Criticize the media, but don’t let up on the pols

Ampotman directs another post against the media — this time the Wall Street Journal — for being unfair to Japanese prime ministers, this time Abe’s august predecessors from the revolving-door nineties.

Now, I don’t disagree with his main point: the Western media’s lack of attention to what happens in Japan is shockingly bad, with the possible exception of the FT and the Times of London. (Longtime readers will recall my fondness for articles by the FT’s Tokyo correspondent David Pilling; Pilling attempts to explain Japan as it is, instead of reducing it to a handful of cliches about resurgent nationalism, etc.)

But that does not mean that Japan’s prime ministers, especially those who governed during Japan’s “lost decade” should be let off the hook. Japan’s prime ministers, up to the present day, have largely been content to operate in a system in which their ability to initiate policies and lead are strongly limited, with significant policy making power resting in the hands of the bureaucracy and the LDP’s policy making organs. (And with cabinet ministers “captured” by their ministries rather than serving the prime minister’s goals.)

To quote from Aurelia George Mulgan’s Japan’s Failed Revolution, which I’ve touted before:

The role of the prime minister in this system has not been to lead and impose his will on the party and the government, but to articulate the agreed consensus reached in party-bureaucratic negotiations. Prime ministers have largely been figureheads for the political and bureaucratic forces operating outside the cabinet who exercise the real power. They have exercised weak powers of policy direction and leadership, including within the cabinet itself, where they have lacked explicit legal authority under cabinet law to propose items for debate on the cabinet agenda. They have chronically had no views on matters of policy. Former Prime Minister Mori’s reply during a 2000 interpellation session in the Diet is indicative. Responding to a question from a member of the DPJ about giving foreigners the vote, he said simply: “This is a very important issue having relevance to the basic structure of the state. I have my own ideas about it. But, as the prime minister and the president of the ruling party, I think I should not say what I think about it.” [emphasis added]

Can you imagine the leader of any other mature democracy, any other leading power, abstaining not only from voicing an opinion, but from leading the country on an “issue having relevance to the basic structure of the state”? The Japanese political system has discouraged the top-down leadership that Koizumi tried to wield, much to the detriment of the Japanese people.

Now with Abe depending on LDP heavyweights again, it is entirely reasonable for media outlets to question whether the Abe Cabinet signifies a return to the worst aspects of the LDP rule. Are Western media organizations lazy? Yes. Have they neglected Japan for far too long, failing to report on the changes afoot in Japanese politics for society? Yes. And they should be criticized for their shoddy reporting. But they are not wrong to compare Mr. Abe to his predecessors, Mr. Obuchi included.

Who cares if the late Mr. Obuchi traveled around the world in his youth? What matters is how he (mis)governed Japan as the head of a party congenitally incapable of governing the country with national — as opposed to sectional — interests in mind.

Meanwhile, the discussion of former Prime Minister Murayama — the product of perhaps the most shamelessly opportunistic maneuver in the political history of postwar Japan — misses the point. As I asked in this post, on whose behalf was Murayama apologizing? As the fate of the June 1995 Resolution to renew the determination for peace on the basis of lessons learned from history shows, Murayama was pretty much speaking for himself. The resolution, intended to foreshadow Murayama’s August apology, was watered down to appeal to conservatives, alienating the resolution’s original left-wing supporters; it passed, but with only half the members of the Lower House voting.

Criticizing the media for its shortcomings should not serve as a substitute for critical analysis of the Japanese political system, which is much needed, both within and outside of Japan.

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