love Alaska. I also like the area around the Vermillion Lakes in the Canadian Rockies, near the place Otto Preminger’s River of No Return was filmed. You can see salmon and bears there.
M:But if you had to pick a big city?
I: I like San Francisco.
I: For Sausalito – a good yachting spot.
M:Where do you sail in Japan?
I: Everywhere. The sea around Japan is very rough, very choppy, dangerous and difficult to sail in. That’s why it’s in the Japanese DNA to stay closed in the country waiting for messages from outside. We have fishermen, of course, but the rest of the Japanese are not ocean people. The Japanese are mountain monkeys.
M:In your distinguished career, what is the achievement you are most proud of?
I: Things I will do tomorrow… I did once write a movie screenplay based on a book of mine called Kurutta Kajistu (Crazed Fruit, 1956). My [younger] brother Yujiro [who died prematurely in 1987] acted in it. Later I made a movie with François Truffaut (L’Amour à Vingt Ans, 1962) who said he had been very influenced by a Japanese movie. I asked which one – it was the movie of my book! There are no national borders in people’s sensibilities. At least that’s how it was in those days.
I: I have many of those.
M:And will there be a fourth term for you as the governor of Tokyo?
I: No, no, no. Enough!
1932 Born in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture. 1956 Awarded the 34th Akutagawa Prize – Japan’s most prestigious literary award – for his novel, Taiyo no Kisetsu (Season of the Sun). He and his brother Yujiro, who starred in the film version, became pop culture icons. Ishihara went on to write a string of screenplays, novels and books of non-fiction, while making his debut as a film director. 1968 Elected to the House of Councillors (upper house of Japan’s Diet parliament). 1972 Elected House of Representatives (lower house). 1976 Appointed minister of state, director-general of Japan’s environment agency. 1987 Appointed minister of transport. 1989 Runs in Liberal Democratic Party presidential election. 1995 Resigns from the Diet. 1999 Elected governor of Tokyo. 2003 Re-elected governor of Tokyo (second term). 2007 Wins third term as governor.