Japan’s Gaffe-prone Politicians

Sven Saaler [Profile]

[2013.09.10] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | ESPAÑOL |

Statements Damage Japan’s Image

Japan’s attitude to its wartime history has been in the spotlight again around the world in the wake of recent comments by Hashimoto Tōru, the controversial mayor of Osaka, and Asō Tarō, the deputy prime minister and finance minister. Shortly after Hashimoto made a series of statements that seemed to downplay the significance of the “comfort women” issue, Asō suggested in a speech that Japan might have “things to learn” from the Nazi government of the 1930s when it comes to changing the constitution.

Insensitive statements from Japanese politicians are nothing new, and this is not the first time that eminent figures have seemed to glorify the war or downplay the significance of Japanese crimes. Such statements fall under a number of different categories. As well as comments that seek to justify the war or excuse Japanese war crimes, politicians have been guilty of insulting minority groups and giving vent to dismissive, chauvinistic attitudes to women (by describing them as “breeding machines,” for example). Some have managed to show contempt for the Japanese citizens as a whole (such as Ishihara Shintarō’s remark that the March 2011 tsunami was “divine punishment” for the feckless ways of modern society).

It is only natural that comments regarding the war should gain attention outside Japan. By definition, a war always involves at least two sides. But in recent years, other gaffes have been widely reported in the foreign media as well. What accounts for this interest?

Global Interest in Japan Remains High

The main reason why the international media covers these gaffes so prominently is simple. Many people around the world are interested in Japan. In recent years it has become fashionable to lament the declining levels of international interest in Japan. But if Japan’s international profile were really as low as that, people would surely not be interested in the verbal blunders of its politicians. The controversy that Japan’s politicians still spark whenever they “misspeak” is testimony to the high levels of interest in Japan’s culture and the vast number of people around the world who enjoy the country’s films, cuisine, and so on. That some of these people should also have an interest in Japanese politics is only natural.

But why do these statements draw so much fire? Here again, the answer seems relatively straightforward. I think the controversy shows the high expectations that people have of Japan—and its politicians—as a rich industrialized democracy. It is precisely because Japan has a positive image that people feel so disappointed with its political leadership. Nor is this tendency limited to Japan alone. The notorious conduct of Silvio Berlusconi and the many gaffes and non-sequiturs that made George W. Bush a global figure of fun are only the best-known examples from other countries in recent years. Irresponsible remarks from politicians in any of the world’s leading economies have the potential to become an international issue.

Too Narrow-minded

Quite rightly, people hold politicians to high standards. As our representatives, we expect them to maintain certain levels of moral dignity, sincerity, and trustworthiness. It is only natural that people are disappointed when these expectations are betrayed. All too often, the politician refuses to apologize at first, claiming that his “personal views” have been taken out of context or misunderstood. Sometimes, he claims to have no recollection of having made the statement. By doing this, politicians only make matters worse. In most cases, “misunderstanding” has nothing to do with it.

The essence of the problem lies elsewhere. Politicians fail to consider other people’s perspectives before they speak. It apparently never occurs to them that other people might interpret their remarks differently. If a male politician cannot understand how remarks that seem to dismiss the gravity of sexual assault might offend someone with a different background—such as a woman who has actually been the victim of such an assault—that is his problem. Again, this is not a problem with audiences “misunderstanding” an innocent statement or twisting it out of context. The problem lies with the narrow-minded person who made the statement in the first place, too lacking in imagination and too self-absorbed to imagine how his bigoted remarks might come across to other people.

(Originally written in Japanese on August 5, 2013.)

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Associate professor of Modern Japanese History at Sophia University in Tokyo and Japan representative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. He is author of Politics, Memory and Public Opinion (Iudicium, 2005); co-editor (with J. Victor Koschmann) of Pan-Asianism in Modern Japanese History (Routledge, 2007), The Power of Memory in Modern Japan (with Wolfgang Schwentker; Global Oriental, 2008) and Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History (with Christopher W. A. Szpilman, Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). He is also co-author of Impressions of an Imperial Envoy. Karl von Eisendecher in Meiji Japan (in German and Japanese, 2007) and of Under Eagle Eyes: Lithographs, Drawings and Photographs from the Prussian Expedition to Japan, 1860-61 (in German, Japanese, and English, 2011).

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