Japan's Self-Deprecating Leader

When Naoto Kan became prime minister of Japan 14 months ago, I thought of a drinking game. It was a simple game. Find a news article about the election and take a drink for every time you read “revolving-door leadership” and “fifth prime minister in four years.” Now that Japan has number six in five years it’s time for a celebration – fire up your browser and bring out the booze.

As much as I’d like to hammer the press for constantly repeating the same phrase, they are entirely justified. Japan has a revolving-door leadership problem and new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (Democratic Party of Japan), a self-described "loach" of a person, may just be another pedestrian moving through the doors.

Noda does have some traits that set him apart from previous prime ministers. His personality is perhaps the most humorous difference. Noda can be downright self-deprecating in the way he talks about himself and the government. After winning the nomination he enthusiastically described his new position, “running Japan’s government is like pushing a giant snowball up a snowy, slippery hill.” He is also a proponent of consensus building. Soon after his election, he reached out to the New Komeito Party and the Liberal Democratic Party in order lay down a common ground on dealing with each other in the National Diet, the lower and upper house of Japan’s parliament. PM Noda, the former minister of finance, also seems to be serious about financial reform in Japan, which has a debt-to-GDP ratio of around 200%, buoyed mainly by its massive current account surplus.

Will Noda be able to escape his predecessors’ fate and remain in office for an extended period? In Japan, a leader's prowess is not necessarily what keeps him or her in office. Instead, the press plays a large role, and Noda’s challenge will be to win over the media.

recent Christian Science Monitor article explains the practice of memo-awase, or to compare and match memos. In essence, the Japanese media is like an exclusive club, sans the simile. If you want access to press conferences, you need to be a part of the Japanese Press Club. Once you belong to the club, you need to toe the press’ line. This is enforced by memo-awase. By comparing notes on a story or press conference, journalists decide what unified message will be put out to the thirsty masses.

Memo-awase is an extension of another Japanese concept called uchi-awase, which is a common practice in any business or organization throughout Japan. Uchi-awase means to hammer out details beforehand. Before any large meeting is held or anything is announced, a number of smaller meetings are held beforehand to decide what will be said or printed. Everything of substance happens before it is open to the public or people who did not participate, or weren’t asked to attend, the smaller meetings.

The unified front in the press created by memo-awase stifles debate in the media. While media outlets are not carbon-copies of one another, once the criticism of the prime minister begins there is no significant countering force in the media community. This lack of variety becomes a strong force on public opinion. Thus, major drops in popularity are seen over the course of one year, and the incumbent becomes a political liability when a round of lower- or upper-house elections is imminent.

The fate of Noda may not entirely be in his hands, but if he makes like a loach and stays close to the rocks and mud, he may escape some of the rough currents in the press that have swept the past five prime ministers out of office.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons