Ishihara Defends Purchase of Senkaku Islands

Today, I attended a press conference with the controversial Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. He is infamous for his blunt, very non-PC way of speaking and highly conservative views. He seems to enjoy this reputation quite a bit, as he laughingly commented when a gaggle of photographers began snapping away at the initial photo opportunity, “I’m so notorious!” Indeed.

The bulk of his talk was given over to a discussion of his planned purchase of the three of the Senkaku Islands by the Tokyo Metropolitan government and castigating the Japanese Foreign Ministry for failing to stand up for the Japanese national interest.

The Senkaku Islands, or Daioyu in Chinese, were a part of China from the mid 14th century. They were annexed by Japan in the first Sino-Japanese war, given over to US administration after World War II, and returned to Japanese control in 1972 as part of the Okinawan Islands. Ownership of the islands has been disputed by both the Chinese and Taiwanese since the early 70s, not doubt partially because of discoveries of natural gas reserves in the area, as well as fishing rights.

Currently, the national government rents the islands from their private owners, and although they are nominally a part of Ishigaki City, the government has prevented the city from developing or otherwise using the islands because of their sensitive nature.

Wikipedia actually has a pretty good breakdown of the issue from both sides, and I think reasonable people could disagree about which country has the best claim to the islands, which is why none of the national governments involved particularly want to press for a resolution of the dispute, in my opinion.

Ishihara, however, clearly believes that the islands undeniably belong to Japan, and expressed disdain for anyone who thought differently. He repeatedly railed against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying they were derelict in their duties and that there weren’t any officials there who really cared about Japan and its prestige on the world stage anymore.

His distaste for the dirty workings of diplomacy was more than obvious. He cited a few cases where we felt the ministry had been ineffectual or acted against national interest, including the incident two years ago when a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels in disputed waters near the islands. The captain and crew were subsequently released to China without being prosecuted.

Certainly, one could argue that the face lost there was a failure of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but what was the alternative? To refuse to back down in all cases, driving your two countries (and the US) to war over a minor incident perpetrated by private citizens in which no one died? An outbreak of hostilities over something so trivial wouldn’t be the stupidest thing to ever happen in international relations, but it certainly wouldn’t be a diplomatic success.

The problem with Ishihara is basically that he is so convinced of his own rightness that he can neither bend nor allow for the reasonableness of the opposite position. At the same time, he has the prickly pride of the Japanese right-wing towards any slight. I shudder to think what he would get up to on the national level, considering the damage he can do to foreign relations as a governor, particularly when he commented that the government should be more like the military, with the people at the top making decisions and the people at the bottom following. Yikes.

The odd thing is that he actually comes across as a rather likeable guy. Being opposed to many of his policies, being polar opposites in political orientation, and knowing some of the atrocious, regressive things he has said in the past about women, foreigners and gays, I was prepared to despise him. But I think he honestly spoke his mind without a trace of the rabid fanaticism or calculated political populism I expected, and he seemed a bit surprised that anyone would find his ideas so controversial. If he wasn’t in a position of power, I would probably call him a lovable old crank. I can see why so many voters in Tokyo find him appealing, at least. Kind of like Sarah Palin in the US, but smarter, of course, much smarter.

Incidentally, much like Palin and her “real Americans”, Ishihara called the citizens of Tokyo (or at least those opposed to hosting the Olympics) “spoiled” and said they were “almost a different species from the rest of the Japanese”. And yet he gets reelected…

In any event, it was an interesting talk and I’m glad I had the opportunity to go. I can’t say it changed my mind on his policies, but it did humanize him a bit in my eyes. Though I’ll be the first to admit that as I’m a foreign woman, Ishihara probably doesn’t give a damn about my opinion.

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