Tokyo governor quits to form party

Move by outspoken, popular veteran likely to alter landscape of politics

TOKYO - In a move that will likely alter the landscape of Japanese politics ahead of the next general election, Tokyo's popular governor Shintaro Ishihara has decided to step down to set up a political party.

In a surprise announcement yesterday, Mr Ishihara, who is serving his fourth term as governor, told reporters: "I will form a new party and, together with my colleagues, I will get back into national politics."

Mr Ishihara had served as a national lawmaker for 25 years before becoming governor of Tokyo in 1999 at the age of 66.

He is expected to lead a new party that will absorb the small Sunrise Party of Japan, which he helped form in 2010.

"We have prepared 30 to 40 candidates to stand in the elections. They are of a high standard," said Mr Ishihara.

The 80-year-old politician, who has just been given a clean bill of health by his doctor, is expected to also run for a Lower House seat.

The straight-talking governor is a long-time critic of China. He put the Noda administration in a spot in April when he announced plans by Tokyo to buy the disputed Senkaku Islands and protect them from the Chinese if Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda insisted on doing nothing.

The government was forced to purchase the islands from their private owner to pre-empt the Tokyo authorities from doing so, a move that sparked anti-Japanese protests throughout China last month and cooled bilateral ties.

As testimony to the politician's influence, Mr Ishihara's press conference was broadcast live by major television networks, and newspaper companies hit the streets with extra editions.

At the start of his press conference, Mr Ishihara launched into a lengthy diatribe against Japan's national bureaucracy, which he said frequently frustrated his attempts to improve Tokyo's infrastructure, such as building more creches for infants.

"I would like to reshuffle the bureaucracy. Such a chance has come to Osaka. I would like to join hands with our Osaka friends to do so," he said, referring to similar aspirations expressed by popular Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto.

Mr Hashimoto, who has had talks with Mr Ishihara several times in the past several months, has launched his own political party - Japan Restoration Association - in readiness for the general election.

A spokesman for Mr Hashimoto's party yesterday welcomed Mr Ishihara's overtures, noting that their two parties "shared similar directions".

Mr Ishihara's eagerness to ally himself with Mr Hashimoto is being closely watched by other parties.

With Mr Ishihara's strong influence in eastern Japan and Mr Hashimoto's widespread popularity in western Japan, an electoral tie-up between their two parties could create a significant third political force, after the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The next general election must be held no later than next July, but could be held as early as December.

Mr Ishihara's new party may even precipitate early polls as it is expected to attract not only lawmakers who have bolted from the DPJ and the LDP, but also current DPJ members who are disenchanted with Prime Minister Noda's leadership.

It will take only five more DPJ lawmakers jumping ship for the ruling coalition to lose its majority in the Lower House. That could plunge the nation into political turmoil, hastening elections.

Although Mr Ishihara's brashness rubs many Japanese the wrong way, his forthrightness and his usually on-the-mark criticism of the central government administration endear him to many voters, especially the younger ones.

In addition, his younger brother, the late Yujiro Ishihara, was a very popular actor-singer.

wengkin@sph.com.sg