A series of scandals and other problems have hit the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and lawmakers of his Liberal Democratic Party, and appear to have started shaking the Abe administration.
We might laugh off politicians who exhibit their ignorance or shameful acts. What cannot be condoned, however, is a statement by Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi, who oversees the broadcast industry. She told the Diet that the government may order TV stations to halt their broadcast transmission if they have aired what is considered to be unfair news reporting in their programs. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe endorsed this position. This is an unprecedented attempt to intimidate the broadcast media.
Nobody is happy to come under criticism. People in power, however, need to part with that sort of self-love. Power can occasionally become corrupt and run wild, thus posing a threat to people’s lives and freedom. It is therefore the destiny of those in power that they become the subject of criticism.
It also must be remembered that the LDP, while it was out of power, deemed it only natural for media organizations to criticize the Democratic Party of Japan government for its policy failures.
In the first place, who is to judge — and how — whether news reporting is unfair? If the judgment belongs to the communications minister — who is also a member of the party in power — it is not impossible for the minister to determine that a media report criticizing his or her party is unfair. If there are people who suffer under poor government policies, to give voice to those people would be a fair news reporting. Fairness is never a concept that means maintaining an equal distance from all political forces. As long as the policies of those at the helm of the government are not 100 percent right, fair media reporting has no other choice but to include attacks on the powers that be.
Last year, LDP lawmakers participating in a meeting to discuss “policies on culture and art” not only invited a novelist touting historical revisionist views as a guest speaker but also argued that pressure should be applied on businesses sponsoring TV programs in order to tame news broadcasts criticizing the government, and that two local dailies in Okinawa should be shut down because they always lash out against the Abe administration policies.
Given that the LDP — a party that does not view such remarks by its own members as shameful — is in power and responsible for broadcast administration, it would only be natural to think that the LDP intends to use the concept of “fairness” to achieve its political purposes.
In Japanese society, it is considered a virtue to be neutral and impartial. Community centers run by local governments often refuse to rent out their facilities for groups with particular political opinions such as opposition to constitutional amendments or exhibitions of art that represent such political messages. But attempts to shield ordinary citizens from partisan discussions has the effect of spreading political apathy. The Japanese language does not have a word that corresponds to “commitment” in English. An attitude to do all you can to promote whatever political cause or principle you believe in is still exceptional in this country.
A look at the primaries and caucuses that the Democrats or Republicans are holding to choose their nominees for the U.S. presidential election can help people understand that the participation of citizens in the process of candidate selection heavily influences the political current. The commitment of grass-roots activists helps choose the presidential candidates and shape the trend of thought behind policies.
Take a look at how the Democratic Party of Japan carried out its campaigns. Contrary to its founding slogan that “citizens take the center stage,” the DPJ’s election campaigns were thoroughly controlled by politicians. The change of government that put the DPJ at the helm of the government in 2009 was nothing more than a shift in power among politicians.
In Japanese politics, commitment on the part of voters is absent. All through the political process, citizens play a passive role, making a choice from among candidates and policies presented by political parties. Therefore, political parties, once they fall from grace, often find themselves lacking true supporters ready to back them through thick and thin. At least in this regard the LDP is stronger than other parties because it has a loyal support base such as Nippon Kaigi (the Japan Conference).
Talks continue for campaign cooperation among opposition parties for the Upper House election in July. But a merger between the DPJ and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) would be nothing more than horse trading within the political industry. If it ever happens, it will have no impact whatsoever in politics as a whole.
The DPJ’s turnaround can only be achieved by inviting broad participation of citizens in the selection of its candidates and the establishment of a policy platform, thereby creating a new energy in politics.
If the party succeeds in setting the stage for a policy debate by squarely challenging the Abe administration’s policy problems, ranging from the prime minister’s attempt to amend the Constitution to the disparity between the rich and poor and the losses incurred in stock investments by the government pension fund, the Upper House election will provide the first opportunity in a long while for Japanese citizens to express their will.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.