Communication and the Japanese Language

Stumbling Over Words: The Growing Communication Gap in Japanese Politics


Words may be the most potent weapon in politics, but they are a double-edged sword. In the social-media age, a slip of the tongue can quickly spell disaster and send a politician scrambling to do damage control. In Japan, a recent spate of gaffes and verbal chicanery among prominent legislators has many experts lamenting a breakdown in communication between leaders in Tokyo and their constituents around the nation.

Communication Breakdown

There are always many sides to any issue in politics, and communication divides come with the territory. But as the Moritomo Gakuen scandal—involving the sale of public land to the politically connected private school operator at a price far below market value—has unfolded, it has appeared at times that the wheels of political intercourse are stuck in the mud.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has sternly asserted that he and his wife Akie are innocent of involvement in the suspicious land deal. However, his credibility was shaken after it was revealed that documents related to the transaction had been altered to remove references to the first lady. The prime minister stood his ground, though, confidently declaring before the Diet that a recently uncovered draft that refers to the first lady by name helps instead to confirm the couple’s innocence.

Many in Japan remain unconvinced, though, finding the prime minister’s assuredness out of step with the serious questions the altered documents raise. In an Asahi Shimbun public opinion survey following Abe’s statement, 72% of respondents said they were not satisfied by his explanation.

Another scandal—this one involving Kake Gakuen, another education outfit with connections to the prime minister that got apparently preferential treatment in obtaining governmental approval for a new veterinary school—has also kept Abe in the hot seat over charges of cronyism. With support for his cabinet waning, Abe last autumn pledged before the nation to give a full account of the matter. No such explanation came, though. After convening an extraordinary session of the Diet, the prime minister steered clear of the issue and instead called a snap election on October 22.

Even as fresh suspicions swirled, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide in his daily press briefings defended Abe, deftly employing doublespeak to evade questions about the scandals. Documentary film maker Sōda Kazuhiro led the way in drawing attention to this strategy, saying that by intentionally using ambiguous language Suga was in effect enforcing a media blackout. The secretary’s noncommittal answers, dubbed “Suga-speak,” have become regular social media fodder.

Public exasperation over the communication gridlock mounted when the regular session of the Diet got underway and the prime minister continued his stand-off over the Moritomo Gakuen scandal. Instead of directly answering opposition questions regarding new developments in the affair, he gave longwinded replies rehashing his position and even made asides criticizing the previous administrations of the Democratic Party of Japan, in power from 2009 to 2012. To people watching events unfold, it was as if politicians from the two camps were no longer speaking the same language.

Losing Faith

Abe is of course not the only politician to resort to verbal smokescreens. In the run-up to the lower house elections in October of last year, Tokyo Governor and then head of the nascent Kibō no Tō (Party of Hope) Koike Yuriko fell victim to her own verbal haziness. When asked whether, contrary to rumors that she intended to run for a seat in the Diet, she had ruled out pursuing politics on the national stage, she avoided giving a straight yes-no answer and instead obliquely stated that “I’ve said so in plain Japanese all along.”

Koike’s reply did little to assuage suspicions, though. Reporters had grown accustomed to her roundabout way of talking and kept pressing for a direct answer. Unable to put the issue to rest, Koike saw her political momentum dissipate.

During the campaign Koike allowed her words to hurt her party in other ways as well. When she launched the Party of Hope, expectations were that the Democratic Party, the main opposition in the Diet, would join her new group to take on the ruling Liberal Democrats. However, when asked if she would accept everyone from the DP, Koike shot down the idea point blank, stating in no uncertain terms that Democrats who could not accept Hope’s core stance on security and constitutional reform would be excluded. Her change of heart may have been an attempt to establish a concrete platform and avoid being labeled a party of convenience, but her brash phrasing ended up taking the wind out of Hope’s sails.

An Asahi Shimbun poll taken after her comment showed support for the Party of Hope’s had plunged 10 points to 35%. The liberal-leaning legislators that Koike rebuffed quickly joined with DP President Edano Yukio to form the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which went on to win more seats than Hope in the election. Watching the drama unfold, author Takahashi Gen’ichirō joked in a tweet that “Hope is just another kind of despair.” The comment, a play on a quote by the well-known writer Abe Kōbō, struck a chord with people across the country who had winced at what they saw as an overly harsh assertion by Koike.

Lost in the Milieu

According to political commentator Tahara Sōichirō, the meagerness of meaningful political discourse in Japan is the result of the growing complexity of social issues. “Politicians today wrestle with such intricate problems that there is a tendency to gloss over the more complicated issues,” he explains. “Many voters have grown weary of trying to decipher a coherent message from the political chatter and have given up listening altogether.”

Tahara contrasts the situation today with the early years of the Cold War, when Japan’s economy was rapidly expanding. At that time the country was focused entirely on rebuilding from its defeat in World War II. Prime ministers like Yoshida Shigeru (1946–47, 1948–54) and Ikeda Hayato (1960–64) won support by talking to the nation in terms of economic growth, an issue everyone could relate to.

Tahara recalls how Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru (1987–89) glibly dismissed a question about the purchase of advanced equipment for Japan’s Self-Defense Force as “no big deal since it’s a neutered military.” In today’s political climate, a similar statement would almost certainly be met with immediate and intense backlash. “It shows the degree to which the government at the time drew on the diplomatic leverage of the economy,” explains Tahara.

Tongue Tied

Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and bursting of the bubble economy and subsequent downturn in 1991, Japan has struggled to redefine itself in a shifting world. The growing complexity of charting a precise course has worsened the communication gap. “Politicians are unable to wrap their minds around all the issues and have stopped working to understand their repercussions on the nation,” sighs Tahara.

He points to the issue of US military bases on Okinawa as an example. While there is an obvious overconcentration of bases in the prefecture, politicians are baffled about how to alleviate the burden. Building new bases in other parts of Japan would raise defense spending, an unsavory prospect for voters. Without a viable way forward, politicians continue to kick the can down the road. “Legislators don’t know where to begin, so they turn a blind eye to the issue,” says Tahara. “The media is no better, either. They have the responsibility to summarize issues and offer criticisms, but they are being remiss in their duties.”

The situation has even begun to affect how legislators communicate with their colleagues, as illustrated when the Diet passed the controversial anticonspiracy legislation in June 2017. During deliberations, Justice Minister Kaneda Katsutoshi drew the ire of opposition parties for his incoherent testimony on an especially contentious point of the bill. According to Tahara, the ruling party was in such a hurry to push the proposal through parliament that it neglected to inform the minister until the last minute that it was scheduled for debate.

Returning to the Moritomo Gakuen affair, Tahara decries Abe’s attempts to downplay the seriousness of the matter. He describes the prime minister’s vow to resign from politics if he or his wife are found to be directly involved in the matter as empty, saying it does nothing to move the conversation forward. “It’s typical for Abe to talk without saying anything of substance.”

Oratory Shortcomings

In the eyes of many experts, the current breakdown in political communication can be attributed largely to legislators not knowing what to say. The author Takamura Kaoru says that it is not so much a matter of language—even very small children, after all, can make themselves understood if they try hard enough—as a failure to fully consider how today’s complex social issues impact the electorate. “Ideally, politicians should make every effort to understand the problems people face,” he explains. “Only by first making the well-being of their constituency their prime consideration can they can begin to speak with conviction.”

As an example, Takamura points to Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei (1972–74). “Regardless of whether you are a fan of his policies or not, his words packed a punch that enabled him to sway the nation with his vision for transforming Japan.”

Tanaka Kakuei speaks at the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo on July 5, 1972, following his election as the LDP president (effectively making him the prime minister) . (© Jiji)

In contrast, Takamura says Abe has yet to publicly voice his views on such policy planks as education and amending Japan’s Constitution. “Abe keeps his motives hidden,” says Takamura. “He doesn’t appear to have an avid devotion to the imperial system but does look favorably at the conservative prewar Imperial Rescript on Education. When he talks about revising the Constitution, though, he doesn’t put forward his personal views or ideology. Without articulating his ideas, he can only make arguments that fall flat.”

Takamura says that as head of the Party of Hope, Koike also dulled her message by not making her intentions obvious. “While she spoke a lot, there wasn’t much substance to what she said.”

Recharging the Power of Speech

To overcome the communication gap, average citizens must recognize that they are also part of the problem. “Voters,” says Takamura, “are responsible for holding their representatives accountable. But people have become complacent about how Abe and Koike speak.” There are reasons to believe, though, that some people are growing frustrated with the political status quo. Take for example the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. While the party floundered in media polls in the lead-up to the October 2017 lower house election, three days after forming it managed to garner 130,000 followers on Twitter, the most of any party.

Takamura insists that for political discourse to improve, legislators will need to reevaluate why they were elected. “Politicians must foster empathy for their constituents, but unless it’s a disaster situation they hardly ever stop to consider what average people are going through.” In a somber tone, he continues. “It will likely take a major crisis before they finally look their constituents in the eyes and try to connect with them in earnest.”

(Originally published in Japanese on March 29, 2018. Text by Power News. Banner photo: After resigning his post, former Cabinet Office Vice Minister Matsumoto Fumiaki [at center] apologizes at the prime minister’s residence on January 26, 2018, for inappropriate comments following the crash of a US military helicopter in Okinawa Prefecture. © Jiji.)

Japanese language politics