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Portrait of Ishihara Shintaro as a Young Man

Well, it’s time again for the Tokyo gubernatorial election, and this year the vote is likely to be a referendum on three-time incumbent Ishihara Shintarō. You may be familiar with a few of the veteran politician’s recent statements. He called the Tohoku earthquake a “divine punishment” for Japan’s moral misdirection. Earlier in the year he made headlines after spewing bigoted comments towards the gay community, demanding publishers censor virtual child pornography in manga (without doing much to outlaw the possession of actual child pornography in his jurisdiction), and slagging on Japanese youth. One of his golden oldies was the statement in 2000 that sankokujin — an outdated and arguably offensive term for Chinese, Koreans, and Taiwanese living in Japan — would cause social unrest in the event of a major Japanese earthquake. There is not a lot to celebrate about the recent natural disaster, but the peaceful aftermath at least proved his prediction wrong.

Based on this kind of rhetoric, we should assume that Ishihara starts his day by standing in front of the mirror and dreaming up outrageous and ire-raising comments. (Or hey, he may, like top comedians, have a room of writers to think up edgy material.) Yet it’s hard to blame Ishihara for this behavior. His own life story has conditioned him to expect reward for malicious rhetoric. Ishihara — long before he became the figurehead of Japan’s grumpy old male contingent — was the legendary Bad Boy of the Post-War. Back in the 1950s, Ishihara was much more Dennis the Menace than Mr. Wilson. So while there may be much hypocrisy in Ishihara’s current call for a return to archaic Japanese values, we should remember that offending people with utmost confidence has always been Ishihara’s bread and butter.

Ishihara grew up in the posh beach community of Shonan, son of a shipbuilding executive. A classic example of the “wealthy furyo” (不良, “no good”), his stable background gave him the economic security to spend years absorbed in artistic appreciation and mild delinquency rather than nose-on-page study. He found his way into the prestigious Law Department at top public school Hitotsubashi University, where apparently “on a whim” he wrote a short novel called Season of the Sun 『太陽の季節』. He won the Akutagawa Prize for the work in 1955, which turned him into an instant literary superstar. The book instantly sold 300,000 copies, but the true full-fledged social phenomenon around Ishihara began when a film adaptation of the work hit theaters in 1956. A cult of personality soon grew around Ishihara and his brother Yujiro, a notoriously delinquent Keio student who made a cameo in Season of the Sun and then starred in the next Ishihara-penned film Crazed Fruit 『狂った果実』. Cultural critic Oya Soichi named the boys and their friends the “Taiyo-zoku” — The Sun Tribe, a pun on their beach-side lifestyle, the book title, and the post-war fallen aristocrats called “Shayo-zoku” (More on the etymology here).

The emergence of the Sun Tribe ran parallel with the birth of the “teenager” in other countries, although the scale and scope in Japan was much less significant than American Graffiti-era teenyboppers in the U.S. The distinction was also more explicitly philosophical than what was happening in the consumer paradise of America. Ishihara and his cohorts were triumphantly eschewing wartime values and embracing a new cultural milieu distinct from their parents. This idea is extremely clear in Season of the Sun.

The main character of the book is Tsugawa Tatsuya — a university student and boxing club member who enjoys womanizing at urban dance clubs and sail-boating out on Shonan Beach. While cruising for babes in Ginza one weekend in his finest suit, he meets the wealthy and intriguingly-decadent Eiko. She ends up stalking him at his boxing match and takes him afterward to the hospital in her own car (which needless to say, was not a “normal” thing for anyone to own at this point in the mid-1950s). Without going into all the gory details, Tatsuya and Eiko go off-and-on again throughout the short novel, pursuing flings to make the other jealous, and being generally mean to each other. The book ends with Tatsuya telling Eiko to end her accidental pregnancy with his child by abortion, but since he has taken so long to make his decision, she goes for a risky late-stage operation — and (spoiler alert) dies. In a fit of self-loathing, Tatsuya storms Eiko’s funeral in the final pages, shattering her portrait on the altar and yelling at Eiko’s family, “None of you understood!”

The story itself plays with the excitement of post-war teenage life, but in order to be entirely clear on his intentions, Ishihara provides long narrative paragraphs on his theory of youth mostly unrelated to the main plot:

If the adult world feared [youth] as a dangerous force, second only to communism, this fear was groundless. A new generation brought forth sentiments and a new code of morals, and these youth were growing up in such surroundings. They stood erect, like cactus, without looking down to see that they were blooming in bare soil.

The young unconsciously tried to destroy the morals of their elders — morals which always judged against the new generation. In the young people’s eyes, the reward of virtue was dullness and vanity. While the older generation thought it was growing ever more broad-minded, but actually grew narrower in outlook, the young looked for something broad and fresh to build on.

For all of the setting up adults as the “enemies” of youth, there is very little actual warfare in the novel. The book may have been most shocking in that all the young rich Japanese characters live in their own little world: hitting hostess bars and dance clubs, driving around in cars, sailing boats, staying at resort hotels, getting abortions. Parents do not appear as oppositional forces — actually, they barely appear at all. The single scene of inter-generational conflict happens in a scene at Tatsuya’s home, when the father is showing off his relatively-preserved physique and asks his son to try punching him in the stomach. The boxer Tatsuya delivers a crushing blow, knocking over the dad and making him spit up blood for days. The episode has obvious Oedipal symbolism, but the rest of the novel focuses more around the joyful absence of parental advisory rather than its overbearing shadow.

The idea of youth-gone-wild in Season of the Sun is clearly what made the novel so exciting to other members of Ishihara’s generation. Ironically, student leftists at the time proclaimed the novel as an anti-establishment manifesto, passing Season of the Sun around during the long waiting periods at the 1956 Sunagawa protests against the extension of a U.S. Air Force base. The book was “progressive” in the sense that it defended youth’s role as a key force for social change and generally advocated the dismantling of the prewar value system.

The Ishiharas were also dashing, wealthy playboys who inspired a generation of post-war youth wishing for a return to prosperity. Fashion critic Takeji Hirakawa explained to me: “This was an era when there were no Japanese heroes. The MP and soldiers were good looking guys and stole all the best women. Everyone knew that the Japanese needed Japanese heroes to really bounce back from the war.” The Ishiharas filled that role, proving to their fellow youth through cocksure success that Japan would no longer have to live in the shadow of America.

While this may seem like a very different philosophical background than the current Ishihara, I would argue that he never made a tenko conversion to the right. There are visible traces of conservative ideology even in his early writing.

Most obviously, Ishihara has smug certainty about his world and believes deeply in the myth of individuals fully in control of their own destiny. The characters of Season of the Sun seem completely oblivious to the fact that wealth affords them the freedom to be delinquent and carefree. The Tsugawa brothers maintain their own sail boats out at Shonan Beach in the early 1950s — an era when much of his fellow citizens had just recently stopped wearing their old wartime rags and worrying about where they were going to get the day’s food. The government only declared the apres guerre period over in 1956, a year when the Ishihara’s were already conspicuously living at a level that would be considered posh even today.

Building on this explicit denial of class, main character Tatsuya sees his own successes as triumphs of will against all odds rather than building upon a privileged background. For example, Tatsuya becomes a passable boxer without any real training. It’s his “enthusiasm” and natural skill — rather than hard work — that make him a competitive pugilist. In a similar tone, Ishihara’s younger brother Yujiro quipped to the press about his film career, “Whatever. I can quit doing movies whenever I want.” Ishihara Shintaro is a deep believer in the “myth of natural good taste” — that idea that members of the privileged classes are imbued with greater aesthetics or natural skills without realization of the opportunity and access to cultural capital that come with wealth.

While these ideas stay relatively mild within Season of the Sun, these attitudes have slowly evolved over the last 60 years into something more sinister: Ishihara’s complete lack of sympathy for people unlike himself. He personally overcame difficulty through a minimum of effort, so why can’t everyone else get their act together? Ishihara’s father died suddenly when he was still a student, yet he helped his family make ends meet — in part by becoming a famous writer. Penning an Akutagawa Prize-winning novel took him only a few days. It is exactly Ishihara’s victorious and charmed life — proven at an early age — that make him completely disinterested in those who have to actually work to succeed, or worse, will never succeed at all. He is the classic “self-made man” — who happened to start on a giant pedestal.

Yet this streak of fundamental conservative ideology is of course not what made him so hated in the 1950s. Ishihara was PTA Enemy #1. Together with women’s groups and educational committees, Japan’s Parent-Teacher Association railed publicly against the sexual content of Season of the Sun, which they spun into a broader movement towards stricter censorship on motion pictures. In the book’s most infamous sequence, the main character seduces his girlfriend by punching a hole in a sliding paper door with his erect penis. This did not go down well with the older set.

But it was the third Sun Tribe film The Punishment Room 『処刑の部屋』 that really raised ire. (The novella on which it is based, by the way, is mere sensationalistic violence lacking any literary depth. Avoid.) There is a scene of men spiking girls’ drinks with sedatives to later rape them, and many teenage criminals who attempted similar things told authorities that they got the idea from the movie. Although mild in comparison, the media also devoured a subsequent story about a girl deciding to drop out of high-school after taking up the anti-social message of the film. Parents of all stripes hated Ishihara. While feminists disliked Ishihara’s violent, sexual misogyny, older conservative men had a fit over the Ishihara brothers’ boastful disobedience. They blamed the rise of the Sun Tribe on the formal outlawing of legal prostitution. They argued, if men had a legal sexual outlet for these violent urges, Japan would be free of menacing groups like the Sun Tribe.

But this is Ishihara’s problem today: His outrageous behavior as a youth — which was fresh and probably warranted in the 1950s — still informs his current personality. Shintaro got gray but he never mellowed out nor became self-aware. When he calls for censorship of art, he does not remember that once people much like him now called for the censorship of his own art. But moreover, we should understand him in control of his personality. He is not a “loose cannon,” accidentally saying things he later regrets. He likely thinks that success of his endeavors requires raising the ire of groups to which he does belong.

The question now is whether enough Tokyo voters will decide that Ishihara finally went too far in blaming the earthquake victims. The most likely scenario sadly is that his usual voting bloc will stumble out of JRA Wins en masse and cast some shochu-drenched ballots to make him governor one more time.

Reference works:

Shintaro Ishihara. Season of Violence. Transl. John G. Mills, Toshie Takahama, and Ken Tremayne. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, (1966).

Kosuke Mabuchi. Post-War History of the “Tribes”. Sanseido, 1989.

John Nathan. Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation’s Quest for Pride and Purpose. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.

Across Editorial Desk. Street Fashion 1945-1995. PARCO, 1995.

W. David MARX
April 4, 2011

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

18 Responses

  1. Alfie Goodrich Says:

    Let’s not also forget his recent statement, immediately after the recent quake and tsunami, in which he said the events were “divine punishment” for modern society’s greed. He did later apologize but maybe that initial statement betrays more of his real character.

  2. Elfman Says:

    “Let’s not also forget his recent statement”

    Considering that’s the third sentence of this article, I don’t think anyone is.

    I’m sure there are even better examples than Ishihara of how wealth and privilege can stunt one from growing into a better human being, but he’s certainly up there. The arrogance and condescension of someone who’s never wanted for anything in his life accusing anyone of “greed,” let alone the victims of the Tohoku disaster, boggles the mind.

  3. jasong Says:

    Was talking a little about Ishihara’s film career with Dr. Alex Zahlten recently — people in the film industry really resented this privileged upstart directing films such as The Young Beast (Wakai Kemono, 若い獣) without going through the standard career path of apprenticing and assistant directing — which took years at the time.

  4. Alfie Goodrich Says:

    Sorry…. got a phonecall and an email at the moment I started reading this piece and then re-commenced my reading too far down the first paragraph. Thanks, Elfman. :-)

    See he’s been opening his mouth again, this time regarding the fact Japan should tool-up with nukes.

  5. Cleo Says:

    I would never have guessed that the person in the photo would look as he does today.

  6. Ishihara, el último populista « Notas de Fukushima Says:

    […] el año 2003 asistí a un mitin de Shintaro Ishihara en Tokio. Lo recuerdo encaramado a una furgoneta, envuelto en la cobertura policial, sobre un […]

  7. Chuckles Says:

    This kind of public fgure – an accomplished artist, intellectual of sorts and right wing demagogue / major political office holder really doesnt have a counterpart in the west.

  8. Daryl Says:

    There was also Ishihara’s infamous statement that he agreed with the theory that women who lived beyond a post-menopausal age were evil and malicious (

    I guess it’s not too strange that for all his talk of rule-breaking, Ishihara is a conservative through-and-through. He’s had such a privileged life in basically every way, after all. And I think Marxy’s idea of Ishihara being deliberately provocative, rather than just having his foot wedged firmly in his mouth, is pretty sensible. It hasn’t done him much political harm so far, has it?

  9. Miles Says:

    Great article but I disagree with the final paragraph. Have you seen the people he’s running against? I’d like to see a follow-up post on them.

    My sense is that most Tokyo voters _do_ think Ishihara went too far with his tenbatsu remark, but unfortunately there is simply no viable alternative in the race.

  10. Jared Says:

    What was his relationship with Mishima Yukio? I’ve seen a picture of the two of them; did Ishihara learn any politics from Mishima?

  11. Mutantfrog Travelogue » Blog Archive » Local elections in Japan tomorrow – what and who to watch for Says:

    […] more on the first reason, I would direct you to David Marx’s profile of the governor over at Neojaponisme. Key line: “He is not a “loose cannon,” […]

  12. spandrell Says:

    Good article. I used to hate this sort of Marxist class analysis. Until I came to Japan, that is.

  13. The Chrysanthemum Sniffer Says:

  14. Anymouse Says:

    I think part of the reason for his turn to the right may have been his belief that things would actually beiome moire cultivated as a result of this youthful hedonism. Whne he saw many of the actual results that came from that period of japnese cultuer, I think that may have ttriggered his turn to the rright. We see in our socuiety that many of those who will happily read AHustler will turn aroundf and atack fans of fictitious child rape. It may be the same mentaoilty of Ishihara.

  15. Anymouse Says:

    I think part of the reason for his turn to the right may have been his belief that things would actually become moire cultivated as a result of this youthful hedonism. When he saw many of the actual results that came from that period of Japanese culture, I think that may have triggered his turn to the right. We see in our society that many of those who will happily read Hustler will turn around and attack fans of fictitious child rape. It may be the same mentality with Ishihara.

  16. M-Bone Says:

    Ishihara became a hardcore anti-communist during the student protest era and turned to Japan’s “essential” or “natural” strengths to explain economic successes from around the same time, effectively marrying the “natural elite” world view that Marxy outlines with Japan-centrism in a world systems view, positing it as an alternative (for Japanese anyway) to communism or eventually neo-liberal globalism. Japan, in this world view, effectively becomes the archetypal entitled youth of Ishihara’s Taiyo days.

    As Japanese conservativism was trumpeting the essential guiding touch of a natural elite making Japan’s cultural strengths manifest, this crowd pretty much has no choice but to blame decline on people abandoning what is truly Japanese by reading kiddie porn manga, having gays on TV, or inviting tenbatsu by being materialistic. Meanwhile, Ishihara cried the passionate tears of a nationalist at “Last Samurai”.

  17. W. David MARX Says:

    I would also guess that Ishihara naturally disliked the student communists of the 1960s from a pure “taste” angle since they were a generation younger and basically made the entire Taiyo-zoku thing irrelevant. It was like a punk rocker complaining about “all these kids with their synthesizers”! This is basically speculation, but I don’t doubt there was some natural pride issues about being moved off the youth culture radar.

  18. Anymouse Says:

    I think you have a good description of his attitudes Marxy. I do think disappointment could have changed his views a bit. I understand There was even an interview where he was asked if he was being hypocrite by supporting the “youth protection bill” since he had spoke in favor of sexual liberation of youth when he was younger. He replied that he had changed his mind on that issue.

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