If there is one way you can count on Japanese politicians, it is their ability to make headlines by putting their foot in their mouth.
Time and again, high-profile politicians and Cabinet ministers have placed their careers in jeopardy over slips of the tongue, misstatements and even downright insults. The most recent example is Masahiro Imamura, who was forced to resign as reconstruction minister last month after saying “it was good” the 2011 mega-quake hit the Tohoku region instead of Tokyo.
Experts point out a variety of factors for the phenomenon, from politicians’ deteriorating caliber to their psychological collusion with those they perceive as their “family,” and the Japanese media’s propensity to find fault with their remarks.
We look into the culture of gaffes in Japanese politics.
What are some of the most notorious political gaffes?
- “The intelligence level in the U.S. is much lower than in Japan because of a significant makeup of the black and Mexican population as well as people in Puerto Rico.” — Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1986.
- “Japanese people take bankruptcy very seriously … but in America, where the use of credit cards is common, many blacks file (for) bankruptcy and just laugh it off, thinking they no longer have to pay anything at all from the next day. They’re so akkerakan (nonchalant) about it.” — Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Michio Watanabe in 1988.
- “Heinous crimes have repeatedly been committed by sangokujin and foreigners.” — Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara in 2000. “Sangokujin” is a pejorative term referring to Koreans and Taiwanese.
- “Japan is a kami no kuni (divine nation) that centers on the Emperor.” — Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in 2000. His comment was swiftly condemned by the opposition as evocative of Japan’s prewar worship of emperors.
- Speaking about childless women: “They don’t bear a single child, but selfishly — as you may put it — enjoy their freedom and grow old like that. It’s preposterous that taxes go into taking care of them (after retirement).” — Mori again, in 2003.
- “Even if they wanted to die, the (elderly) are being encouraged to live on. … They should be allowed to hurry up and die.” — Vice Prime Minister Taro Aso in 2013.
- “The Weimar Constitution was changed into the Nazi Constitution without people realizing it. Why don’t we learn from that method?” — Aso again, in 2013.
How seriously are such blunders taken?
They tend to take a heavy toll on Japanese politicians, at times costing them ministerial portfolios.
In 2010, Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida of the Democratic Party of Japan quit amid criticism over what he told his supporters at a party in his home district of Hiroshima: “There are only two phrases you need to memorize as justice minister” to answer questions in the Diet. ” ‘I will refrain from commenting on individual cases’ and ‘we’re properly dealing with the matter based on the law and evidence.’ ”
In 2011, having just returned from a trip to radiation-hit Fukushima, Yoshio Hachiro of the DPJ jokingly said he would “nuke” a reporter while reportedly trying to rub his protective gear on the journalist. He eventually had to step down as minister of economy, trade and industry.
In March, LDP lawmaker Shunsuke Mutai, at the time a parliamentary vice minister, tendered his resignation after joking at a fundraising party about his own faux pas from the year before that saw him carried piggyback by a government official in typhoon-hit Iwate Prefecture because he had forgotten to bring rubber boots. At the party he said he bets “the rain boot industry made a lot of money” thanks to his misstep.
What makes political gaffes in Japan unique?
Except for incorrigible bunglers such as Ishihara, Mori and Aso, politicians usually get into trouble by blurting out an inappropriate remark almost unintentionally during a private setting — a trend that sets them apart from foreign leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump, whose borderline racist rhetoric during the campaign appeared to be part of his populist tactics, said Shigeki Uno, a political philosophy professor at the University of Tokyo.
Why do many gaffes occur during informal gatherings like parties or seminars?
Uno cited a “tatemae (pretense)/honne (honesty)” dichotomy that makes Japanese politicians balk at saying anything remotely controversial or straightforward in public. Hence their dogged adherence to scripts prepared by bureaucrats when they speak at the Diet or a regular news conference.
This is why, Uno said, most gaffes are blurted out in the “back” world of politics, such as during a faction meeting or informal get-together with local supporters, when politicians let their guard down and even venture to volunteer tasteless jokes they wouldn’t dare utter in public.
“Basically, this is a culture of collusion where politicians banter only with people they feel close to and try to solidify a sense of camaraderie,” he said. “But what was intended to be an inside joke sometimes finds its way out and makes headlines.”
Gaffes even come about when Diet members or senior government officials are chatting frankly with a privileged circle of mainstream media behind closed doors, where they can only be quoted anonymously, or in an off-the-record setting where they are not to be quoted at all. But in the past, some indiscreet statements uttered in these occasions made headlines nonetheless.
Are there any other factors that make Japanese politicians so prone to gaffes?
Former DPJ lawmaker Atsushi Kinoshita, author of the 2015 book “Seijika Shitsugen Hogen Taizen” (“Compilation of Gaffes by Politicians”), blames a general deterioration in the quality of Japanese politicians.
Running for a Diet seat is significantly easier today thanks in part to the advent of what is called an “open recruitment” system. Political parties now utilize it to solicit potential candidates from the public, sometimes even with the promise of helping finance their campaign.
“It used to be that you had to study really hard about policy and save up money to become a politician. … But today, in a sense, anybody can become one, without making much effort,” Kinoshita said.
“The result is that many politicians today don’t know how to talk about actual policy so they go after an easy way of impressing an audience by saying stupid things. They get a cheap laugh, and think they’re popular. The degradation is egregious.”
Was the “it was good it was in Tohoku” remark by former reconstruction minister Imamura really serious enough to cost him his portfolio?
Imamura’s remark was not a gaffe by Western standards and unlikely to dominate headlines in Europe as it did in Japan, said Igor Prusa, a Czech scholar at the University of Tokyo whose doctoral thesis was on scandals and media in postwar Japan.
“Everybody knows that what he meant was if the same magnitude had hit Tokyo, it would’ve been a much worse disaster,” Prusa said.
But Imamura, having only weeks before come under fire for yelling at a freelance journalist at a news conference, was under close scrutiny by the media, which then “emphasized and amplified” his Tohoku reference and played up its newsworthiness, Prusa said.
“The ‘gaffe’ was not really a gaffe. It was an objective truth, delivered at the wrong place at the wrong time,” the scholar said, calling Imamura’s resignation a “media-constructed event” that exploited Japanese people’s overall sensitivity to language.
Ofer Feldman, a political psychology professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto who has closely observed the political language of Japan, agrees, saying the incident shed renewed light on the Japanese media’s fixation with the smallest details of what politicians say.
“In Japan, the emphasis is more on what you say than on what you do. This is basically how the media sees politicians here,” Feldman said.
In Japan, reporters for mainstream media are seen frantically transcribing live politicians’ utterances almost verbatim at news conferences. Or in the system called bankisha (“follow and guard reporter”), a reporter is assigned to a single high-ranking Diet member or senior government official and keeps a close watch day and night over each little word and action.
In this regard, Feldman said he thinks there is a kernel of truth to what LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai had to say about Imamura’s exit: “Reporters keep a record of every single word of politicians. They find fault with one single sentence, and the next moment it’s all about resignation. Oh boy.”