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‘Teflon Abe’ gets high marks despite unpopular policies

by

Special To The Japan Times

Is Japan a democracy?

Yes, of course, obviously. Voters vote, demonstrators demonstrate, critics criticize. These are the vital signs, and they’re positive.

Just look at the government scrambling to blunt the charge of an anonymous blogger venting rage at being unable to get her child into day care. She’s a single mother earning a precarious living and she may have to quit her part-time job, a victim of the government’s failure to concern itself with the basic needs of its citizens.

Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s initial attempt to brush her off backfired. An aroused populace is demanding action, and action, with Upper House elections looming this summer, is suddenly on the government’s agenda. This is democracy in action. It’s very satisfying.

Doubts arise, however, all the same. There are anomalies that invite them. A one-party democracy seems an oxymoron. Opposition parties function after a fashion, but fleeting interludes aside — the lengthiest being the three-year span under Democratic Party of Japan leadership in 2009-2012 — the Liberal Democratic Party regime, all but unchallengeable for 60 years, remains so for the foreseeable future.

A second anomaly is a puzzling and persistent rift between the high support ratings enjoyed by the Abe administration since its inception in December 2012, and the marked unpopularity of its signature policies. It is one thing for peaceful citizens to submit to legislation they disapprove of, if they can’t change it. It is quite another for them to support the government responsible, as they consistently tell pollsters they do.

Earlier this month the Asahi Shimbun published the results of one of its own polls. They are baffling. Are they sinister too?

Question 1: “Do you support the Abe Cabinet?” Forty-four percent of 1,882 respondents do, 35 percent do not. This is hardly Abe-mania, but it’s solid. A leader registering 44 percent approval after three years in office might reasonably claim to be giving voters what they want, executing the people’s will.

But is he? Further down we read: “Do you feel the economy has recovered since the Abe administration took office?” No, say 76 percent; yes, say 17 percent.

“Do you think Abe’s economic policies have led to higher wages and more jobs?” No: 62 percent. Yes: 24 percent.

“Are you hopeful regarding Abe’s policies to encourage child-rearing?” No: 58 percent. Yes: 26 percent.

“Do you view Abe’s ambition to revise the Constitution in a positive light?” No: 49 percent. Yes: 38 percent.

“Do you think Abe’s nuclear power policy reflects the lessons learned from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster?” No: 60 percent. Yes: 23 percent.

So, yes — baffling. Why such firm support for a leader whose policies cut so sharply against the popular grain?

“Sinister” may be too strong a word, but when you pose the question that naturally arises — to wit, “What is there to like about a government leader whose policies you don’t like?” — you inevitably find yourself thinking, somewhat uneasily, about a point the business magazine President made earlier this year. The magazine contrasted the dismal failure of Abe’s first term in office in 2006-7 with the striking electoral success, so far, of his second. Its explanation, given the strong continuity between his policies then and now, centered on Abe’s mastery, this time around, of the art of image politics. He has learned to gesture, to make eye contact, to speak rhythmically and expressively, as opposed to woodenly while reading from notes. “Non-verbal communication” is the technical term, and it’s said to account for 70 percent of a speech’s effectiveness.

President sees nothing sinister in that — on the contrary, it advises we all study nonverbal communication in order to succeed in business — but the critical (or maybe merely anxiety-ridden) reader can hardly help seeing, or at least suspecting, that, at the political level, nonverbal communication is, purely and simply, the manipulation of public opinion, a more sinister term for which, if we want to get sinister about it, is “brainwashing.”

Earlier this month, as part of its commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and its attendant catastrophes (including the meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1), the Asahi offered two contrasting perspectives, one from documentary filmmaker Tomoko Kana, the other from Tokyo University political scientist Izuru Makihara.

Before the cataclysm, Kana says, “Many people thought along the lines of, ‘If the government says it, it must be true; the government will protect us.'” She noticed afterward an attitude shift to “We’d better think for ourselves.”

Suddenly, she says, “People who had never taken an interest in anything besides fashion were studying issues relating to nuclear power, demanding answers from officials about the (radioactive) content of school lunches and so on.”

Makihara’s take is different, though not necessarily conflicting. In uncertain times, he observes, people gravitate to leaders who can project strength. The uncertainty of our own time is certain — it may be the only certain thing about it. The “Lehman Shock,” the rise of China, the 2011 earthquake, international terrorism, all suggest a world spinning — if not spun — out of control. And at Japan’s helm stands Abe, declaring firmly and repeatedly, “This way” — his way — “is the only way.” He has used the phrase with reference to his controversial Abenomics economic recovery strategy, his controversial state secrets law, his controversial plan to revise the Constitution, his controversial handling of the military base issue in Okinawa, and his controversial nuclear restart initiatives. It’s risky — it sounds arrogant and authoritarian. It might alienate those whom Kana says are newly learning to think for themselves. But so far Abe seems to be reading the public mood correctly. People may not like his policies but, broadly speaking, they like the way he pushes them — like a bold and determined leader who knows what he’s doing.

Does he? Time will tell. Do we? Have Abe’s supporters adequately taken the measure of the man and his government? Resolute leadership is good up to a point — but up to which point? How much confident exercise of power can democracy stand? Is the recent threat by communications minister Sanae Takaichi to annul the licenses of broadcasters whose coverage she deems unfair an assault on democracy, or is it an example of the bold leadership we crave in uncertain times?

Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is on sale now.

  • GBR48

    It is common in democratic nations for there to be no ‘good’ option – nobody you trust and nobody who you consider to be competent. So it’s not unusual for people to vote for a party they consider untrustworthy, do not like and believe to be failing in all their signature policies, simply because they view the alternative as likely to be even worse.

  • David W. Rudlin

    I think GBR48 hit the nail on the head. Yes, the Japanese public likes strength, even when it’s misguided. But the key reason for Abe’s illogical popularity is that he’s the only option on the menu. I’d be surprised if a majority of the electorate could name the heads of the opposition, much less cite even one of their policy differences with the LDP. Until Japan comes up with a viable alternative, Abe will continue to overrule the will of the people.

  • Aussie Andrew

    Abe has usurped the Emperorship.
    The royal family mean nothing anymore; especially since Hirohito lost the silly war.
    Go ahead with your new emperor Abe and get into trouble with China again.

  • Aussie Andrew

    Abe has usurped the Emperorship.
    The royal family mean nothing anymore; especially since Hirohito lost the silly war.
    Go ahead with your new emperor Abe and get into trouble with China again.

    • A.J. Sutter

      The current Emperor and Empress are very precious: they’re more articulate and outspoken defenders of democracy than most members of the Diet. Unfortunately, next generation looks like they prefer tennis.

    • Sacha Salvatore Morgese

      Errr….You know that the Emperor has meant nothing for thousands of years, right? You know that all of Japanese history is basically an Emperor who meant nothing and other people around him reigning, right? I mean, first was the family, then the Shogun, now we have politicians. The only difference between now and then is that in the past the Emperor had the power, officially. Now he means nothing politically. He’s more similar to the Pope than to a prime minister.

    • Sacha Salvatore Morgese

      Errr….You know that the Emperor has meant nothing for thousands of years, right? You know that all of Japanese history is basically an Emperor who meant nothing and other people around him reigning, right? I mean, first was the family, then the Shogun, now we have politicians. The only difference between now and then is that in the past the Emperor had the power, officially. Now he means nothing politically. He’s more similar to the Pope than to a prime minister.

    • Sacha Salvatore Morgese

      Errr….You know that the Emperor has meant nothing for thousands of years, right? You know that all of Japanese history is basically an Emperor who meant nothing and other people around him reigning, right? I mean, first was the family, then the Shogun, now we have politicians. The only difference between now and then is that in the past the Emperor had the power, officially. Now he means nothing politically. He’s more similar to the Pope than to a prime minister.

    • Sacha Salvatore Morgese

      Errr….You know that the Emperor has meant nothing for thousands of years, right? You know that all of Japanese history is basically an Emperor who meant nothing and other people around him reigning, right? I mean, first was the family, then the Shogun, now we have politicians. The only difference between now and then is that in the past the Emperor had the power, officially. Now he means nothing politically. He’s more similar to the Pope than to a prime minister.

    • Sacha Salvatore Morgese

      Errr….You know that the Emperor has meant nothing for thousands of years, right? You know that all of Japanese history is basically an Emperor who meant nothing and other people around him reigning, right? I mean, first was the family, then the Shogun, now we have politicians. The only difference between now and then is that in the past the Emperor had the power, officially. Now he means nothing politically. He’s more similar to the Pope than to a prime minister.

  • A.J. Sutter

    The question of whether Japan is a democracy is not so easy to answer. Certainly it’s more democratic than Russia or most Middle Eastern countries — though they have elections and demonstrations, too. But there are many other criteria Westerners usually think of in connection with democracies that are lacking in Japan, even though Japan is not necessarily the worst offender in each category. These include:

    a) alternation of parties: only China and, technically, North Korea, have had one party stay in power longer than the LDP, who have held the reins for 55 of the past 60 years.

    b) an independent judiciary, especially Supreme Court that safeguards the freedoms of citizens: e.g., even though the Japanese Constitution explicitly gives it the power to strike down unconstitutional legislation, the Japan Supreme Court has always upheld legislation that restricts freedom of speech

    c) a free press: recent threats aside (which, BTW is nothing new), anyone who lives here knows how some stories simultaneously disappear from all news outlets, how sports or entertainment figures getting busted for drugs are the top stories during election seasons, etc.

    d) civil rights legislation that protect citizens against private violation of human rights: e.g., if an employer wants to fire/not hire you because of what political party or religion you belong to, even though it doesn’t have any relation to your work, it’s OK in Japan

    e) citizen access to public office: e.g., to run for the Diet in Japan you have to put up a deposit of ¥3 million, about 15x what you need to run for Congress in California (most expensive US state), and > 30x what you need to stand for UK Parliament. It’s also > 70% of median annual household income in Japan — and BTW, unless you’re self-employed, you’ll have to quit your job once you declare.

    f) independent supervision of elections: in Japan, the Diet approves its own election system and election districts – no binding non-partisan anything.

    g) relatively proportional election system: the system adopted by the Diet for elections, called mixed member majoritarian (a/k/a parallel) is among the worst available at fairly representing the votes cast in a national election — it’s the same one used in Putin’s Russia, BTW. Whereas in the US it’s an anomaly for the President to be the loser of the national popular vote, in both of the recent Abe Administrations, the LDP-Komeito coalition didn’t just win a majority but a 2/3 supermajority – even though 60% of votes cast were _against_ them.

    A more ancient criterion for democracy comes from Aristotle. He defined six different types of government: monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and “polity” (which in modern terms we’d call a republic). In this scheme, democracy is rule of the poor, who are also the majority, and polity combines elements of democracy and aristocracy (rule by the best). When I ask my Japanese college students each year which type applies to Japan, they perennially and unhesitatingly make the same choice: oligarchy, rule by the rich and the few.

    The fact that Abe and the LDP care about public opinion is less a mark of democracy than of the population’s inalienable sovereign power. As political philosophers from Polybius (3d Century BCE) to Jacques Rancière (21st C.) have pointed out, even tyrants can get overthrown when those they rule get mad enough at them. That’s why even during the Roman Empire, providing people the proverbial “bread and circuses” was a political necessity. Unfortunately, considering the constant parade of scandals and blunders by LDP members and prospective candidates these days, it looks like the party is taking the circus stuff a bit too literally.

  • Tachomanx

    The biggest problem I think is that there is no viable alternative in Japan, the other parties are run by such incompetent politicans that they couldn’t capitalize on last year’s discontent.

    And even to this day offer nothing new. No new policies, no proposals, no nothing beyond reverting the LDP’s measures which fix nothing both on economic or security matters.

    So no wonder people rather vote for those who at least seems to have a plan than those who simply sit around to say no.

  • Jean-Michel Levy

    The principle of democracy is to delegate power to people whose job it is to take decisions for the community. It is certainly not to change decisions because there are demonstrations here or a negaive opinion poll there. That would be demagogy, not democracy. If people do not approve of the decisions taken, they will express there disapproval at the next elections and in the mean time, they can express their opinions to their representatives. I believe that Japanese people understand that very well, certainly better than say, the French, and that explains why they back a leader who obviously has strong beliefs which he is not ready to swap for more votes here or there.