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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.

  • [2018.04.18]
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