[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Watch out for the Japanese rightJapanese local elections are rarely big news, but last Sunday’s election was an exception. The controversial right-wing Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara was re-elected by a landslide as independent reform-minded candidates swept into office across the country. For Korea, Mr. Ishihara’s victory is important because he looms ever larger on Japan’s national political scene.
Mr. Ishihara won by a landslide, 70 percent of the vote, more than double the 33 percent that he won in his first election victory four years ago. An independent who defected from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the 1990s, Mr. Ishihara won 90 percent of the LDP and 70 percent of the independent vote.
His center-left rival, who was supported by the Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party, won a minuscule 19 percent of the vote. Mr. Ishihara is so popular that the LDP did not risk embarrassment by putting up a candidate against him.
The decline of the center-left, but most particularly the old left, was noticeable across the country. Independents and LDP candidates swept the 10 governorships up for grabs. In the 44 races for prefectural assemblies, the old-left Social Democratic Party and Communist Party suffered the greatest losses. The LDP gained a small number of seats, giving it more than half the total seats outstanding and outright control of 21 of Japan’s 47 prefectural assemblies.
Taken together, these trends show that much of the anti-establishment reform vote has shifted from the old left to the new right as represented by Mr. Ishihara. The LDP, meanwhile, has managed to gain on the weakness of the Democratic Party as a viable mainstream opposition. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi helped save the party from electoral disaster by presenting himself as a safe, new-right, anti-establishment reform leader.
The question for Korea is where this shift will drive Japan. Mr. Ishihara’s sweeping victory in Japan’s most populous and influential prefecture is the equivalent of, say a conservative Grand National Party (GNP) candidate winning a landslide in Seoul, or a left-wing U.S. Democrat winning a landslide in Mississippi. The winner of such a race automatically becomes a factor in national politics, forcing national leaders to take notice of the public mood.
In many ways, Mr. Ishihara is a political combination of Ronald Reagan and Park Chung Hee. Like Mr. Reagan, he believes in competition and accountability and has contempt for entrenched bureaucratic elites. He believes in a “Japan first” foreign policy backed by military strength. Like Park Chung Hee, he has a strong anti-foreign streak and is suspicious of market forces.
As governor, he has promoted educational reform by eliminating school districts and forcing schools to compete for students. He has pushed to move the U.S. Yokota Air Base away from Tokyo and turn Haneda Airport into an international airport. He has imposed restrictions on diesel trucks on Tokyo highways. In his victory speech on Sunday, Mr. Ishihara promised even more radical reforms over the next four years.
None of Mr. Ishihara’s accomplishments in Tokyo is a problem for Korea, but what he has said and represents could cause friction with the government in Seoul. He has made regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and has made a number of jingoistic remarks about foreign Asians in Japan. He is a strong supporter of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and has spoken out loudly and frequently against North Korea. At the same time, he has been sharply critical of U.S. pressure on trade and economic reform.
Shintaro Ishihara’s new weight on the national stage ensures that Japan will take a hard line in dealing with North Korea because Prime Minister Koizumi and the LDP are now under greater pressure to accommodate the new right than the center-left. In disagreements with the hard-line Bush administration, South Korea can no longer count on Japan to take its side or stand neutral.
Latent tensions between South Korea and Japan will become inflamed as visits to the Yasukuni Shrine continue and Japan becomes less willing to listen to criticism on such matters. The Roh Moo-hyun administration should take a serious look at how scenarios of change in Japan may affect Korea.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser