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Media vilification of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, to the point of virtually forcing his resignation, shows just how easily the major press and TV outlets here can control events in this emotional nation.

Mori did not campaign or maneuver for the top job; he was drafted by his peers as the best person to fill urgently the gap caused by the sudden death of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. As secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and in other earlier posts, Mori had handled a wide range of issues fairly competently. He and his supporters have been quite right to insist Japan’s economy can only be rescued by a continued infusion of funds.

Much is made of alleged gaffes — Japan as a country of the gods, etc. But imagine what would happen if a U.S. president set out to deny that the United States was God’s country. Mori is a typical grassroots, provincial-based, conservative politician. In a democracy, that is hardly a sin, even if Japan’s elitist media think otherwise.

Mori’s blunt openness could be refreshing at times. At a closed meeting of the National Conference on Education Reform last year, I was delighted to hear him say frankly that ending compulsory education at age 12 should be considered.

It was a step toward having the state get out of the business of telling people how to organize their lives. It would help solve the problem of unruly children at middle school. Most of all it was a rare example of a prime minister being willing to voice a radically new idea in a bid to get this moribund nation moving. But other conference members seemed not to want to take him seriously.

Lack of gravitas was Mori’s main problem. That, together the generally sorry state of the LDP, left him open to media attack, just as Obuchi had initially been ridiculed by the media as a faceless political hack who deserved to be beaten by better candidates. (One of those candidates was Junichiro Koizumi, described by Makiko Tanaka of the LDP as “henjin,” or weirdo, who seems to think that privatization of Japan’s efficient post-office system will somehow rescue Japan from economic ruin and who has re-emerged as a candidate to replace Mori.)

But unlike Obuchi, Mori has not had the chance to prove his critics wrong. He has had to take some of the blame for the KSD scandal, which was before his time and in which another media favorite to replace him, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, was more involved. And now we have the emotional attacks on him over the sinking of the Ehime Maru training vessel near Hawaii with the loss of young lives.

No one denies that the accident was tragic. But can Mori’s golf-induced, two-hour delay in going to the Cabinet “crisis management center” to worry about the sinking really be labeled as gross prime-ministerial negligence?

Located in the prime minister’s residence, the center is the result of continued lobbying by Japan’s hawks to get Japan mobilized, and the Self-Defense Forces legitimized, to face alleged threats to its security. But to date it may have caused more crises than it has solved — a major reason for former Prime Minister Obuchi’s collapse was fatigue due in part to having to spend days in that self-important center worrying about such alleged “national crises” as an unusual Tokyo train accident and some nonthreatening volcanic fallout in Hokkaido.

In that context, Mori’s golf-course remark that the boat sinking was an “accident” about which he could do nothing, rather than a “crisis” demanding immediate attention, was hardly the ultimate in irresponsible behavior, even if the event has since escalated into a U.S.-Japan relationship mini-crisis. But none of that has registered with Japan’s excitable media.

Like other events that float across the media’s narrow radar screen from time to time, once something has been dubbed a scandal every little detail has to be dragged out to justify the initial clamor. Footage of Mori laughing and joking at another golf event years earlier has been run endlessly on the TV channels to make it look as if he had been doing just that on the day of the boat sinking.

Even the claim that his group had been playing for small money, as do many golfers in Japan, was somehow made to look like yet another reason why Japan must quickly change its prime minister, and boost media king-making egos and sales in the process.

Japan needs an end to this pack journalism. The prime minister’s political party may have overstayed its welcome and be headed for well-deserved defeat in the next election. But that is no reason to treat the nation’s leader like a Kleenex, to be disposed of at media whim.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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