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A Japanese PM as seen from abroad

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CHIANG MAI, Thailand — It is beyond the parameters of this column to plunge into the murky waters of Japanese domestic politics. But the case of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori — and the ways this case has generally been reported in the foreign media — calls for some scrutiny, especially since it automatically affects Japan’s broader global image.

It should be clarified from the beginning that what follows should not be construed as an effort to absolve the beleaguered Japanese leader. In fact, if I were Japanese, I would side with the majority of citizens who have registered their disapproval in a whole series of polls. But at the same time, I would try to focus on the main reasons for disillusionment, avoiding the easy sensationalism that has characterized the foreign media’s coverage of Mori.

International public opinion has followed, mainly through the dispatches of foreign correspondents, and with considerable bemusement, the sinking trajectory of a Japanese politician prone to continuous slips of the tongue. The leitmotif in most of this reporting centered around Mori’s enthusiasm for rugby (with the implied corollary of intellectual mediocrity), the pilgrimages he made as a student to red-light districts in Tokyo, and his ignorance of the magic of the Internet. Personally, I have never had any interest whatever in rugby; but why should a mere hobby be the cause of so much ridicule? As for the 1958 story of juvenile temptations, it is totally irrelevant to a leader’s performance in the top job more than 40 years later; I would even go a little further and blame Mori for fighting the revelation in court instead of completely ignoring it. As for the last point, it is not technical knowledge of computers, but other qualities, that are expected from a leader at this level.

It is of course true that Mori became a target of the Japanese press as well. But here, criticism was more substantive, questioning his actual performance and even, in a broader sense, the crisis now facing the Japanese political system.

In my opinion, the gravest misstep made by the outgoing prime minister was his failure to be present at a moment of great shock for the entire Japanese nation — the Ehime Maru incident. “It is not unusual for submarines to send pleasure boats to the bottom. . . . But no submarine is on record yet as having sunk a prime minister,” was the ironic observation of Dan Harada, a well-known analyst of the Japanese political scene. Indeed, as I recall from my own days as a diplomat, one of the main adages in our profession was: An ambassador may be needed only once in his entire career, but when that time comes, he has to deliver with all his heart and soul and experience. The same applies to politicians, and especially to prime ministers.

Going back to foreign reporting of the Mori case, which has resulted in the projection of such an unfavorable image of the entire Japanese political ethos, it is worth noting that, despite the flurry of arrows launched against Mori, no commentator seemed to care to offer even the shortest eulogy to his predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, a man of integrity and dedication who literally worked himself to death, a “karoshi” case at the highest level. It is clear that most contemporary Japanese politicians are unable to inspire the electorate, but exceptions have also to be considered.

The disappointing level of political leadership in Japan — a country with “first-rate companies but third-rate politicians,” as it was said in the ’70s — is not an exclusive characteristic of this country but a phenomenon of growing international dimensions. It would be wrong to link the Japanese public’s dissatisfaction only to the outgoing prime minister; the disturbingly high rate of abstention in many recent elections points to voters’ indifference to and growing disillusionment with the whole political process.

A final point very popular with foreign analysts is the question of the dismantling of the Liberal Democratic Party, as the harbinger of a new era conducive to “strong” leadership. I am aware that this topic has been repeatedly discussed, with interesting insights about the perennial Japanese dislike of “strong” leaders in any sphere and the preference for consensus and group harmony. But it should be pointed out that these discussions all project the image of the LDP as one “party,” when in fact this grouping of factions has always been what in other countries would be called “a coalition.”

The truth is that Japan needs to concentrate on projecting an image — including its strengths and weaknesses — based more on its own assessments and analyses than those of others. Foreign analysts will be always present to offer their interpretations, and this is also useful. But Tokyo has to do more, particularly in Asia, to encourage greater and more consistent input from Japanese commentators. The “view from Japan” is certainly awaited with interest here.