The Travails of Political Sloganeering in Japan

All vibrant democracies from the U.S. and Britain to India and Japan are replete with examples of political slogans. Political parties may quarrel about programs and agendas but they all agree about one fact'they all want a political slogan. Political sloganeering in Japan is a serious preoccupation, often raising the hopes of people without realizing all of them.

Slogans allow political parties and leaders to circumvent contentious issues by providing simplistic solutions. They often hide an incompetence or reluctance on their part to find practical remedies. The culture of slogans sans a concrete program is deeply rooted in the waysenlightenment ideas have been transferred from the west to the east and the ways they have been translated into eastern cultures during the nineteenth century. While the Indian elites (bhadralok) in Bengal were able to internalize the process of western modernity by mastering the English language and developing their own vernacular, the Japanese elites were unable to do so either due to cultural arrogance or overdependence on a parochial linguistic identity. This resulted in large gaps in habits of modern thinking and affected the internal workings of social and political institutions in Japan. 

Sidestepping the comprehensive process of western modernity, during the latter half of the nineteenth century (1860-1890), the intellectual elites in Japan brought in notions of civilization and enlightenment (bunmeikaika) from Europe through such words as jiyu (liberty), ken (rights) and shakai (society), but gave these words their own spin. In Europe debates about liberty were also influenced by Rousseau's ideas that extreme wealth and poverty in society were not conducive to real democracy. Many liberals translated Rousseau's ideas as an endorsement of economic independence and security, arising out of natural law and not Christian theology. These debates spilled into Japan and were also intensely argued by the intellectuals of the time.

Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) for example popularized the word jiyu in Japan, but felt it did not carry the same implication or meaning as the English word liberty. He was somewhat perturbed by the fact that jiyu pulled in negative implications like selfishness, arbitrariness and emancipation of desire which together implied a licentious freedom. In the 1880s the word jiyu was seen as somewhat negative, implying a hedonistic, 'no holds barred' philosophy. This led to the ostracism and incarceration of some Tokyo Imperial University professors, such as Morita Tatsuo (1888-1934) and Minobe Tatsukichi (1873-1948), who interpreted jiyu as freedom of speech and academic independence.

Before World War II the Japanese government saw the notion of jiyu as somewhat detrimental to the idea of building a strong nation and later used this understanding to discredit liberalism and individual liberty. Similarly the word ken in the Japanese context represented not only rights, and privileges but also power, authority and sovereignty, while in the European context rights implied ideas of liberty, freedom, equality and choice. Understandably a lot of Enlightenment terms in Japanese did not carry the same meaning as they did in European languages like English, French or German. The incomplete manner in which Japan translated the west prevented both the contemporary political leadership and the bureaucracy to develop a rational and workable agenda to back political slogans. The frustration that the electorate now feels with protean slogans and the quick-changing party politics reflects the unequal penetration of enlightenment ideas in modern politics.

From the early Meiji era to the present, the modernizing process in Japan has been directly linked to the power of slogans. The general distrust of internationalism and mercantilism and the greater reliance on social Darwinism has become the cornerstone of social, political and economic activities in Japan. The strong state, the developmental model and economic nationalism transformed Japan into 'an economic superpower' and 'a political pygmy', what Ozawa Ichiro in his book Nihon Kaizo Keikaku calls a dinosaur with a big body and a tiny brain. The two slogans that have epitomized the industrial and economic growth of Japan in the recent past are fukoku kyohei (rich nation, strong army) and wakon yosai(Japanese spirit, western technology).

The Japanese elites regarded economic and military power as the most important aspects of a strong nation and drafted policies that brought both military organization and industrial production under the direct control of the modern state. Social Darwinism made them look for western technology and knowledge and harness them in the service of the nation. It forced the power elites to experiment with various foreign models, ideas and institutions imbuing them with a unique Japanese soul. Though there were significant debates during this time of what constituted habits of modernity, the implications of modern terminologies and assumptions were rather prejudiced and unenlightened. The pre-war slogans constructing master narratives in Japan had a strong appeal but they also carried within them the seeds of failure. Today most of the systems based on these slogans 'ranging from pension and education to health and business'have either failed or are failing.

In postwar Japan the state-organized reconstruction provided mass education and created an affluent society that became highly dependant on the media for both information and entertainment. Today the ubiquitous power of the media can be felt in every walk of life'from politics and business to education and personal life. In a media-driven Japanese society slogans catch the attention of the public more often than lengthy political speeches. They proffer the promise of a quick fix. Every organizational functionary from the president to the petty clerk is looking for a silver bullet that can resolve all the problems at once. Some political analysts believe that slogans can hide the intellectual vacuum in the system by pretending to be chic. Exploiting the value of politeness and diffidence, most Japanese leaders use catchy slogans prefacing them with words like 'kokumin no minasama" (or the Japanese people) to ensconce their philosophy in typically Japanese terms and convey it to the general populace. Incompletely trained in habits of modernity, the Japanese bureaucracy drafts agendas in abstruse Japanese terms that either fail to fully support the slogans, or run contrary to their real intention. The Japanese electorate is also enamored by political slogans. It wants leaders to encapsulate a political agenda in pithy terms and envision a political program that not only promises results but also emphasizes continuity. Neither the electorate nor the political leaders are interested in radical change that would upset the apple cart. 

Given the Japanese penchant to say less and communicate more, the political parties and leaders are always busy devising ingenuous slogans that have a mass appeal. If we examine the history of Japan in the first decade of the twenty-first century we find a tremendous appeal of political slogans and subsequent disgust with them. The recent three prime minister'all from the Liberal Democratic Party'have expressed their policy, politics and personality in indubitable political slogans and have succeeded for a while in drawing the attention of the masses. The silver-haired Junichiro Koizumi tried to carry out kozo kaikaku (structural reforms) quite aggressively, even at times overriding the will of the LDP factions, prefectural governments and powerful business houses (zaikai). The conservative and glum Shinzo Abe sometimes spoke energetically about his ideas of kuni zukuri(nation building) and his wish to create an utsukushii kuni Nippon (beautiful nation Japan). He even tried to pursue a nationalist agenda to make Japan politically and militarily strong, but since he only lasted for less than a year and was rejected by both his party factions and the bureaucracy, he could not realize his grand vision.

Now Yasuo Fukuda has enshrined his political ideas in a somewhat contradictory slogan jiritsu to kyosei (self-reliance and cooperation), a policy that at once attempts to strengthen the LDP and develop a strategy of cooperation with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to resolve various contentious issues. Given the somewhat moderate and less combative style of Fukuda the public rating of his cabinet has increased to 59 percent. However it must be remembered that slogans often hide a total lack of vision or a well-thought out social program.

When Koizumi came to power he gave the impression of a serious go-getter who was not bothered by factional politics or strong business lobbies. He soon set out to destroy the power of factions and their collusion with vested interests. With this aim in mind he attempted to privatize the postal system but soon ran into trouble on various issues including his official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. In spite of his trenchant views and attempts at muscular structural reforms, his public approval went down from 84 percent to about 44 percent. He left unceremoniously without even seeking a comeback after his second term expired. He left behind a large following in the LDP called 'children of Koizumi' who are still struggling with their political careers. 

Abe followed in the footsteps of his predecessor and initially gave the impression of a tough and clever leader. He made trips aboard to strengthen ties with Asia. His pro-American policies were quite popular with the neo-conservatives in the United States. However after he delivered his policy speech in the Diet he unceremoniously resigned citing ill health and inability to break the deadlock with the DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa over the MSDF refueling of American ships in the Indian Ocean. There is more than meets the eye. Most of Abe's ideas about changing Article 9 of the Japanese constitution and making Japan militarily self-reliant came to naught with his sudden departure. The bureaucracy that had once drafted his grand nationalistic vision was now relieved by his resignation. He left Japanese politics in a state of limbo until Fukuda succeeded him to that office.

The haste with which the LDP fielded two candidates, Fukuda and Taro Aso, for the LDP leadership could have been the reason for Fukuda's un-preparedness during the presidential campaign. He confessed that the suddenness of the situation prevented him from conceptualizing a clear political agenda. However his moderate position and humility allowed him to garner support from most of the LDP factions and win the election to succeed Abe. This does not mean that Fukuda has become the most popular leader in Japan. Aso had a tremendous following amongst prefectural representatives. The support for Aso in regional areas has revealed how disgruntled the prefectures have become with the neglect they have suffered at the hands of LDP leaders. Sensing this distrust of LDP leadership, Aso refused to join Fukuda's cabinet and is now campaigning in prefectures in the hope of a second chance if Fukuda's government collapses and there are fresh elections. 

Many within the LDP have seen Fukuda's moderate win-win politics under the slogan 'self-reliance and cooperation' as a radical shift from the aggressive politics of Koizumi or the confrontational politics of Abe. It is however difficult for Fukuda to win the support of the DPJ leader Ozawa over his pro-American policy of renewing the anti-terrorism law due to expire on November 1, 2007. The DPJ has won a majority in the upper house on an anti-US agenda and it cannot backtrack on the promise it has made to the electorate. Even the watered-down Anti-Terrorism bill prepared by LDP-Komeito coalition for the duration of one year may not find favor with the opposition parties. The discovery of questionable practices between the former deputy defense minister Takemasa Moriya and Yamada Corporation executives in awarding military contracts to the latter without floating tenders has now put Fukuda's cabinet on the defensive. It has become more difficult for the LDP to live up to the slogan jiritsu to kyosei.

Slogans can provide immediate benefit to leaders by helping them win an election but unless they are backed by well-thought out policies and agendas they would doom not only political leaders but also their parties as experience has shown us. Even in our post-Enlightenment world though slogans may carry mass appeal, the electorate, imbued with habits of modernity, can soon realize the fallacy and fa'ade of slogans and expresses its dissatisfaction on the hustings. Bureaucrats who often coin these fashionable slogans can also find themselves out of business and a job once their slogans fail. It is the paradox of our times that the very people who perpetuate a deception are called upon to speak the truth. It is the responsibility of the political elites who create slogans and the electorate who consume them to analyze political slogans carefully and assess the real worth of political leaders and the ideas they espouse. The electorate should not fall a victim to cheap sloganeering. 


More by :  Mukesh Williams

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