Tokyo's Ken conjures up a nightmare

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The Independent Online

Western equivalents of Japanese celebrities are hard to find, but to understand the place occupied by Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, you could think of him as Tokyo's Ken Livingstone.

Politically, Mr Ishihara is further to the right than Mr Livingstone is to the left. But as political outsiders, populists and self-publicists, the Tokyo governor and the would-be London mayor have much in common.

Like Mr Livingstone, Mr Ishihara was regarded as a political has-been until last year. Depending on political affiliations, he was either a dangerous ultra-nationalist, or the remnant of a sentimental patriotism past its sell-by date.

He hardly seemed serious when he stood last year for governor of Tokyo. But, in a field of candidates more crowded than that of London's mayoral race, he romped to victory.

Nobody expected that high office would quell his outspoken nature. But in the last week, Mr Ishihara has surpassed himself with an orgy of controversy.

It began a week ago when he addressed a gathering of troops from the Ground Self-Defence Forces, Japan's army. He took as his theme the GSDF's role in the event of a civil emergency, like the great earthquake which Tokyo lives in constant fear of.

"Time and time again, third country people and foreigners, who illegally entered this country, committed atrocious crimes," Mr Ishihara asserted. "In the case of a major disaster, riots can be anticipated. Police have their limits, so I call on you to help out to maintain peace and security."

This drew loud objections from other Asians. First was the words he used - sangokujin, or third country people, a seemingly harmless term which was used in the post-war period as a pejorative for Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese. But most infuriating was the association of foreigners, earthquakes and rioting.

In 1923, the last time Tokyo was struck by a huge earthquake, 140,000 people died, most of them trapped under collapsed wooden houses which burned. But 4,000 of them were Koreans, hacked to pieces by mobs after rumours that they had been looting shops and poisoning wells.

"These remarks bring the nightmare home to us of the groundless, hostile rumour of the 1923 earthquake by which many innocent comrades were victimised," said the Union of Korean Residents in Japan.

Despite diplomatic protests from North and South Korea, Mr Ishihara was unapolegetic. Sangokujin, he insisted, did not imply foreigners of any particular nationality. "I used the term to describe foreigners illegally entering Japan or those overstaying their visas," he explained. "I'm referring to Iranians selling forged telephone cards, Chinese selling amphetamines, and Pakistanis."

On Thursday he suggested that China would be safer if it was "broken into several smaller states". On Friday he said that his government "must deal with this situation in which Tokyo has partially become a ghetto, given the case of Los Angeles".

In fact, to a visitor from any large western city, two things are striking about Tokyo: first, its lack of racial diversity; and second, its safety. Rates of violent crime are still the lowest in the developed world.

Fewer than two million of Japan's population of 127 million are foreigners, and statistics suggest that overall they are no more or less active as criminals than their Japanese neighbours.Most work on building sites, in docks, and at the sleazier end of the entertainment industry.

"Our birthrate is shrinking and the number of elderly is growing so quickly that we need foreign labourers to nurse them," said Hiroshi Tanaka, a professor of civics at Kyoto's Ryukoku University.

The irony is not that Tokyo has too many foreigners, but that there are still not enough.