Shintaro Ishihara, Outspoken Nationalist Governor of Tokyo, Dies at 89

Shintaro Ishihara, a Japanese author turned firebrand nationalist politician who served as the governor of Tokyo and famously stoked diplomatic tensions with China over disputed islands, died on Tuesday in Tokyo. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his sons, who told reporters in Tokyo that Mr. Ishihara had suffered a relapse of pancreatic cancer in October. “He led an era,” said one of his sons, Yoshizumi Ishihara.

A contentious figure in the otherwise wan world of Japanese politics, Mr. Ishihara was governor of Tokyo for 13 years beginning in 1999, carrying out a staunch right-wing campaign that he believed would reinvigorate the nation and free it from servility to the United States.

He called for the development of nuclear arms in a nation still traumatized by the bombings of World War II, and for the abolition of constitutional provisions imposed by the United States that prohibit Japan from waging war.

His outspoken conservative views at times led to remarks that were criticized as discriminatory toward women or foreigners. And his intense nationalism helped pull Japan into a diplomatic tangle with China in 2012, when he raised millions of dollars as governor of Tokyo to buy a chain of privately owned islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese.

Mr. Ishihara at a military parade in 2003, when he was governor of Tokyo.Credit…Kazuhiro Nogi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Though Japan’s central government ultimately bought the islands from their Japanese owner as a way to defuse the situation, Mr. Ishihara’s move helped spur protests in dozens of cities in China, which also claims the islands.

Mr. Ishihara’s commitment to his causes was such, he said, that at age 80 he left his position as governor to start a populist party and contend for the country’s leadership in 2012.

“I cannot allow myself to die until my Japan, which has been made a fool of by China, and seduced as a mistress by the United States, is able to stand up again as a stronger, more beautiful nation,” he said at the time.

The elder of two brothers, Mr. Ishihara was born in the Japanese port city of Kobe in 1932 and brought up in the prefectures of Hokkaido, in the far north, and Kanagawa, south of Tokyo, where his father, Kiyoshi, worked for a maritime shipping company. His mother, Mitsuko, who had painted in her youth, was a homemaker.

While studying law at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, Mr. Ishihara published his first novel, “Season of Violence,” for which he was awarded one of Japan’s most prestigious literary honors, the Akutagawa Prize, in 1955. The book won him notoriety for its depiction of disillusioned young people in postwar Japan, a theme he returned to in later writings.

A Japanese maritime self-defense force plane flying over the disputed islands known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in the East China Sea in 2011.Credit…Japan Pool, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A film adaptation of the novel featured his brother, Yujiro Ishihara, who found fame as an actor in the 1960s and 1970s. Though the elder Mr. Ishihara wrote other screenplays, he gained attention outside Japan for his political writing. His 1989 book, “The Japan That Can Say No,” urged the country to stand up to the United States, arguing that Japan was superior in its technology and national character and that Americans held racist views of Japanese people.

His decades-long career in politics began in 1968 as a lawmaker in Japan’s Parliament for the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. But much of his political legacy came later, after he was elected governor of Tokyo in 1999.

In his four terms, he brought in restrictions on diesel vehicles to cut pollution and carbon emissions, successfully lobbied for Tokyo to host the Summer Olympics in 2020 (delayed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic), and set up a city government bank, ShinGinko Tokyo, to lend money to small businesses, which later merged with other private banks.

But his gaffes and outspoken remarks at times overshadowed his accomplishments.

After an earthquake and tsunami killed about 20,000 people in March 2011, Mr. Ishihara said that “the disaster was a divine punishment to Japanese people’s egoism,” remarks he later renounced in an unusual apology. In a 2001 interview, he called it “a waste that women live even after they lose their reproductive ability,” a comment for which a group of women demanded a retraction and compensation. And he was criticized for using derogatory words popularized in Japan after World War II to refer to immigrants and foreigners.

Mr. Ishihara, left, during a campaign speech as the leader of the Japan Restoration Party in Osaka in 2012.Credit…Toru Yamanaka/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He embarked on another political pivot in 2012, heading a newly established populist party that analysts said was a signal of the nation’s desire for strong leadership after years of political indecision and financial torpor. The party later merged with another independent party, the Japan Restoration Party, and won seats in Parliament, but it ultimately dissolved over disagreements in 2014.

“I was fortunate as a politician and an author that I was able to stand at the historical crossroads several times,” Mr. Ishihara said in 2014 as he announced his retirement from politics. “Until I die, I want to say what I want to say and do what I want to do, and I want to die hated by people.”

In his later years, he spent an hour a day at his desk writing, completing his final novel in December, his sons said on Tuesday. He had continued to write daily even until last week, they said.

Mr. Ishihara is survived by his wife, Noriko Ishihara, and his four sons: Nobuteru, Yoshizumi, Hirotaka and Nobuhiro.

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