4th July 2014
Apologies for the lack of blogging activity. Simply too much else to do. Writing, reading, and sitting with eyes like saucers agog at the varied wonderment that is the stuff of life here in Japan.
The past few days have provided enough for several PhD theses on the nature of politics and the media’s portrayal of politics in Japan. The big news story of the past weeks has been the attempt of the Abe administration to gain agreement of its coalition partners, Komeito, for a re-interpretation of the constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defence (shudanteki jieiken in Japanese). Now, in most countries this would not be such a huge issue, but in Japan it is, and for good reason. While it would appear eminently sensible to allow the Japan Self-Defense Forces to come to the aid of allied forces under attack, or to rescue Japanese caught up in conflict, or to provide joint/combined defence with other nations’ contingents within a United Nations peacekeeping mission, as ever in discussions of security in Japan, this isn’t the whole story. Why? Well, there are multiple sub-plots, under currents, and hidden and open agendas which make King Lear look as intriguing as slicing up a birthday cake. There are the questions about Abe’s actual agenda, based upon his stated desire when first PM in 2006 to change the constitution, only to be shocked when the Japanese people preferred not to, thank you. The widespread belief is that his views haven’t changed, merely his approach. Reinterpretation is therefore revision by stealth and without the need for a public referendum, which he would almost certainly lose (unless China were to ‘help him’ by some outrageous provocation or conflagration). Then there is the drama between the main LDP and junior Komeito coalition partners. The opposition parties, rarely strong in Japan, have been like shy spectres only scantily visible and vocal. The main opposition has come from the interesting demographic of peace protest activists, concentrated among university-age youth and retired elders, and this has been active, visible, and vocal. This peace movement itself has a track record of varied opposition to policies, including even the existence of the JSDF, which admittedly is somewhat problematic considering they look just like military forces that are banned under the constitution. Most Japanese, however, want to have the JSDF, but also to keep their ‘peace constitution’, so have their cake and eat it. Like old King Lear’s family then. The peace folks tend to be rather left leaning, but combine a rather interesting loyalty to a constitution drafted by the US occupation authorities, which was widely seen as having saved Japan from its own militarists, with a condemnation of US military bases in Japan and the efforts of the US to encourage Japanese pro-active defence and security measures. So, something of a love-hate relationship. Which brings us to the first major media incident.
A man decided that the Abe reforms would be steamrollered through, and he felt a stand needed to be made. Sadly, he chose a very dramatic means of doing so, by climbing onto the upper-works of a footbridge in the busy Shinjuku area of Tokyo on Sunday 29th June, demonstrating against the security reforms, and then dousing himself in fuel and setting himself ablaze. (http://us.tomonews.net/a-man-burned-himself-alive-in-tokyo-to-protest-japan-s-new-defence-policy-104890653065216?utm_source=Youtube%20TomoNewsUS&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=0630%20Japanese%20man%20self-immolation ) This is very rare in Japan, but the media response was just as unusual. NHK, the BBC equivalent national broadcaster ignored it, made no mention yet alone show footage. A few days later it seemed to gleefully show the details of an exploding catering truck on a US street, repeating the point of explosion several times in slow motion so that we could take in the full majesty of the horror. But that was an accident, abroad. Not on a Tokyo street most Japanese have walked along, involving an amazingly rare act, on one of the most controversial issues in politics and society today. The Asahi media group covered the story in print and broadcasting, but that is natural, as it is the most vocal opponent of the be reforms, the self-immolation story actually occupying a small section of The Japan Times two days after the event, on the same page 2 that contained the article “Japan on verge of legalizing war as Komeito bends”. Hardly Abe fans then. Oddly, most other news organisations also gave the story no or little coverage. This is the sort of media response that makes people wonder what is wrong with Japan, and if it really holds the liberal, democratic, moral high ground over China.
Then there is the yaji or jeering problem, in Japanese local government assemblies and even the national Diet. It came to light more than a week ago when a Tokyo assembly member, a woman in her thirties, was speaking on childcare and population issues, and some of her male ‘colleagues’ jeered at her with comments about ‘why don’t you have kids?’, or ‘hurry up and get married’. Coming on the back of Abe’s new policy to empower women and boost childbirth this wasn’t ideal, especially as it soon became clear that the culprits were members of his own LDP. Cue media storm, outrage, and then a forced apology from one male member, Suzuki, who claimed not to know anything about any of the other comments shouted around him, nor to have even heard them, although we could at home thanks to video footage. It was revealed today that much the same thing happened three months ago when another young woman speaking on the same issues was similarly jeered by another LDP male member but this time in the national Diet. It is difficult to believe that the media would take three months to unearth such a story in the House of Commons or the US Senate, but the Japanese media had to be forced to report it, by the young MP coming forward and making a statement in front of the Diet building (http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/news/20140704_10.html ). The media are up in arms, representing Japanese public opinion with their own representatives, but journalists are hardly blazing a trail of investigative reporting.
The final bizarre event of an odd week was the public meltdown, hysteric screeching, and then apology, followed by yet more of the same from a minor local politician before the assembled media, who seemed taken aback by his reaction. Hyogo prefectural assembly member Nonomura Ryutaro was making an appearance before the media as he had been accused of corrupt practice on a grand scale, with 195 dubious trips at the public expense this year alone, spending more than $30,000 in the process, and providing no cogent answer other than he was ‘conducting research’, presumably into geo-thermal energy, as most of his trips were to local hot spring onsen resorts. When pressed, and not in a very robust manner, he began to bang the table, shriek like a banshee, and cry and blubber like no Japanese person above the age of five that most here have ever seen. Extraordinary, which led to the oddest public discourse two-step imaginable. The media folks present said they wanted to end the news conference as they felt frightened. Yes, the media were frightened of the melting man. There was an adjournment, after which the reconstituted politician returned, and spoke calmly and quietly, apologising for his outburst, and asking each person preset to in turn provide his business card so that he could respond calmly to any and all questions. All fine then. Until someone actually asked, ‘so what was the money for again?’, and then were off again into the world of pained banshees, scared journos, and bedazzled viewers at home. This was rounded off by a cut away to a female activist, who spoke in the most delicate and sympathetic way possible of Nonomura’s failure to actually answer any question or provide a single explanation. Cut back to the table banging and wailing. Then cut back to the studio, and the quietest, calmest young TV announcer on air moving on to the next vanilla news story. It was like a brief sojourn to Oz, with the lion and scarecrow combined in one hysteric mass. Compulsive viewing, but disturbing. (http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/news/20140704_02.html and http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/video-japanese-politician-weeping-viral-article-1.1853465 and http://kotaku.com/japanese-politician-freaks-out-spawns-internet-memes-1598976161 ) Welcome to Japan media world.