Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara in 2006 during a Tokyo Metropolitan Government natural disaster drill. Photo: US Navy / MCSN Adam York

I read with sadness of the passing of the great novelist and politician Shintaro Ishihara on February 1 at the age of 89.  

As a writer, I had long been interested in Ishihara’s career. I  had read the book Taiyo No Kisetsu, which won Ishihara the Akutagawa award at age 24, and launched his remarkable career. It was a brilliant depiction of amoral youth in the postwar era, set in Kamakura. 

Ishihara with fellow writer Yukio Mishima (foreground). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I also saw the film version, which helped make Ishihara’s brother Yujiro a movie star who would be known as the James Dean of Japan. Together the author and the actor became the center of a youth cult. 

He was a magnet for trouble because of his outspoken ways. In 1962, he drew flak for commentary at the end of the 1962 September sumo tournament after Kashiwado had  upset the great White Russian Taiho in the final match. In a newspaper op-ed published the next morning in the Nikkan Sports, Ishihara deemed the outcome a fake. A yao-cho.

He charged that Taiho had intentionally lost to help further the rivalry between the two wrestlers and generate more interest in sumo, which had waned somewhat in the onslaught of consecutive championships by Taiho, who had won 11 of the previous 12 tournament championships.

Some observers speculated that he had singled Taiho out for criticism because of his foreign heritage. The combative Ishihara’s charge infuriated Taiho and he protested to the sumo association so vigorously that the sumo elders prepared a lawsuit against Ishihara. Ishihara was given a choice: apologize or face a civil lawsuit in court. Ishihara chose to write a letter of apology, one of the few times in his colorful career, he was forced to eat his words. 

The irony of this incident was that it drew Taiho and Kashiwado close together outside the dohyo. They developed a genuine friendship, which continued until Kashiwado’s death in 1996. 

Ishihara was elected first to the House of Councillors in 1968, on the LDP ticket. IN 1968 He joined a notorious right-wing political group, Seirankai or “Blue Storm Group,” whose members had to pledge their loyalty in their own blood. He then moved on to the House of Representatives

He would later be elected several more times to the Diet and several times to the governorship of Tokyo, by overwhelming margins.

Ishihara was known overseas as an ultranationalist, infamous for his racist remarks, xenophobic views and dislike of Chinese and Koreans. He claimed that the occupation of the Korean Peninsula by Japan had been justified and that the Rape of Nanjing was a myth.

He co-authored with Sony chairman Akio Morita the best-selling book The Japan That Can Say No (officially released January 1, 1991, in English, although bootleg copies had circulated earlier in Washington), which called on Japan to stand up to “American bullying” and forge its own path in the world.

Among other things, Ishihara claimed America had a trade deficit with Japan because the level of its workers was low compared with that of the Japanese, who had superior education and innately superior character. He claimed that American business’s pursuit of immediate profits in contrast to Japan’s long-range economic planning was harmful.

The decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan was evidence of American racism, he asserted, causing a big sensation in the United States.

Doing lunch

Ishihara invited me to lunch one day in 1990 at the Capitol Tokyu Hotel. 

In my column for a weekly magazine, I had called Sony’s Morita the angel in the US-Japan relationship and Ishihara the devil for his inflammatory comments. At our lunch on the day after the column came out, we went through several bottles of expensive wine, him flattering, charming, and not showing any of the effects of the alcohol at all.

Ishihara was smooth, I will say that for him. A tall man, he was urbane, (except for a habit of  nervous blinking). Dressed in a tailored suit he ordered the most expensive wines on the menu. He quoted Balzac and Dostoevsky in preliminary banter. I must confess I quite liked him, which I guess was his goal. Neutralize the opposition.

After lunch was finished and we had started on our third bottle of wine, he got down to business. For that he got serious. 

He had just come back from Detroit  (June 1990) where he’d spoken to a hostile group of blue-collar workers and survived the ordeal. He had even gained applause when he attacked US auto executives for their relentless pursuit of quarterly profits at the expense of worker security. That, I must admit, impressed me. 

“Mr Whiting,” he said, “I am not an enemy of the US. I am not the devil. I am one of the first to admit that Japan’s system is rigged against exports.  Our government kept high-quality Motorola phones out of the Tokyo market and forced Japanese to use lower quality Japanese phones.”

I just speak the truth,” he continued: “I feel sorry for the American worker who works for low wages while the CEOs take all the money and then coldly fire workers when it suits them, to increase profit share. So maybe it is better to have a devil in the US equation who tells the truth than an angel who will flatter just for market share.”

Digging up the underworld

Then he asked me what I was working on and if there was anything he could help me with. I said I was doing a book about the Tokyo underworld, about Nick Zappetti, a postwar black marketeer and ne’er-do-well.

“Oh yes, him,” he said, making the motion of slashing his cheek with his finger, the universal sign in Japan for a yakuza. “He’s mafia I hear.”

I mentioned that Zappetti was a close friend of Rikidozan, the pro-wrestling icon, who made millions as a Tokyo entrepreneur and who would also be a big part of the book.

Rikidozan. Photo: Pro Wrestling Stories

“I knew Rikidozan really well,” he said, “He came out on my yacht many times. I know everything about him. Ask me anything.”

So I asked. 

I said, “Was it true that Rikidozan was a secret member of the ethnic Korean yakuza gang Tosei-Kai – that he was a saiko komon (supreme advisor) to the gang boss Hisayuki Machii?”

His eyes immediately narrowed, as if that was the last question in the world he had expected me to ask. 

He turned to his aide, and whispered “Machii?”   

The aide mumbled a few words in reply with “yakuza” the only one that I could catch.

Ishihara turned to me and said, “I never heard of him.”

Of course, that wasn’t true. 

It wasn’t possible that Ishihara did not know Machii given the latter’s involvement in the LDP, as “security chief” for the infamous right-wing fixer Yoshio Kodama, a key figure in the Lockheed scandal. Everyone knew who he was. I had also seen the police report on Machii which included Rikidozan’s name.

Ishihara suddenly looked at his watch and said he had to get back to the Diet, but said he would be in touch about the Rikidozan question.

The next day I got a call from his aide. 

“I am terribly sorry,” the aide said, “But Mr Ishihara is unable to help you. He doesn’t know anything.”

Interesting, I thought. And very revealing.  

By saying he didn’t know anything, he revealed everything.

Of course if I’d been in his position, I wouldn’t have said anything either.

Shintaro Ishihara, RIP.

Robert Whiting’s latest book is Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball. This article was originally published by Robert Whiting’s Japan and is republished with kind permission.