If you were to play the old word-association game with the name “Mori” today, chances are most people would instantly think “gaffe” (in Japanese, “shitsugen”).
Since the prime minister took office 11 months ago, there has hardly been a newspaper article about him in which that word hasn’t been linked with his name almost as often as “Yoshiro.” At the same time, across the Pacific, presidential candidate-turned-President George W. Bush has been busy burnishing his own gaffe-a-day image. The term pops up so often as a synonym for “Bushism” no one has questioned its use. And yet the one man is fighting to stay in office while the other rode his verbal blunders right into the White House. Why?
The answer has been obscured by the near-criminal overuse of this handy word “gaffe,” which has created the impression that Mr. Mori is being pilloried (or, as Mr. Bush says, “pillared”) for things the new American president is getting away with. In fact, the kinds of things that have earned the two men their trouble-prone reputations can only be yoked together as gaffes if the term is stretched almost beyond meaning. Whatever you call them, Mr. Mori’s controversial characterization of Japan as “a nation of the gods with the Emperor at its center” and Mr. Bush’s charge that Vice President Al Gore’s tax plan would require “numerous IRA agents” are not even remotely comparable. Yet these remarks pretty much encapsulate the kinds of misstatement the two leaders tend to make. They can’t both be gaffes. Maybe neither of them is.
What is a gaffe? Dictionary definitions largely agree on “social blunder,” with the universal synonym given as “faux pas,” the French term meaning false step. Oxford, but not Webster, extends this to include an indiscreet remark as well as act, but implicit in all definitions is the sense of something that violates convention. A true gaffe, then, is the kind of thing that foreign political leaders notoriously do around the queen of England: kissing her cheek, for example, or, horrors, touching her elbow. If the definition is infinitesimally extended to include conventions other than purely social — diplomatic, say — then both Mr. Mori and Mr. Bush have been guilty of gaffes, but not nearly as often as you might suppose. It was a gaffe for Mr. Mori to suggest to the British prime minister that Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by North Korea might conveniently be “found” in a third country. It was equally a gaffe for Mr. Bush to write a post-inauguration thank-you note to the premier of the semiautonomous Danish territory of Greenland in which he merrily implied that Greenland was a separate country.
But the definition has been stretched further still, until it no longer suggests just a social or diplomatic blunder, but any old blunder. Thus Mr. Bush’s many malapropisms and grammatical howlers. It is indeed a blunder of sorts to say, as he has, “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile” or “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test” or “I am a person who recognizes the fallacy of humans” (as well he might). But such linguistic lapses are not technically gaffes. In each case, Mr. Bush’s intended meaning, once discerned, was seen to be socially unexceptionable, indeed yawningly conventional. Most Americans seem to recognize this, and those who don’t may already, in Mr. Bush’s own unique phrasing, have “misunderestimated” him by mistaking his inarticulacy for stupidity.
Mr. Mori’s case is more complicated. He is charged not with lapses of language, but with lapses of judgment. That sounds like gaffe territory. But again, it is only by the most tenuous definition that most of his controversial remarks qualify as gaffes, and that includes the “nation of the gods” reference and his use last year of the contentious prewar term for Japan, “kokutai.” Neither offended convention: In a sense, nothing could be more conventional in Japan than the sensibility implied by the use of those terms. They are politically offensive to many, but by no means to all. Mr. Mori’s problem is that his opponents, and the media, have succeeded in portraying his expression of these views as gaffes, not debatable convictions with a context, turning their image of him as a gaffe-happy dimwit into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anything he does is dubbed a gaffe. The public’s problem is that it has become almost impossible to tell a real Mori gaffe from a media-generated one.
We think “gaffe” should be forcibly retired from the political lexicon, although it can’t happen soon enough to save Mr. Mori. But then again, perhaps his fate is not entirely undeserved. Through the slippery fog of words, Mr. Bush at least grasped one truth that seems to have eluded Mr. Mori: “I have a different vision of leadership,” he said last year. “A leadership is someone who brings people together.”
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