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The political folly of dodging responsibility in Japan

  • January 16, 2021
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



News organizations in Japan had a field day last month, calling out politicians who were caught violating COVID-19 restrictions. Shigeru Omi, the head of the government panel appointed to address the pandemic, had asked the public not to assemble indoors in groups of more than four people, a significant demand given that December is traditionally when people get together in large groups to talk loudly while drinking copious amounts of alcohol.


A Jan. 3 report in Harbor Business Online listed a number of instances where lawmakers ignored these guidelines and then, when asked about it by the press, brushed aside any responsibility for breaking the public’s trust. The most widely covered of these events was a get-together at a swanky steak restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood on Dec. 14 hosted by ruling Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and attended by a total of 8 celebrities and politicians, including Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose explanation afterward was that he simply dropped in to say hello.


Nikai was required to make a fuller account of the affair, and, according to Harbor Business, got testy on a TV show when asked about it, saying the “dinner meeting” was more about the “meeting” than “dinner,” and that it “had a purpose.” He was less confrontational during an interview on BS Asahi, during which he emphasized that he and his guests talked about important matters.


The minister in charge of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Seiko Hashimoto, was cited for a sushi dinner she attended with five people. Hashimoto’s excuse was that originally there were only three people at the dinner and then three others joined, suggesting that they, like Suga, just casually popped in. But according to the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, the entire restaurant was reserved for this party, so it seems likely that six were expected from the beginning.


Harbor Business mentioned more, but it’s not clear if the public is as scandalized by these actions as the media pretends to be. The press hasn’t exactly held the government’s feet to the fire regarding its handling of the pandemic. Catching politicians in compromising situations is an end in itself since it generates more buzz, at least in the short term. What’s interesting about the phenomenon is the methods used by politicians to avoid responsibility for such behavior.


This matter was touched on in an interview published in the Mainichi Shimbun on Dec. 29 with Hosei University professor Mitsuko Uenishi, the formulator of a theory she calls “gohan ronpō,” or the “rice line of argument.” The word “gohan” has two meanings in Japanese: “rice” and “meal.” In an exchange where someone asks whether the other person has eaten “a meal (gohan),” if the other person doesn’t want to commit themselves to a straightforward answer, they can reply, “I didn’t eat rice (gohan), I ate bread.”


These sorts of linguistic gymnastics are common in political discourse, and you can sense it in the answers that various party animals gave to the press as cited in the Harbor Business article. But some politicians are better at it than others. Uenishi mentions Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato as being particularly skilled at the art, the purpose of which is to provide future deniability for statements made in the present. More importantly, the interlocutor should not immediately realize that the statement may be a falsehood.


One politician who is notoriously bad at this theory is former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the main subject of the interview in the Mainichi Shimbun. Since leaving the premiership, Abe’s role in the cherry blossom viewing party scandal has been questioned anew after it was revealed that some of the answers he gave during questioning of the scandal in parliament last February were false. On Dec. 25, he apologized in parliament for the statements he made and accepted responsibility for his actions without actually adding anything substantive to the investigation.


Since Abe is not adept at this kind of thing, on Dec. 24 he held a preemptive news conference to which only 24 carefully selected reporters were invited. Uenishi thinks the exchanges were “strange” in that Abe’s answers made little sense and the reporters didn’t ask him to clarify. He later asserted that he wanted to correct what he had said last February during the Dec. 25 grilling in parliament by members of the opposition, but admitted to not being properly prepared since the questions weren’t submitted beforehand. The answers he did give were from notes written by others. “His gohan ronpo was somebody else’s,” Uenishi believes.


Suga says that Abe fulfilled his responsibility and the matter is now closed, but Uenishi says that Abe didn’t answer anyone’s questions satisfactorily. The press, she adds, should not be fooled by this subterfuge.


There is an anecdote about Abe’s childhood that is sometimes referenced as a window into his personality. Attributed to veteran journalist Tadaoki Nogami, the story goes that Abe was raised by a nanny in Tokyo because his father, Shintaro, was always occupied with his own political career and his mother was living at the family home in Yamaguchi Prefecture. One time the nanny asked Abe if he had done his homework and he replied that he had, but, after she checked his notebook and found he had done none of it, she felt she had no choice but to do it for him.


Whether true or not, the story was cited by the Mainichi Shimbun last year to show how Abe, who is often called a botchan (pampered male offspring of a well-to-do family), constantly claims that he recognizes his “responsibilities” when, in fact, there always seems to be someone willing to cover up his actions or assume the responsibility themselves, as explained in detail by former prosecutor Nobuo Gohara in a Dec. 26 blog post. There’s a supreme irony in the notion that Abe, the longest serving prime minister in Japan’s history, survives in politics without mastering the kind of dissembling that his colleagues seem to carry out so effortlessly.

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