Shintaro Ishihara, governor of one of the world's most populous cities, sat comfortably in a white leather armchair in his private meeting room, the endless steel and neon of Greater Tokyo visible behind him through wall-length windows.
Despite the grandeur of his surroundings, Ishihara, 73, no longer seems the threat he once was, when critics feared he would climb to the top job of prime minister and rebuild Japan into a military power. His political ambitions tempered, the nationalist firebrand appears content anyway.
These days, Japan is heading in a direction that Ishihara approves of, even if he is not the one leading the way. Ishihara describes Japanese aggression during World War II as the start of Asia's movement toward independence from the West. He is seen as the precursor of the new crop of hawkish leaders, who may be more diplomatic than Ishihara but appear cut from the same ideological cloth.
Case in point: Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's new cabinet, announced this past week, includes several politicians who would do the sharp-tongued governor of Tokyo proud. Japan's new foreign minister, Taro Aso, caused a stir in May 2003 when he insisted that Koreans took Japanese names during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula because they wanted to. Shinzo Abe, the powerful new cabinet chief whom many analysts describe as Koizumi's anointed successor, is considered a strong-willed nationalist who coyly dodged a question by a foreign reporter in September about whether he regretted Japan's defeat in World War II.
As for Koizumi, Ishihara strongly defends the prime minister's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's military dead, including World War II criminals. Koizumi's visits have drawn criticism from China and South Korea, along with charges that Japan has not repented of its war crimes.
Ishihara proudly notes that he has made highly publicized visits to Yasukuni for years, and he dismisses the complaints from other Asian countries as signs of their "envy" of Japan.
Ishihara was elected governor six years ago, employing nationalist rhetoric that seemed provocative then. Now it appears he was merely ahead of his time.
Ishihara smiled modestly at the suggestion. "Hmm . . . it might be" true, he said.
While some still see him as a loose cannon, his politics can no longer be called radical. The Mainichi newspaper recently released results of a poll of 1,058 Japanese showing that 43 percent thought the nation's actions during World War II were "clearly wrong," while a majority of respondents either said the war had been unavoidable or were unsure. Meanwhile, revisionist textbooks that critics say whitewash Japan's wartime role are being adopted by more and more schools, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is pushing to alter the pacifist postwar constitution to allow an official military.
Ishihara seems satisfied with his role as a trailblazer, the man who long ago said out loud what others privately thought. "Ishihara wasn't just saying it six years ago, he was saying it 30 years ago," said Hisahiko Okazaki, a former Japanese diplomat and analyst. "Ishihara is not an academic. His logic is more propagandist. But with the decline of the left in Japan, his emotion of nationalism is now widely shared by the Japanese people."
This doesn't mean Ishihara has ceased being provocative, although his position may have subtly changed. A novelist and nonfiction writer perhaps best known for his 1989 bestseller, "The Japan That Can Say No," Ishihara was once a powerful critic of Japan's passive stance toward the United States. He still has complaints; he is furious, for instance, that troop realignment talks with the U.S. government have yet to address his plan to use the U.S. air base in Greater Tokyo, Yokota, as a civilian airport. But Ishihara's anti-Americanism appears to have softened as Asian criticism of Japan mounts and the United States remains the country's strongest ally.
That is particularly true as China's rapid rise poses a threat to Japan's economic and diplomatic domination of the region. It is a topic that weighs heavily on Ishihara's mind.
"Of course we feel a military threat from China," Ishihara said bluntly during a recent interview. "Suppose the U.S. and China engage in a war. The U.S. would be defeated because the Chinese do not care about the loss of human life. There is no other country in history that has killed so many of its own people."
Some analysts point to the disclosure of North Korea's nuclear weapons program as the tipping point for many Japanese -- the event that jarred them out of their pacifist stance. Ishihara, however, seems less concerned about Pyongyang. "If North Korea shot a missile at Japan, the U.S. would be obliged to retaliate, and the North Korean regime would immediately collapse," he said, wiping his hands as if to say, "Problem solved."
But it is also true that the rise of hawkish politicians in Japan mirrors the spread of anti-Japanese sentiments across East Asia and has threatened to isolate Tokyo. South Korea, for example, is arguably one of Japan's few friends in the region, but it is infuriated by what it views as Japan's negation of its militarist past.
"Ishihara is the number one far-right politician in Japan, and he and politicians like him are dangerous," said Yang Soon Im, chairwoman of the Seoul-based Association of Pacific War Victims and Bereaved Families, which has sued Ishihara and Koizumi over their visits to Yasukuni Shrine. "The far right is taking control in Japan. They are trying to justify and beautify Japan's past invasions. They do not yet grasp how this is isolating Japan from world opinion."
Many analysts no longer see a strong political future for Ishihara, however. When asked, the Tokyo governor will not even commit to saying he will seek a third term in 2007, much less vie for the prime minister's post.
Pressed further about his political ambitions, Ishihara shrugged. "You know, the sun also sets," he said.
Special correspondent Sachiko Sakamaki contributed to this report.