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Paranoid android Abe blind to reality when it comes to eye contact

by Philip Brasor

Image and issues always compete for voters’ attention on the campaign trail, with the former usually winning. A successful candidate is the one who uses the media most effectively in shaping an image that’s acceptable to more people than the next candidate’s. Issues, on the other hand, have become more or less window dressing that give a general indication of a candidate’s ideological bias.

Media critic Yukichi Amano took this dynamic for granted in his analysis of last month’s Upper House election, which appeared in the Asahi Shimbun recently. Amano not only believes that the Liberal Democratic Party lost because of image problems — an assertion few people would deny given all the scandals the LDP has suffered through recently — but pins the reason for the loss on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s use of eye contact.

Since taking office last September, Abe has continued the daily, casual press conferences started by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi. Amano believes this is a good idea but it’s only effective if you understand how TV works. Unlike Koizumi, who proved himself a master at media manipulation, Abe has no clue as to how unflattering TV can be.

One of his main problems is his use of language. The prime minister has no knack for the colloquial and often says things that go over the heads of most citizens. Where Koizumi immediately got his point across when he said that one of his goals was to “kill off the old LDP,” Abe expressed the same idea by saying he wants to “escape from the postwar regime.”

But the real problem is sincerity, or, at least, the illusion of sincerity. “Sometimes the face reveals more than words,” Amano writes, and Abe’s real problem was his decision to address the camera directly when answering reporters’ questions. “When someone asks you something,” Amano says, “you should look at that person when you answer. Not to do so is considered bad manners.”

Amano isn’t the first media person to find fault with Abe’s mesen (eye contact) policy. The prime minister’s reasoning is that he wants to talk directly to the people during press conferences, but the unnaturalness of his gaze has the effect of making everything he says sound insincere and meaningless. Koizumi also rarely said anything of substance, but he looked at the reporters who asked him the questions, thus making it seem as if he meant what he said. Abe says insubstantial things that sound insubstantial.

And because Abe is less confident in his abilities than Koizumi was, he is more likely to buckle under criticism. When pundits started questioning his mesen strategy, he stubbornly refused to abandon it. Instead, he tried to make his facial expression more forceful, which had the singular effect of making it look as if he didn’t even know the reporters were there — as if he were answering questions in his head. During one casual press conference back in the spring, reporters asked Abe directly if he didn’t think his mesen strategy was “strange,” and, without missing a beat or taking his eye off the camera, Abe said, “Rather than answering to you, I intend to talk to the people.” Monty Python couldn’t have come up with a funnier dig at political vacuousness.

Since the election, Abe has only compounded the problem by trying to modify the practice without seeming to modify it. According to an Aug. 12 article in the Tokyo Shimbun, Abe has “returned to zero” in his strategy of dealing with the press. But his effort to act as normal as possible is transparent. He looks at reporters now, but can’t resist glancing up at the camera. The effect is even more distracting than it was before. With his eyes wandering all over the place, Abe appears not only indecisive but paranoid.

In all fairness, eye contact is an art most Japanese politicians have never mastered. In fact, even the media have difficulties with it. One of the reasons NHK’s news reports lack impact is that any trace of spontaneity is removed for fear of making a mistake.

In the West, journalists in the field are expected to have a deep understanding of the subjects they’re reporting and so extemporize when they give live feeds, answering the anchorperson’s questions freely. On NHK, everything is notoriously scripted, and the dull, glassy look on a field reporter’s face betrays the fact that he or she is reading from notes or off cards. It’s basically the same problem as Abe’s: When anchorpersons in the studio ask scripted questions, reporters reply with scripted answers, and, because they are reading, their eyes are not making direct contact with the camera. A verbal transaction that is meant to sound natural instead feels staged, and thus insincere.

But at least the reporter’s statement conveys information. The same can’t always be said of Abe’s remarks, and with the insincerity aspect factored in, the public can’t help but react skeptically to anything he says. A recent letter to the editor of the Asahi Shimbun made this clear.

The letter writer commented on the speech Abe gave at the Peace Ceremony in Hiroshima on Aug. 6. Phrases like “comply with the Constitution,” “seek peace,” and “adhere to the three non-nuclear pledges” later struck him as false because the day before Abe had met with a group of hibakusha (atomic bomb victims) and assured them he would “restudy” the government’s decision to appeal a recent court decision that awarded benefits to the group previously denied by the government. The day after the speech, the government announced it would go ahead with the appeal, thus rendering Abe’s assurances meaningless. The letter writer looked on Abe’s speech as nothing more than “a school composition written by a bureaucrat.” You don’t need to see a person’s eyes to tell if they’re being insincere.