The government comes clean

One story that I’ve neglected to follow here is the ongoing scandal regarding allegations that the Abe and Koizumi governments had arranged “plants” to ask friendly questions at town hall meetings that were inaugurated in 2001. I held off on commenting because it was unclear how the 「やらせ問題」(yarase mondai, the “fake” problem) fit with the pattern of the early months of the Abe Cabinet, and, in any cases, most, if not all, of the tainted town meetings occurred under the Koizumi Cabinet, although they were the responsibility of then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe Shinzo.

On December 13th, however, the committee responsible for investigating this issue released its final report (Asahi article in Japanese here), confirming that the allegations were true: the government paid plants to ask questions favorable to the government position on a number of issues, including education. The committee also noted that budgets for the meetings were padded, a problem that would have been easily solved through public accounting.

I have a number of comments to make about this story.

First, one of the changes that has supposedly accompanied Japan’s shift to a more presidential premiership since the Nakasone Cabinet is that the prime minister would increasingly reach out to the public for support for his policies. If this is how Japan’s governments are going to act in the マスコミ (masukomi, mass communication) era, maybe it would be best if they went back to the old days of making decisions behind closed doors without seeking public input or support. A democracy must have a two-way flow of information between government and governed, but if the people cannot trust the information flowing from the government, the transmission breaks down. No democratic public — this includes the US — should tolerate government manipulation or withholding of public information.

Following on that, I have to wonder if this isn’t a gift to the DPJ, making it easier for the DPJ to argue in the months leading up to the Upper House elections that the Abe Cabinet is unfit to govern; since the government displayed a lack of trust in the Japanese people by manipulating supposedly public forums, the people should withhold their support for the government. Time will tell how this issue will play out in forthcoming debates, but with Abe’s acceptance of responsibility for the manipulation, the DPJ has been given another weapon for its campaign arsenal.

Third, I think this reveals a lot about Abe Shinzo and his style of governance. Abe has tried to pose as Koizumi’s successor, but as several observers noted during the LDP leadership campaign, he lacks his predecessor’s public presence. This observation has, in my opinion, panned out. Abe looks like an aloof statesman trying to pose as a man of the people. (Just read his weekly email magazine or watch his “Live Talk Kantei” every week, where he talks about his travels, his favorite foods, etc. He comes across as a someone trying very hard to be likable.) Manipulating town hall meetings seems consistent with Abe’s aloofness as a politician. I have a sneaking suspicion that Abe would be more comfortable with the cozy days of undisputed LDP dominance, when the LDP, together with allies in the bureaucracy, made policy and asked questions later, if at all. Things have changed, albeit too slowly, and a sharply critical citizenry will not tolerate a return to the old-style of governance. For all his fifty-two years of age, Abe may have more in common with an older generation of politicians than his baby boom cohort.

Lastly, and on a positive note, Abe and the relevant cabinet ministers announced as they accepted responsibility that they would forgo their salaries for three and two months respectively. It would be nice to see similar gestures in Washington, although I won’t hold my breath.

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