In an unexpected move, the nationalist governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara resigned on Thursday and announced that he will form a national political party to compete in the lower house elections that are expected to take place early next year. The wily eighty-year old politician, running with a populist message, could emerge as an important power broker and force a new political realignment in Japan.
During his news conference, Ishihara repeated his call for revising Japan’s pacifist constitution which he views as unacceptable because it was written while Japan was occupied by the United States after World War II. He also said that he wants to reform Japan’s bureaucracy “that has continued since the Meiji era” and reinstitute military conscription in order to toughen up the youth. This in addition to his controversial views on Japan’s island disputes with China and South Korea.
The two major parties, the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party, are not expected to have outright majorities after the upcoming elections and will need the support of smaller parties to form a government. Ishihara’s party could garner enough support to put it in a position to play a role in determining who assumes power in Japan’s closely contested elections. As such, Ishihara will have leverage and an opportunity to shape national policy.
Ishihara’s influence on national politics could well have profound ramifications on Japanese foreign policy and signal a shift to a more hardline stance in its relations with China and to a lesser extent South Korea. But it would also raise eyebrows with the country’s major allies in the United States.
A change to the Japanese constitution that gives the Japanese Self Defense Forces more authority to take offensive actions if necessary would undoubtedly cause concern among its neighbors who still with dread recall the Japanese occupation across Asia during the 1930s and 1940s. The United States have supported Japan taking a more proactive role in its security but would most likely oppose the army adopting a more aggressive posture in the region over fear that it will upset relations with China.
The former Tokyo governor is no stranger to controversy. His announcement last spring to purchase the Senkaku Islands from their Japanese owner in order to safeguard them and build a fishing harbor caused outrage in China. China also lays claim to the islands where they are known as the Diaoyu Islands. The Japanese government stepped in and nationalized the islands with the belief that it would be less likely to antagonize the Chinese than Ishihara’s planned purchase.
Anti-Japanese demonstrations sprang up in dozens of Chinese cities nevertheless, resulting in Japanese businesses curtailing operations and even closing their doors. Chinese surveillance ships have in turn been said to be routinely violating what Japan considers its territorial waters off the Senkakus.
Regarding South Korea, after President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit by a sitting president to the uninhabitable Takeshima Islands in August (known as the Dokdo Islands to Koreans), Japan-Korean relations have been strained.
In his announcement, Ishihara said that he would “like to offer my last service to this country.” He has been in politics for 44 years, having won a seat in the upper house in 1968 at age of 35 for the Liberal Democrats and then served in the lower house in 1972 before becoming head of the Environment Agency and transport minister. He has been Tokyo governor since 1999 as an independent.
The success of Ishihara’s new party and its populist message will be an important barometer of the direction that Japan’s government takes. The environment is ripe for a leadership change in the country as it is occurring under the backdrop of a weak economy and increasingly difficult foreign relations.