National / Politics

How Abe works, or doesn't work, with the media

JIJI

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers questions in brief, on-the-spot interviews with beat reporters far less frequently than before, according to journalists who have intensively covered the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

Abe markedly changed the way he presents himself to the media from his first to second stint as prime minister, slashing the number of questions he answers during burasagari briefings while boosting his use of social media, said the current and former prime minister beat reporters.

Abe’s first stint ended in just a year after he became Japan’s youngest prime minister in the post-World War II period in 2006. He returned to power in 2012 and became the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in November this year.

During the first stint, Abe had a difficult time with burasagari interviews, held twice a day at the time.

He was often criticized for looking at television cameras instead of at reporters while answering questions, a reporter recalled.

He was slammed when he tried to look away from the cameras following the criticism, as he appeared to have shifty eyes, another said.

Abe’s failures in front of the press also stemmed from his tendency to show his irritation in his facial expressions, making him unsuited for television, unlike Junichiro Koizumi, another reporter said.

The practice of daily burasagari sessions was terminated under Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who said he wanted to focus on responses to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in Tohoku.

“Abe tells people around him that the termination was ‘the only and greatest achievement of the Democratic Party of Japan government,'” a reporter said, referring to the now-defunct party that took power from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in 2009.

When Abe resigned as prime minister in 2007, he was lambasted for having “irresponsibly given up” the helm. After this, Abe is said to have written down lessons learned from his first stint and ideas on what he could accomplish if he were to take power again, according to a reporter.

He also maintained connections with officials who served him as aides through activities such as golf and hiking, promising to retake the prime minister’s seat, the reporter added.

Many of the officials are now in Abe’s administration, including Takaya Imai, special adviser to the prime minister, and Shigeru Kitamura, head of the secretariat for the National Security Council.

In his second stint, Abe is trying to reduce the risk of criticism by keeping interactions with beat reporters to a minimum, rarely stopping when asked questions, reporters said.

They also said Abe selectively responds to questions apparently out of concern about his approval ratings, such as when he spent over 20 minutes making explanations about a controversial annual cherry blossom-viewing party.

The reduced exposure to burasagari, however, does not mean the prime minister avoids the limelight.

Abe has frequently held meetings in times of natural disasters and made statements facing television cameras directly for topics that are likely to become big news, a reporter said.

He also is also a frequent social media user. He posted on Twitter celebrations of Japanese victories during the 2019 Rugby World Cup only a few minutes after the games ended, according to another reporter.

The prime minister also seems to be sensitive to the portrayal of his administration on daytime television news shows.

One reporter suspected that the administration often makes announcements of negative issues on Fridays in order to avoid criticism during weekday TV shows. Another reporter noted that Abe spoke to the press about the controversial cherry blossom-viewing party on a Friday.

A reporter said Abe’s successful run as the longest-serving leader has continued apparently because the public was fed up with frequent changes of prime ministers in the past. The lack of another heavyweight in the LDP to call for his ouster is seen as another contributing factor.