In Davos, gripping kabuki with little substance

by Noriko Hama

Afriend asks via email: “Did you see the video of Abe in Davos?”

I hadn’t. So I did.

Many thanks to the friend for some highly toe-curling and blood-curdling entertainment. Much effort must have gone into achieving that overall effect. Gripping as the performance was, the temptation to hide behind the couch for sheer embarrassment was rather great.

Apart from the entertainment value, there were a number of points that I felt compelled to comment on regarding the content of Abe’s speech. Three to be precise.

For one, the gent doth protest too much, methinks. I have discovered that Wikipedia has some interesting things on this point. Let me quote them verbatim:

” ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks” is a quotation from the 1602 play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. It has been used as a figure of speech, in various phrasings, to indicate that a person’s overly frequent or vehement attempts to convince others of something have ironically helped to convince others that the opposite is true, by making the person look insincere and defensive.”

To my mind, the above sounds like the live commentary on that Davos speech of Abe’s. There was much protestation concerning the robustness of the Japanese economy, of the new industries that were about to spring to life, of the vibrancy that defies the concept of twilight. All this is great stuff insofar as rallying cries go. But are they true?

More to the point, why so much emphasis on health and well being? Such excess protestation tends to sow seeds of doubt. Does he know something we don’t? Are things so bad that he has to go to this extent to protest against reality? Is he in denial? And so forth. Of course, it could well be that he believes he can walk on water anyway. In which case woe betide those who are on board when his ship starts sinking after all.

The second issue is one of positioning. Abe was supposedly given the honor of delivering a keynote speech for the Davos gathering. Putting aside for the moment the issue of what on earth these meetings are for in the first place, keynote speeches are surely not about posturing. Nor are they about parading one’s perceived achievements. Keynote speeches, as I understand them, should set the tone for the questions that need to be addressed in the discussions that are about to take place.

Such speeches ought to inspire. They should get people thinking. They should stimulate minds. They should give rise to discourse of a high intellectual caliber.

High octane was much in evidence in the Abe speech, but to what keynote end was not at all evident.

The third issue is one of semantics. The prime minister and his cohorts seem eager to make the phrase “ganban kisei” catch on. “Ganban” is a thick slab of rock. “Kisei” is regulation. Japanese newspapers reported that the prime minister made much of this phrase in his Davos speech. What the prime minister actually said in English was that he will go ahead and destroy all “rock solid vested interests.”

“Rock solid” is entirely acceptable as a translation for ganban. But what about vested interests? Are all rules and regulations actually vested interests? Should all regulations be the target of ax-grinding and drill-wielding because they are by definition borne out of vested interests? Are there no regulations anywhere that are deemed legitimate because they protect the right kind of interests?

In this day and age of “black” companies that exploit their staff, it could well be that we need more, not less, regulation. Of the right kind.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.