Abe’s not getting along with the press

You may have noticed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe isn’t all that popular these days despite only having been in office for 2 months. The newspapers are reporting a 20% dip in support, and he has been mired in scandals, the most recent of which surrounds Tax Commission Chairman Masaaki Honma, who was forced to step down for living in subsidized housing with his mistress. This is the first change to Abe’s appointed team since taking office and a major development that could lead to further loss in confidence.

Compared to Koizumi’s first 2 months in office back in 2001, when the lion-maned PR darling was a veritable rockstar with his own hit photobook, Abe isn’t getting a break. And this despite the nuclear missile test in NK, which would presumably inspire a nation to rally around its leader.

While the substance of Abe’s policy agenda got its share of attention, the media has seemed to go out of its way to focus on Abe’s missteps, in particular the town meeting scandal (Abe knew!), the readmittance of the postal rebels (the LDP is cynical!), and his supposed lack of resolve in pursuing economic reform and budget discipline (he’s giving power back to the evil bureaucrats!).

Why? One reason is the Ozawa-led DPJ. They have so far done a good job of relentlessly pushing the first two issues in the spotlight, in particular the town meeting scandal, which was embarrassing since the LDP government was caught red-handed. There’s an upper house election in 7 months, and it comes at a time when LDP is vulnerable (the LDP member who won seats in 2001 on the Koizumi popularity wave must now stand for reelection) that also happens to be a traditionally unlucky year for the LDP. While some reports claim the DPJ is being needlessly uncooperative, the numbers show that these scandals are taking their toll on Abe’s popularity rating, and that makes them effective. Without public support Abe loses quite a bit of leverage if he’s to lead policymaking and stay in power for his full term.

But another, more likely, explanation is that Abe is having a tough time dealing with the media. For one thing, he isn’t playing ball with the press gaggle.

I noted back in October that Abe decided to cut in half his daily press availabilities from 2 to 1. The reports offered no real explanation for the change, but it was significant enough to get reported in the first place. Instead, he is relying on his PR double team of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki and Special Advisor Hiroshige Seko to deal with the press while he does the awesome prime minister stuff like eat school lunches.

But it hasn’t taken very long for the media to complain that they aren’t getting enough face time. Abe got in trouble just yesterday when he talked way too long during his press conference announcing achievements upon the end of the recent extraordinary Diet session. He used up 19 minutes of a 20 minute press conference to blab on listlessly about the legislative achievements of passing patriotism-instilling education reform and the promotion of defense agency to ministry status.

The media was livid and ran stories announcing that only 2 questions could be asked, and later reports announcing the forthcoming apologies from both Shiozaki and Abe himself. Abe pledged that it someone made a “clerical error” by giving him a long speech at a press conference. How convenient just a day before you have to fire someone!

Now, I don’t want to go and accuse the major media of manufacturing any of his scandals, or blowing things out of proportion (though they may be doing the latter). It’s just that they haven’t been very sympathetic, either. The Honma scandal came out of a muckraking piece by a less-prestigious weekly. Many reports by the weeklies (such as Abe’s ties to shady cults) are ignored by the larger newspapers, but this time they picked up the story, making the problem much larger than it normally would have been.

It’s strange to see this change in the relationship, since as far as I know, Abe has so far had a rather amiable relationship with the press, who helped raise his image as the hero working to rescue kidnapping victims from North Korea. Now it’s like they’re setting him up for a fall just because it would be a good story.

But rather than being angry, the media could simply be getting bored with a prime minister whose hair is far too normal. One anonymous insider quoted in a Reuters story was sympathetic with Abe’s situation, noting that Abe is in part simply dealing with the Koizumi legacy of staged appearances and neverending soundbites: “Abe is doing what he can, but to the public who’s used to theater-style politics it just looks normal.” Replace the word “public” with “media” and you’ll get the idea.

11 thoughts on “Abe’s not getting along with the press”

  1. I think that one of the major factors behind Abe’s slip is the decline of the potency of the North Korea issue. Lately, it has been polling pretty far back on lists of concerns (pensions, the economy, clean government are the big ticket items). I think that the days of the Japanese public rallying around the government for anything more than a couple of weeks when faced with a (vague and difficult to understand) foreign threat are long gone. So much for the lurch to the right that the New York Times likes to talk about….

    The DPJ have been making hay but they need something flashy like the “Manifesto” boost they had back in 2003.

  2. I got a question, we’ve seen in different parts of the world that, when some leaders have popularity problems, they try to gin up Anti-american sentiment within the constituents. Do you think that is the possibitlity with Abe or any Japanese Leader for that matter?

  3. Koizumi’s popularity was down in the toilet at several points in his time in office and he didn’t try anything like that. Makes me think that there is very little chance that Abe will either. Given the state of the Japan-America relationship (fairly good) and public apathy toward (most) international affairs issues, I’d say that anti-Americanism from the LDP is just not likely.

  4. On the one hand, while we’ve talked quite a bit about Abe’s dwindling poll numbers and their significance, they are just that: poll numbers. Relationships with the press, however, are something different and probably have more of a long-term impact, since they will shape the way the public sees him and what information reaches through the media channels.

    In his dealings with the media, he has been overly vague and has attempted to connect things that make no sense. His initiatives don’t seem to do much in the way of dealing with actualy problems at hand. With education? Structural reform is necessary, and people within the education ‘business’ need to be consulted with, yet that seems not to have happened. Legislation was passed to benefit Abe and his legacy, not the nation’s children. I think people see the difference.

    Like the Patriot Act had no meaning after 9/11, moving the defense agency to ministry status (I move I personally support), has no meaning in the current context. It does nothing to put pressure on North Korea. They are simply not worried about Japan, unless it is the lapdog Japan they drone on about. What is hurting Abe is that Japan is becoming less relevant in international politics (other than Oshima’s role in the aftermath of the NK tests in October), especially within the 6 Party Talks. Abe promised to put the abduction issue on the table, and look where that got them last week: pushed away from the discussion.

    M-Bone: the lurch to the ‘right’ in Japan is the paranoia of Onishi, the New York Times’ Tokyo bureau chief. His writings on Japan just don’t hold water. I think you’re very correct in saying that the NK issue will blow over. However, we all know it’s not past the DPRK to blow it back over the other way.

    Hats halfway off to the DPJ. I don’t think they’re doing enough, and when they do, they screw it up. The no-confidence move on Aso wa a great idea, but to extend it over the cabinet just made it look petty. They are finally playing the role they should. The only problem is that Ozawa, who is very good at pushing issues and keeping them on the agenda, is not a telegenic and charismatic leader in the voters’ eyes. I’d like to see them to a co-presidency with Ozawa pushing things in Nagatacho and someone more into the PR side of things out doing the campaigning.

  5. I think NK issue is still a big concern to the public,but since post-war Japan used to keep low profile to foreign threats ,I wouldn’t surprise NK issue gives it’s way to other domestic concerns.
    Outside watchers keep forgetting ‘Japan’s place in the world’ rarely means much in the polls.Think about Ishihara,he is seen as tough to the bureaucracy , congress ,mega banks and media and that makes (along with his late brother’s fame on silver screen)him popular not because he picks fight with Beijing and adds more notoriety.Koizumi got his popularity for his promise to dismantle LDP.not by visiting Graceland.
    I think Abe is trying to keep some distance from Koizumi legacy of telepolitics,seen
    as too much populism here.And I wouldn’t surprise his disgust to the media both foreign and domstic for what had been said when he was announced as the successor to Koizumi.

    About Onishi:
    He writes about Japan as any Japanese liberal journalist would.
    His pieces are resembling too much of what I read from Asahi or Mainichi .It’s been said our correspondents in the U.S has been snatching bit piece from NYT here and WaPo there or the New Republic for the punchlines.Onishi simply does the same with liberal Japanese media.
    The real concern is that we in Japan used to read’Fascism is coming at our doors ‘
    kind article from the very day we’ve got literacy,while people outside read about Japan as seriously lacking selfcriticism and shifting toward right and that would bring huge perception gap.
    The other thing I feel is since Onishi is of a Japanese descent,he must hold tough stance to things Japanese,while visible sympathy to things Korean or Chinese.
    Perhaps the growing influence of Asian immigrants require that kind of attitude to be a succesful reporter for a Japanese canadian,and declining interest to Japan among American media enforce the correspondents to be an asia specialist not just a Japan specialist.
    Anyway I would do exactly the samething if I were to be destined to work for U.S media.

  6. Ken – Word. I think that the “lurch to the right” idea comes from both the NYT and other outfits like the Associated Press. A jingoistic (and thus newsworthy) Japan is being packaged for outside consumption. You can write an article about racist manga. You can also write an article about manga that takes an inclusive approach to foreigners. Only the second one, however, will not see the light of day in English. I know a lot of academics who are pissed off at the current state of Japan reporting and hopefuly, the generation of students learning about Japan at university now will come out and produce something different.

    Ace – I agree that much of the reporting about Japan in English is typical left scare stuff. People don’t necessarily see how run of the mill it all is. I also agree that Japanese have been hearing about the “shift to the right” since 1945…. The same type of miltiary scare reporting that we are seeing now existed in the 1960s and Nakasone’s day in the 1980s. I’m sick of all of it. We really need to hear more varied voices. People who can be left on one issue and right on another. Otherwise, reporting just follows ideological lines. I think that a lot of recent stuff in Chuokoron and other digests is pretty centrist. This is a good devlopment. I just want to see reporting in English show the same type of variety on one hand and reason on the other.

  7. On anti-Americanism: the LDP is unlikely to try that since any fomenting of anti-American sentiment would likely be turned squarely on the LDP for its general policy of acquiesance. That’s why the anti-American rightists have a big problem with the LDP and its support of the Iraq war.

  8. Well Adamu, there’s always the path of following Kyuma, who, as the Defense Agency Chief, professed to have no idea what the government’s stance on the Iraq war was. It’s a joke position, but in a perverted way, he has a point: there was not consensus and support for the war in terms of sending troops was not the idea of all involved.

    M-bone: excellent point. The ‘jingoistic Japan’ sells better than the “Japan that stroves for peace.” At the same time, I think it would be hard to keep on keepin on striving for peace when the DPRK continues its agression and the nation actually feels threatened (and the threat escalates) every couple of years. There was no way that the ’98 DPRK, who launched missiles over Honshu, was nuclear capable. They couldn’t have made such a move had they been. Now it would be a different story. When they suddenly said in June that they were not going to let the annual 50 Americans in for the games in October, it was obvious that something was up. The Army 8th Division keeps up its 24 on/24 off shifts on the DMZ for a reason; there is a real threat that need constant assessment, even through a small scope. Nowhere else in the world is this shift still active in a zone without ongoing hostilities.

  9. M-bone: Thanks for advertising my work.

    Ken: Certainly things are tense between NK and Japan (and the rest of the world) but I think what is being missed here is how restrained the Japanese have been about the NK issue. If Japan were a ‘normal’ nation one would expect they would have at least discussed the nuclear option by now. All we have at the moment is a discussion about whether or not there should be a discussion, and any debate that does eventuate will probably reach the conclusion that Japan doesn’t need nukes anyway. The media got things a little wrong, I think, when they focussed on Nakagawa as the initial proponent of a discussion on nuclear weapons capability for Japan. Ishiba Shigeru had already talked about this, and reached the conclusion that discussion would be useful because it would prove to the Americans that Japan does not want nukes and therefore that they would not come out from under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Such a stance, according to Ishiba, would strengthen the Alliance.

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