One of the greatest frustrations of studying the Japanese language is constantly being lectured by native speakers of the language, as well as fluent foreigners, on its inherent difficulty and grammatical vagueness.
While that difficulty may be exaggerated, it does apply to the use of the language for politics. For nonnative speakers, understanding the Delphic utterances of Japan’s politicians is akin to undertaking the study of a language within a language. One of the top non-Japanese code-breakers of Japan’s political lexicon is Doshisha University professor Ofer Feldman.
In 1993, his “Politics and the News Media in Japan” detailed how Japanese journalists cover politics, what words and phrases they use, and how to make sense of the news media’s coverage of Nagata-cho. The book quickly became indispensable reading for those studying Japanese language, media and politics.
Now Feldman is back with “Talking Politics in Japan Today,” an analysis of the rhetoric that politicians, and the press, use in modern political discourse. Much has changed since Feldman was writing more than a decade ago, but one thing that has not is the existence of “Nagata-cho common sense.” Feldman begins by explaining the role of the media.
Politicians, and journalists who follow them closely, live in their own cloisters, cliques and clubs, each with its own set of rules, standards and norms of behavior. Such groups can be quite formal. Two major press clubs, the Nagata club, which covers the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Hirakawa Club, which covers the Liberal Democratic Party, serve as the two most important filters of political news.
While Feldman notes that the past decade has seen a weakening of the LDP factions, many media organs still have reporters that do nothing but follow faction leaders around all day. Such reporters eventually become de facto members of the faction themselves, dispensing policy advice to the very politicians they are supposed to be covering objectively.
Feldman shows that, as in manufacturing, teamwork is the rule in Japanese political journalism. Reporters work together to gather information, discuss and debate the meaning and implications of the information, and then send it all off to the political desk editor. This system makes scoops and aggressive reporting by individuals nearly impossible. The result is political news that uses homogenized and bland language.
Much of this was covered in Feldman’s 1993 work, so it is a bit of a mystery as to why it is reprinted so fully again. But it does set the stage for the sections that follow, including a chapter on how today’s politicians speak during television interviews. Those who follow Japanese politics are familiar with journalist Soichiro Tahara’s “Sunday Project” program, in which politicians, including prime ministers, discuss a wide variety of issues. This program and a similar one on Fuji TV were analyzed by Feldman to see how Japanese politicians answered, or didn’t answer questions.
The results showed that Japanese politicians love to equivocate on TV. According to Feldman, they do this to protect their “face” or that of their party or faction. Thus, television appearances represent one aspect of the tatemae (public positions) in Japanese politics.
Presumably, though Feldman does not say so, it is more important and more accepted to protect one’s honne (true feelings) from being “misunderstood” by equivocating than it is to speak plainly to a mass audience.
Feldman takes the reader through numerous examples of Japanese politicians equivocating. But it would have been even more interesting if he had dared to explore the broader reasons why Japanese politicians equivocate rather than simply fall back on simple cultural explanations like tatemae and honne to explain what is happening.
It is in the two chapters entitled “metaphorically speaking” that Feldman’s work as a researcher really shines. In these sections, the student of Japanese learns a whole new set of words, slogans, phrases, parables and allegories that are used by those in Nagata-cho, and what they really mean. These chapters alone make the book an indispensable learning tool.
And Feldman makes some inspired observations, notably that, unlike politicians elsewhere, especially in the United States, one never hears Japanese politicians declare “war” (sensou) on domestic social problems. Even the far-rightwing politicians refrain (so far at least) from using sensou when urging crackdowns on everything from truant Japanese youth to illegal foreigners.
In the last chapter, Feldman turns his attention to a subject rarely, if ever, covered by non-Japanese academics: Japanese political cartoons. Feldman looks at political cartoons in two different newspapers, the Asahi and the Yomiuri, and concludes that both papers often featured the prime minister as the subject, and that the prime minister’s personality, or leadership style, was often the main issue.
Feldman remains a top-notch researcher and analyst of facts. But, in journalistic parlance, he seems far more concerned with the who, what, when and where, than with the how or why questions. Wading through numerous examples of verbal gaffes by Japanese politicians might be perversely amusing, but for readers who are less familiar with Japanese politics and seeking a broader perspective, the sheer volume of quotes will seem pointless because Feldman doesn’t apply the same rigorous detailed approach to answering the “why” questions.
“Talking Politics in Japan Today,” therefore, is a useful book for those who are already very familiar with Japanese media and politics, and provides lots of interesting historical data and a few original observations. It is marred by a turgid academic style of writing and editing and a lack of detailed conclusions. Still, it will be of great interest to those seeking to further understand how, if not why, Japanese press and politicians speak at, rather than to, the public.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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