Ishihara & Me

byMonty DiPietro

It was a mid-May Sunday afternoon that found me in a Shinjuku conference room for a meeting of the United Front Japan, a foreign residents' support group. I was there to help the organization formulate a media strategy for dealing with Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo.

My motives were personal. I had hardly ever thought about politics in Japan until a month earlier, when I was jumped and beaten unconsciousness by a band of thrill-seeking bosozoku bikers. The attack occurred a day after Ishihara had shocked the international community with remarks made while addressing the Japanese army. "In the event of a natural disaster," Ishihara told the troops, "foreigners can be expected to riot." The statement flew in the face of history, as the last time Tokyo experienced a major earthquake, in 1923, it was the Japanese who ran amuck, killing several thousand of the stricken city's Korean residents.

Ishihara's insensitivity was further emphasized by his use of the old derogatory term "sangokujin" in reference to Tokyo's minorities. Although I had no proof that my attackers were motivated by or even aware of Ishihara's remarks, I had no doubt that the governor's vitriol signaled a step away from tolerance. While nursing my cracked ribs and seeking someone to blame for the pain, Ishihara offered himself up. So I put him in my sights.

But the UFJ meeting didn't look like the place from which to launch an effective counterstrike. There were but five other people in attendance, and I would later learn that three of them, punch perm fellows in oversized suits, were mobsters sent to monitor the group's activities.

A couple of weeks later, I attended a demonstration outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters. This time, about thirty people turned out to hold placards and distribute tracts to uninterested passers-by. Once again, I felt a futility in the situation. For me to get a message to Ishihara, I realized I needed to meet the man on my own turf.

I got my chance in July, when a collection of ink on paper drawings Ishihara made while a teen was exhibited at the Hillside Forum, an art space in Tokyo's swank Daikanyama district. I called the gallery to tell them I would be attending the opening party and writing a review of the show for a local newspaper.

"Sorry, but the opening is closed" was the first response I got from organizers. Because other Tokyo galleries make efforts to get critics to attend openings, this was strange. I called again, and was asked a litany of questions I'd never heard before. "Is this because I'm a foreigner?" I finally inquired. Several days later, show organizers sent me an invitation, noting that a Japanese staff member had vouched for "my good name."

I went over my options. With a host of VIPs and press in attendance, I could step up and ask Ishihara if he still believed the Nanking massacre was "a story made up by the Chinese," as he was quoted as saying in a 1990 Playboy Magazine interview. Or if he had evidence to back up his belief in an international Jewish conspiracy. I also considered presenting Ishihara with a sarcastic "award" of some sort on behalf of the international art community, maybe with a reference to another failed-artist-turned-politician who rode a populist platform to power in Germany while Ishihara was just a child. Everyone I know strongly advised me against doing anything confrontational at the opening, and I asked why. "Because it would be very dangerous for you," I was told.

As it happened, a typhoon struck Tokyo the evening of Ishihara's opening. Trains were delayed, taxis unavailable. He left early, I arrived late. So I didn't get to meet the guy, and maybe that was for the best. I did have a look at the drawings, which, actually, were not all bad, very influenced by Dada. I said as much in my review, but also took a shot at Ishihara's wish that the show would provide inspiration for the Japanese youth of today. I questioned whether, in light of his numerous racist comments, Ishihara was the sort of person Japan wanted inspiring a new generation. The newspaper killed my piece, the first time that happened in the five years I had been writing for them.

I lost interest in Ishihara about the time he used Japan's annual early-September disaster-preparedness drills to make more remarks to the army about the foreign threat. I don't know whether I gave up or simply decided to move on. In either case, it had become sadly evident to me that the overwhelming majority of Tokyoites were willing to live with Ishihara.

Which brought to mind a quote from French artist Jean Dubuffet, whom Ishihara might admire: "Nothing is more immobilizing than the spirit of deference."

Shintaro Ishihara is still Governer of Tokyo. For an inventory of Ishihara's racism, go to this piece in the Japan Traveler
The Korean-Japanese students' group Tokyo Alien Eyes have launched a petition campaign to remove Ishihara from office. And go here for information from Issho Kikaku on their Benchi Project.

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