Maverick, Patriot ... Governor!

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TIM LARIMER TokyoIf there is one man who represents a threat to Japan's political status quo, it's Shintaro Ishihara, the fiery nationalist writer who has made a career out of egging on Japan to stand up for itself. Now the 66-year-old author of the best-selling The Japan That Can Say No has a new high-profile platform from which to promote a philosophy that puts into words what many Japanese feel: that the country has been a ward of the U.S. for too long. Ishihara was elected governor of Tokyo on April 11, easily outpacing a crowded field. Some analysts view his success, and the poor showing of the candidate of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's Liberal Democratic Party, as a referendum on Obuchi's administration. None of the other parties did well either; in Tokyo and other large cities, voters chose independent candidates. Ishihara is a man of 'no's', says Shinichi Kitaoka, a University of Tokyo political scientist. No to the U.S., no to the bureaucrats, no to the LDP.

His campaign slogan--The Tokyo That Can Say No--was an adaptation of his 1989 book, which he co-authored with former Sony chairman Akio Morita. He appealed to a growing sentiment that the mainstream political parties, as well as the bureaucrats who wield considerable clout over the Tokyo and national governments, aren't up to the job of reviving a stagnant economy.

Among other things, he called in his campaign for the U.S. to turn over the Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo for use as a civilian airport, though last week he tweaked his remarks to say he wants the U.S. and Japan to share the facility. When you go shopping, nobody accepts the opening price, he told Time last week. What I said was let us request a return of the base, but that this is too difficult, so let us jointly use it.

Even though he becomes the top gun in Japan's most important city, Ishihara won't have any direct influence over national politics. But he's a master of the sound bite and a popular figure who can use his new post as a means to irritate national leaders, if nothing else. His brother Yujiro, who died in 1987, was a popular actor, and he himself won the country's most prestigious literary prize for his 1956 novel, A Season of the Sun.

Ishihara is best known for right-wing remarks that have inflamed debate over Japan's militaristic past and its postwar pacifism. He has dismissed reports about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre as exaggerated, for example, and contends that Japan should not rely on the U.S. to defend it. Japan is not America's squadron, he said. Japan is capable of having its own defense, financially and technologically.

He doesn't apologize for what some critics call xenophobia. I am a nationalist, he said. I like sumo and I like kabuki, but I don't necessarily have ethnocentric ideas that everything Japanese is better. In the Japan-U.S. relationship, what I hate most is Japan. It can't speak up. It has no national strategy. Japan should design is own financial products that even Americans will want to buy. But when America says no, Japan just gives up.