Words are often the strongest weapon in a politician’s armory, but the slightest slip of the tongue can turn into a huge liability, as evidenced by the number of occasions prime ministers and Cabinet members have been caught out in the last six years.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in an effort to tread carefully, has avoided informal “burasagari” (literally, “dangling”) interviews like the plague.
The short, standup question-and-answer sessions with the media have been held daily in the corridors of the prime minister’s office ever since Junichiro Koizumi was in office. Noda’s refusal to hold such interviews has led to a flood of criticism from the media and opposition parties, and his being branded as a “safe driver.”
Shoji Azuma, a professor of social linguistics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, stressed the importance of national leaders holding frequent impromptu interviews and news conferences. “A prime minister’s most important job is to gain the public’s support (for government policies) and to make sure that his voice is heard by the people as often as possible,” said Azuma. “A standup interview is an effective way for politicians to communicate with the public and build a rapport with citizens.”
The standup interviews usually involve young, junior reporters inside the prime minister’s office twice a day. But while they are an opportunity for the prime minister to increase his media exposure, they also can be a double-edged sword, and almost all of Koizumi’s successors have been caught out at one time or another because of inappropriate remarks or slips of the tongue.
Noda’s predecessor, Naoto Kan, stopped holding standup interviews after the March 11 quake and tsunami, saying he was too busy dealing with the aftermath of the disasters and the ensuing Fukushima nuclear crisis.
After Noda replaced Kan in September, members of the press club repeatedly pushed him to resume daily standup interviews — but the prime minister has so far refused.
“My basic position is not to hold (impromptu) interviews,” Noda said during a recent interview with The Japan Times and other media outlets. Holding scheduled interviews or news conferences “is the best format for me to calmly explain government policy and for the media to listen to my comments.”
But Noda has been reluctant to even attend regular press events. In October, he did not hold a single news conference and only gave one interview, with members of the press club.
Yasuharu Ishizawa, president of Gakushuin Women’s College in Tokyo and an expert on politics and the media, said it is important for the prime minister to use the media to disseminate information and build public support for his policies, but added that in his view, holding two impromptu interviews a day is unnecessary.
“I don’t think I’ve heard of any other industrialized countries where a prime minister has to speak to the media twice daily,” Ishizawa said. “I’m not suggesting the prime minister should avoid disclosing information . . . but I don’t think such interviews are standard practice around the world.”
Standup interviews became the norm in domestic politics during Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party administrations. Prior to this, reporters used to camp inside the prime minister’s office and swarm the nation’s leader when he emerged, bombarding him with questions as he walked the corridors or moved around the Diet building.
In a weekly email magazine issued by the prime minister’s office in November 2002, Koizumi explained that he introduced standup interviews so he could talk to the press in a casual manner.
“I thought it would be better to answer questions more calmly while standing still, instead of the tradition of prime ministers fielding reporters’ questions while on the move,” Koizumi said in the magazine. “It is a short interaction so I cannot always fully express myself, but I do consider it an important opportunity to connect directly with the people.”
By mastering the art of delivering short and succinct answers, Koizumi turned standup interviews to his advantage and used them to boost his popularity during his five years in office.
His less-adept successors, however, have struggled to come to terms with the spontaneity of the interviews and made verbal gaffes that have often undermined the public’s faith in them.
Former LDP Prime Ministers Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso also didn’t try to hide their irritation at having to answer questions from a pack of mostly young, inexperienced reporters.
Most major newspapers and TV stations send young reporters to cover the prime minister’s standup interviews as part of their training.
After the Democratic Party of Japan won power in 2009, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama became known for wavering in his responses from day to day, and eventually stepped down after flip-flopping on the contentious relocation of the U.S. Futenma base in Okinawa.
“I think I had to resign (after less than a year) because I held so many (impromptu) interviews. It looks like Noda has learned from my mistakes,” Hatoyama reportedly said in September, commenting on the current prime minister’s avoidance of such interviews.
Ishizawa of Gakushuin Women’s College said that while every prime minister since Koizumi must accept individual blame for careless remarks, the media are also partly at fault for not sending veteran reporters to conduct the standup interviews.
Dispatching freshmen journalists to quiz the nation’s leader is “inappropriate,” he said.
Ishizawa also blamed the media for picking apart prime ministers’ responses, which due to the nature of the standup interviews are to a large degree spontaneous, and then trying to trip them up.
“If a prime minister’s support rate is falling, the media are especially likely to pounce if his comments differ slightly from the day before,” Ishizawa said. “If holding daily standup interviews results in seizing on the slightest difference in the prime minister’s remarks and trying to catch him out, I think it is meaningless.”
It appears that Noda, mindful of his predecessors’ missteps, has no plans to reintroduce impromptu interviews and thereby expose himself to the risk of verbal gaffes anytime soon. During an Upper House plenary session last week, he confirmed he would “continue to drive safely (to avoid any) accidents.”
But that is a risk political leaders have to take, said Azuma from the University of Utah.
“It’s true that prime ministers have to sometimes answer spontaneously to the media and that is a major risk,” he said. “But if you are a politician, you have to overcome that with your communication skills.”