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PEOPLE'S HONOR AWARD

People’s award: glittering honor or political tool?

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

The government is set to present two baseball icons — former New York Yankees and Yomiuri Giants slugger Hideki Matsui and former Giants player and manager Shigeo Nagashima — with the People’s Honor Award on Sunday at Matsui’s retirement ceremony in Tokyo Dome.

From athletes, singers and composers to a manga artist and actors, the award has been bestowed on those who have made tremendous achievements in their careers and are widely adored by the public.

But the accolade has often drawn criticism for its vague nomination criteria and opaque selection process, as well as for its perceived use as a political tool to boost the government’s popularity.

Here are some questions and answers about the award.

How did the award begin?

The late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda created the People’s Honor Award in 1977. It was a time when Giants legend Sadaharu Oh was about to break the world record for home runs, and Fukuda reportedly said that a special award was needed to honor the achievement.

“Public clamor and Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda’s personal interest in baseball prompted the government to forget the red tape and pick slugger Sadaharu Oh . . . as Japan’s first ‘national hero,’ ” The Japan Times reported on Aug. 31, 1977.

“The Prime Minister’s Official Residence has been bombarded with an ever-growing number of phone calls and letters asking for government action to honor the home run king,” it said.

Oh received the award on Sept. 5, 1977, at the leader’s official residence. Nagashima, who was then the manager, attended the ceremony.

What are the selection criteria?

The Cabinet Office’s website states that the award is given to a person or group that “is widely loved by the people” and has “made remarkable achievements that gave bright hope to society.”

The selection process, however, is murky. An official at the Cabinet Office who asked not to be named said the candidates are proposed by the prime minister in a top-down process.

Once the Cabinet Office receives a nominee’s name, it proceeds to ask several experts in various fields whether the candidate is suitable for the award. These experts, whose names are never disclosed, vary depending on the nominee and his or her profession, he said.

Who to award thus depends heavily on the prime minister’s personal opinion, prompting allegations that it’s only a political tool.

Why are Nagashima and Matsui getting the award together?

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stressed that Nagashima was selected not only for his achievements, but also because he is a beloved star who has greatly contributed to the popularity of pro baseball.

Matsui, meanwhile, is a star who has spent about 20 years in both the Japanese and U.S. leagues. He was also voted the World Series MVP after the Yankees won it in 2009 — a feat no other Japanese has accomplished.

Suga said the two also have a “mentor-disciple relationship” and that the timing of Matsui’s retirement announcement created the perfect opportunity to honor the both of them.

Nagashima was manager of the Giants when Matsui joined the team and trained the up-and-coming slugger. He continued to advise Matsui after he was acquired by the Yankees.

When Suga announced April 1 that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was considering awarding the pair, reporters aggressively questions why they were receiving it together and whether other players had been considered.

One reporter, for instance, asked if Abe had considered honoring Hideo “the Tornado” Nomo, the Kintetsu Buffaloes pitcher who helped pave the way for other players to break the chains of the Japanese system and compete on the world stage that is Major League Baseball by retiring to join the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Have the criteria been revised?

No. The official said they haven’t changed since the award’s inception. Because the accolade is linked to public opinion, the official said, it is preferable to avoid specific criteria.

What do the recipients get?

Those who receive the award are handed a commendation certificate and plaque along with a gift or monetary reward.

The gift depends on the honoree. The official said the government sometimes selects one at its own discretion or asks the winner for a suggestion.

When Oh was presented the first award in 1977, Fukuda gave him a large stuffed crested serpent eagle to symbolize his hopes that Oh’s career and achievements would “still fly higher up.”

While many honorees have received watches, Abe has said he will present Nagashima and Matsui with golden bats. Honorees can also choose to receive a monetary gift, but the official said none has ever done so. The amount would depend on the circumstances, the official said.

Have any candidates turned down the honor?

Yes. Orix BlueWave and MLB superstar Ichiro Suzuki, then with the Seattle Mariners, was offered the award in 2001 and 2004 but declined because he was still an active player.

Yutaka Fukumoto of the Hankyu Braves was nominated after breaking the world record for stolen bases in 1983, but also declined. On April 6, he wrote that he if he had accepted the award, he wouldn’t have been able to casually stride into pachinko parlors anymore.

Does the award really raise the Cabinet’s popularity?

Historically speaking, the award does not appear to have raised the support rate for any leader’s Cabinet.

Of the nine times the award has been bestowed since October 1998, only Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama reaped a dividend in the opinion polls, and an extremely slender one at that, according to Jiji Press. His Cabinet was polling at 46.8 percent just before late actor Hisaya Morishige was awarded on Dec. 22, 2009, and gained just 0.3 percent the following month.

Former Prime Minister Taro Aso handed out the award twice, in January and July 2009, but saw his ratings drop from 17.8 to 16.4, and from 24.1 to 16.3 percent, respectively.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp