BEIJING — "I do what I do because I want to," Shintaro Ishihara wrote in his 1956 novel The Punishment Room. "Do what you please, and sooner or later you'll find out where you are."
Ishihara put those words in the mouth of Katsumi, one of the angry young protagonists who made the author a Jack Kerouac-style cult hero to a sullen generation of youth in postwar Japan and that year's winner of the country's most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize.
Fifty-six years later, Ishihara -- now 79 and in his fourth term as the outspoken governor of Tokyo -- is still following Katsumi's mantra: doing what he wants, in this case pushing Japan toward a confrontation with neighboring China that he believes is inevitable. Ishihara warned in May that "Japan could become the sixth star on China's national flag" if it appeases Beijing. In his public speeches, he refers to the People's Republic as "Shina," a derogatory term associated with Japan's 1937-1945 occupation.
In an island country where xenophobia is commonplace, though often hidden behind polite smiles and bows, Ishihara has made himself the most prominent right-wing figure by bluntly saying what many Japanese are quietly thinking. Crime in Tokyo was on the rise because Japan allowed in too many foreigners, he said shortly after first being elected governor in 1999. In March 2011, he called the massive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that smashed Japan's northeast coast that month and left almost 20,000 dead and missing "divine punishment" for Japan's materialistic lifestyle; he was easily reelected to a fourth term just weeks later.
He hates Mickey Mouse, who lacks "the unique sensibility that Japan has," and he thinks French is unworthy of being an international language. In his most notorious outburst, he told a Playboy interviewer in 1990 that the extensively documented 1937-1938 Rape of Nanking, in which the Imperial Japanese Army slaughtered more than 200,000 Chinese, "is a story made up by the Chinese."
But for the first time, one of Ishihara's provocations may come with real consequences. In April, Ishihara announced that he planned to purchase the Senkaku Islands, five uninhabited rocks southwest of Okinawa and east of Taiwan, four of which have been privately owned by a Japanese family for the past four decades, but which both China and Taiwan also claim. China is embroiled in tense territorial disputes in other spots as well -- in late July it sent soldiers to an island in the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam. But it's the Senkakus (known in China as the Diaoyus) where a wider war could break out. A group of activists from Hong Kong is planning to visit the islands to protest Japan's claims and could arrive as early as Aug. 16. On Aug. 14, the English-language version of the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper published by the official People's Daily, warned that if Japan sends military forces to block Chinese activists "it will force China to send warships to the Diaoyu Islands' waters."
More acrimony exists between Japan and China than between China and any other country. Fierce anti-Japanese sentiment -- stemming from the sense Japan has never fully atoned for World War II atrocities -- is disturbingly common both in China's official media and online among ordinary netizens. Meanwhile, Japanese government polling conducted last year found that more than three-quarters of Japanese -- the highest level since 1978 -- consider relations with their giant neighbor to be "unfriendly." That's troubling for the United States, which under the terms of a mutual security treaty, has an obligation to defend Japan. (In July, Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted an unnamed U.S. State Department official saying the scope of the treaty includes the Senkaku Islands.)
The last time Japan tried to take a stand over the Senkakus, in September 2010, China replied by seeming to tighten its exports of rare-earth metals, a resource crucial to Japan's high-tech industries (though China denied exports were affected). After just 18 days, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan was forced into a humiliating climb down, releasing a Chinese fisherman who had rammed two Japanese patrol boats in the disputed waters.
"What China is doing is very similar to what organized crime groups do to expand their turf," Ishihara spat in disgust after Kan -- a politician he condemned as "not Japanese" -- decided to end the confrontation.