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A year ago, the big news story in Japan was former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn languishing in a jail cell while the media discussed whether he should be there, thus sparking an overdue discussion about the country’s so-called hostage justice system. It was a nice discussion while it lasted. 

It was also an apt example of what constitutes a news cycle these days and explains in part the staying power of the administration of Shinzo Abe, now the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history. Abe has accomplished little considering how long he’s been in power. With each passing week, it seems less likely his most cherished goal, changing the Constitution, will be achieved within his tenure, and his once-lauded Abenomics economic revival plan hasn’t exactly sparked an economic revival. 

However, he has survived the kind of scandals that sank the administrations of his predecessors, including his own during his first stint as premier. Overcoming scandals has become his main accomplishment (so far), as relevant to his legacy as anything, since it requires a special talent for manipulating the media. Whether Abe himself is the source of that talent is up for debate, but these ever-shortening news cycles have been an enormous help.

Media persons of the year: bureaucrats

Another element that has kept scandal from derailing the Abe administration is the actual government, meaning the bureaucracy. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party that Abe heads is merely the republican facade that allows the earnest factotums in Kasumigaseki to keep things running without having to worry about the people’s will. 

By that token, civil servants prefer to be invisible, an aspect best represented by their anonymity in the press. Reporters the world over rely on bureaucrats for the nitty-gritty on government action, usually off the record. In the United States they’re called “sources,” while in Japan they’re “kankeisha,” or “related people,” and traditionally act as a kind of safety valve when the elected government becomes too full of itself. It’s this dynamic between the temporary and permanent governments that is said to keep Japan stable. When the former Democratic Party of Japan became the ruling party in 2009, bureaucrats undermined its policies because the bureaucracy didn’t like them. The LDP knows that as long as bureaucrats are happy, the LDP can do what it likes.

In recent years, however, bureaucrats have had their work cut out for them owing to the LDP’s increasing recklessness. Despite the shrinking nature of news cycles, several scandals from 2017 returned to haunt the Abe regime this year and the bureaucracy came to his rescue, albeit retroactively, since it started throwing away official records (when it wasn’t altering or forging them) for the sake of expediency some time ago, despite the questionable constitutionality of such a policy. Consequently, opposition parties had no hard evidence with which to prosecute the LDP’s alleged trespasses. This strategy reached critical mass this fall with the cherry blossom viewing party scandal, involving taxpayer money being spent to woo existing and potential party supporters. Relevant information about these supporters was systematically destroyed in a suspiciously timely manner by what the press has characterized as the biggest paper shredder in the annals of office equipment. The abject ludicrousness of the explanation was eclipsed by awe at the audacity of it all. 

Which brings us to two memorable quotes from the past year: 

  • “On tackling such a big-scale issue like climate change … it’s got to be sexy.” — Shinjiro Koizumi, environment minister 
  • “I hope the students will do their best while selecting the two occasions that are most befitting their financial standing.” — Koichi Hagiuda, education minister

Ostensibly, bureaucrats take orders from whichever politician is appointed the head of their particular ministry, but no one expects these temporary gatekeepers to be up on their portfolios, which is why it’s preferable they keep as low a profile as possible. These two quotes reflect what happens when ministers neglect to follow this prescription. 

In the case of Shinjiro Koizumi, touted as a future prime minister due to his popularity, his statement reveals Japan’s nonapproach to climate change, since the government has never seen it as an issue worthy of attention at the Climate Action Summit in September, which is where Koizumi uttered it. And while some thought his use of the word “sexy” was a function of linguistic ignorance, it was a natural and maybe even savvy choice for someone who sees the problem purely as a matter of public relations management

Hagiuda’s remark was in relation to his ministry’s plan to incorporate private-sector English language tests in its university admission program. He was admitting that some students have a better chance of succeeding because they have more money. Everyone knows that, but for Hagiuda to say there’s nothing wrong with it set some people off, since it implies the government accepts inequities in the admissions process. One can imagine the bureaucrats under him smacking their foreheads in frustration when they heard him say it.

Media topic of the year: succession

A new emperor, a new imperial era. But despite an ongoing debate about the role of women in the monarchy and the previous emperor’s legacy of atonement, the media fixated on the ceremonial pomp so single-mindedly that they rendered the whole institution as being anachronistic and meaningless. Maybe it is, but it wasn’t the intention.

Most valuable player: Litera

This website fronts as a review of books and magazines, though it’s had more of an impact as a shrewd corrective to whatever conventional wisdom the mainstream press is pushing. Its writers and critics survey the entire range of Japanese public life, from entertainment to politics to the media itself, with a wry sense of discovery and almost supernatural speed. Sometimes it comments on breaking news even before the news breaks.

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