The man who would rearm Japan, who would bomb North Korea, who urged the United States to get on with Iraq "like we did with Pearl Harbor," waits in the wings, offering advice and waiting for the chance to become prime minister.

Shintaro Ishihara, 70, the governor of Tokyo, has long been a political presence hovering over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Now, as Koizumi appears increasingly to be floundering in the job, some political pundits are predicting Ishihara's move toward the nation's top office.

Japanese politics, rich with blandishments and oratorical fog, would never be the same. Ishihara has been called blunt, outspoken, outrageous, anti-American, warmongering and racist -- only some of which he disputes.

"I think if I became prime minister it would be good for Tokyo and good for Japan," he said in an interview in his office in the 45-story twin towers of city hall.

But he is not seeking that job right now. Ishihara recently announced that he would seek reelection as governor of Tokyo. He will not go after a seat in parliament or form a party that might propel him into the prime minister's office.

But he said that he was not giving up his pulpit to talk about "the issues that hold sway over the destiny of Japan." Nor is he giving up his political ambitions. "When Japanese politics gets in an impasse and confused, then in an instant, I may come out" to run for national office, he said. "I cannot rule out that possibility."

Some have predicted it would take a historic upheaval to bring such a controversial figure to power; Ishihara jokes that it might take a North Korean bomb.

Despite his many controversies -- or perhaps because of them -- he remains a political force that the establishment cannot ignore. The most recent national opinion poll, taken last April, showed him with a 78 percent approval rating, a stunning figure in a nation that roundly scorns its politicians.

"He has been, and still is, seen by many as a prospective prime minister," said the Japan Times, an English-language daily, at his announcement that he would seek reelection to the top post in this city of 12 million.

"I like Ishihara," said Yosuke Narita, 28, a manager of musicians, on a street in Tokyo. "He makes radical comments, but they are better than lies."

"I like him because he says things clearly," said Fumiko Narita, a clerk at a sushi shop. "But prime minister? He may say too many controversial things."

Over his career, which includes 25 years in parliament and four years as Tokyo governor, Ishihara has made headlines on a variety of topics. He thumbed his nose at the United States with the bestseller "The Japan That Can Say No."

He has implied that illegal immigrants -- specifically Chinese -- are criminals and likely to go on a rampage after an earthquake. He has gleefully made disparaging remarks about women and seemed to embrace racism. His critics have likened his tactics to Adolf Hitler's.

"He's despicable," said Takao Saito, a journalist and author of a recent scathing biography of the man titled "Empty Little Emperor."

"He engages in discrimination about everything from sex to race," Saito said. "He wants to bundle up everything he hates."

His fans applaud him for saying things that other politicians are too timid to say. "He's concerned seriously about the Japanese civilization," said Kanji Nishio, a professor emeritus of German philosophy who is helping an effort to write Japan's World War II atrocities out of history textbooks. "As for Chinese criminals, he only stated the facts."

Ishihara acknowledges that he revels in the bad-boy image.

"Your paper once called me a Japanese devil incarnate." He paused, with a comic's timing. "I loved it."

The reference apparently was to "a fanatic demagogue," and it was quoting a critic. No matter. Ishihara knows he appeals to a gut yearning among many Japanese for a strong and bold leader. "It would be fun to have him as a prime minister," said Hideo Ota, 43, an office worker at a cable television company. "At least he'd make a stir."

Koizumi tapped that same yearning when he rode a public groundswell to become prime minister in April 2001. One reason Koizumi's political backers are wary of Ishihara is that the two men are much alike: articulate, sometimes passionate populists, with a nationalist political bent. They are even related, through Ishihara's wife, and are on-again off-again friends.

Koizumi's luster is fading; his job approval rating -- though still high by Japanese standards -- has slipped below 50 percent and he is taking a beating from the newspapers. Perhaps sensing a wounded friend, Ishihara refrains from direct criticism of the prime minister.

But he has plenty to dispute about how Japan is run.

On the North Korea crisis: "We should announce we will develop [advanced conventional weapons] as early as tomorrow, and then freeze the money illegally sent to North Korea. Japan should protect its own airspace and sea. To do that, Japan should rearm itself."

On the issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Koreans more than 20 years ago: "Why doesn't the Japanese government judge that abduction as terrorism? I think it is terrorism." What should be done? He answers in English: "Revenge."

He has supported the U.S. attack on Iraq because "depending on how the world deals with Iraq, North Korea's behavior would change. They will realize that they'll face the same fate."

The Koizumi government, he said, is still hampered by bureaucrats, who in the 19th century were credited with modernizing the government by abolishing rule by samurais. But the bureaucrats' authority is stilted and obsolete, Ishihara contends.

"The Japanese structure is like that old time," he said, "and I want to destroy it."

Special correspondent Sachiko Sakamaki contributed to this report.

Shintaro Ishihara, who has been called anti-American and racist, is seeking reelection as Tokyo governor but says he may later enter national politics.