I woke up to the new this morning (1 February 2022) that Shintaro Ishihara had died. Ishihara is probably best known as being a member of the LDP, Governor of Tokyo (1999 to 2012), and author of the book “The Japan That Can Say ‘No'”. He had also been a novelist before going into politics (with his brother appearing the movie adaptations). Along with Yasuhiro Nakasone, he was one of the politicians that I have interviewed in relation to my research.
Before I started working at Cardiff University in 2000, I had become an Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) – a role that I continued for 10 years, running the monthly Japan Discussion Group and also handing a wide range of media enquiries on stories related to Japan. My role at Chatham House came out of the blue. I was unhappy in my job and got back from a trip to Japan to find that someone at Chatham House wanted me to give a paper there in relation to the election of Ishihara as Governor of Tokyo and whether this was a sign of rising nationalism in Japan. I was told that if the paper went well, they may want to do a published version, and have me join as an Associate Fellow. I was amazed – after all, I had only got my PhD the previous year. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the paper went well and I took up the role of Associate Fellow – quitting my other job and moving to London, although the Associate Fellow position actually offered no salary. There is no doubt that all of this had a huge positive impact on my academic career and I owe a lot to David Wall who headed the Asia Programme at Chatham House at the time, and Christopher Everett, who was head of the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and had recommended me to David.
Anyway, as I said, the presentation went well and it was indeed updated to a Briefing Paper for Chatham House (‘’The Election of Ishihara: A Symbol of Rising Nationalism in Japan?’, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Briefing Paper, New Series No. 7, November, 1999) and I also did versions for presentations at the Postgraduate Network in East Asian Studies at Sheffield University, the Japan Politics Group Colloquium, and a British Association for Japanese Studies (BAJS) Conference.
While based in London, I worked on converting my PhD to my first monograph, Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone’s Legacy. As part of this I got funding to go to Japan to do additional fieldwork to update some of the text. As well as arranging to see Nakasone again, I thought that, since a key theme in the book was nationalism/internationalism, I would try to see if I could set up an interview with Ishihara. It was agreed very quickly as it turned out that Ishihara was aware of my Chatham House briefing paper and was happy that it wasn’t as negative towards him (this is not to say that I supported his views, I just provided the context and pointed out that he was not elected on the basis of his nationalistic views) as most non-Japanese commentators.
So it was that I went to the Metropolitan Government Building and interviewed Ishihara in the very grand office for the Governor. It wasn’t one-to-one as such as the Tokyo Government provided an interpreter and there were about five of Ishihara’s staff also there, listening.
I had been told that I could only ask three questions – despite the fact that 90 minutes was allocated for the interview. I cannot remember now if I had to send these in advance, but I suspect that I did. I do remember that they were very long questions in an attempt to cover the wide range of topics that I wanted to cover.
It was a very enjoyable interview and a number of things still stick in my mind – stories which I have told many times over the years, but now feel that I can put down in print.
First, as noted, an interpreter was provided despite the fact that I said that I was happy to do the interview in Japanese. In reality, it was great to have the interpreter as it allowed me to fully concentrate on the contents of what was being said rather than worry about missing any linguistic details. Also, it was great to chat to the interpreter after the interview as we left the building to get her impression of the interview. I will never forget how she was shaking and commenting on how open Ishihara was, and what an interesting interview it was. I think some of her words were “I cannot believe some of the things he said”.
As usual (particularly in those days), I was staying with my “host family” in Tokyo, Mr and Mrs Gotoh. Back at their house, they asked why the interview wasn’t in English as Ishihara was known to speak English. My answer was simply that as a politician, Ishihara had to be careful with what he said (though you may not have always have thought so) and if he made a mistake in English, he may not realise it and I’d still be able to quote him on it, whereas if he made a mistake in Japanese, he’d probably realise and correct himself. As it turned out, Ishihara did use a bit of English in the interview. And he made a mistake. Sadly for me, he realised the error and corrected himself straight away. At one point he said “I believe that Japan will take over America”. Gold dust. I could sell this story to the media. But he soon corrected to “I believe will over take America”. Damn, I was still going to be a poor non-salaried academic-wannabe.
Ishihara answered all of my three questions. I then asked if I could ask additional as only 30 minutes or so had passed. He was happy to do so. During the interview, some of the additional staff were coughing. I’m sure that this was nothing health-related was more a signal to tell Ishihara to stop talking in such a way.
Among the things we discussed that I remember now (and may not be in my book) were that Ishihara commented on how dull and boring he found the Japanese national anthem as he listened to it (I think the previous night) when it was played at a national football match. This was not something I was ever expecting him to say. I also remember us discussing his desire for Yokota Air Base to be returned from the US Air Force to Japan so it could be used as an additional airport (this discussion was long before I would go on to do research about the JL123 crash – JL123 had been offered the use of Yokota by the USAF). Ishihara was very against the US having military bases in Tokyo and Japan more widely and asked if I could imagine the US ever having such bases in the UK. I think I reacted as diplomatically as I could to his ignorance about there being such bases still in the UK.
Despite some of his comments (such as referring to China as “Shina” a couple of times), I never got the impression that he (as with Nakasone) was as dangerous a nationalist as many suggested. Perhaps my judgement was clouded by the fact that I had more of sympathetic view to aspects of national pride than I went on to have, but I found his (and Nakasone’s) views quite refreshing once you got to talk in more depth. In reality the interview with Ishihara was more interesting compared to the ones I had with Nakasone since I already knew so much more about Nakasone’s views due to how much of his writings I had read.
Having completed all of my additional questions, and with there still being some time remaining, Ishihara then proceeded to interview me! This discussion including me explaining how I was looking for a full-time academic job, to which Ishihara said that he would be delighted to provide me with a reference letter. I thanked him for this, but never took him on the offer since I was not convinced that any university (where non-nationalist views tend to dominate) would welcome anyone with someone like Ishihara as one of their referees!