Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Is Taro Aso Really a Conservative?

So far this morning, the analysts who predicted that Prime Minister Fukuda’s resignation would be bad for the market are being proven wrong. As the morning trading ended, the Nikkei average is slightly up, and the yen slightly up (against the Euro)/down (against the U.S. dollar). No surprise there; it’s too late to redo the stimulus package. Besides, Taro Aso, the prohibitive favorite to replace Mr. Fukuda, as the chief negotiator, was the one who had accepted New Komeito demands to put a personal income tax rebate/cash payout in the economic stimulus package against Mr. Fukuda’s desires in the first place. Slightly further down the line, a consumption tax hike had already been all but been pulled off the table for FY2009 under the Fukuda administration. Yes, yet another turnover is embarrassing, but it’s hard to argue that the situation is much changed, or any worse, policy-wise under a new Prime Minister.

But enough of that. What prompted me to blog today is the latest example of the gaijin media’s “Japanese conservative”stereotype:
Known for his conservative views, he has advocated a tough line towards North Korea and rejects changing the law to allow women to ascend the throne.

He is also seen as a charismatic figure who is known to love Japanese manga cartoons.
Now compare it with my version:
Known for his liberal views, he has advocated giving up half of Japan’s claims to the Northern Territories currently occupied by Russia and rejects leaving the Class-A War criminal enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine.

He is also seen…
And I haven’t even mentioned that Mr. Aso has suggested giving in to opposition demands to drop the counterterrorist refueling operations by the Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Indian Ocean. Or that he’s chummy with the pacifist New Komeito.

Now, I admit that my alternative profile is just as anecdotal and subjective as the BBC one. In fact, Mr. Aso happens to be an eclectic grab-bag of a variety of views that make it hard to contain him in an ideologically convenient pigeonhole. For better or worse, he does his own thinking. If that makes him inconsistent, he is comfortable with his inconsistency. That sense of self-confidence comes through when he—rather freely—expresses his views, and is a big part of his charm. (Would any other politician other than… maybe Taizou Sugimura… admit to reading two, three manga books a day?)

People who have been reading my blog know that I am no fan of Mr. Aso. But they also know that I condemn this and other examples of the uncritical acceptance and perpetuation by the English-language mainstream media of a monotone stereotype that paints everybody from Junichiro Koizumi to Shoichi Nakagawa with a single broad brushstroke.


Janne Morén said...

It's a matter of perspective I think. The "balance point" of politics is different in every society and that greatly affects how you perceive foreign politicians.

It is, for instance, safe to say that the balance point in Swedish politics is far to the liberal left of Japan (in the larger social sense, not necessarily in the fiscal, foreign policy or other details). All of LDP and most of DPJ would be considered to be on the deeper end of the conservative side of the political scale in Sweden, and a fair number of LDP politicians, Mr. Aso included, would simply have no home in any mainstream party.

By the same token, of course, when US politicians are quoted (in Swedish press) as seeing the current (conservative) government as socialist they aren't misinformed or ignorant. They're just interpreting Swedish politics from their own perspective.

The media have to explain the situation in terms their audience can understand, and that means mapping the greater overall stance of the politicians involved into the political situation in the reporter's home country. You can't map foreign politicians into the "equivalent" point on the local political map since that would implicate them with a set of political views they simply do not have. I don't know of a better way to handle this.

Jun Okumura said...

You make what I think is an extremely good point—one from an extra-dimensional perspective that, I must confess, I had not given thought to. I thank you very much. Having said that, the judgment that the English-language media unthinkingly passes on the progressivity or lack thereof with regard to Japanese politicians turns on their unconditional acceptance or lack thereof with regard to a detailed and narrow historical narrative. A rule of thumb for this particular media: any Japanese politician that pisses off Chinese and/or Korean authorities is a conservative.

Sophie said...

I second Jane’s point that most media mainly have a narrow perspective and present foreign affairs only from a national point of view.
I would say japanese politics interest them only in regard of their effect on the Nikkei and on world relations and trade. That’s why relations with China or Korea get a focus they don’t deserve.
I know that seen from Japan it must be unnerving, but... you might check what Japanese media say about Swedish or French politics, and get back to us, we might get slightly irritated.

There are also media interested in foreign affairs from a less self-centered point of view, but they are certainly not mainstream.

Jun Okumura said...

I see your point, Sophie. I mean, has the Japanese media even reported anything on Sweden since ABBA retired? (There’s nothing wrong with that; if you’re a small, non-Southeast Asian country and you’re getting a lot of media attention in Japan, chances are that bad things are happening to you, like genocide, or Michael Jackson.

But some journalists do make that extra effort. Coco Masters does a walks an extra mile for TIME in concentrating on what’s actually going on; he/she (and.or his/her team) appears to have done the homework. And since I’ve mentioned it, a few editing suggestions:

Fukuda became the second Japanese prime minister in a row to throw in the towel with under a year in office (Shinzo Abe did the same last year) and the third to do so without holding a general election.
Junichiro Koizumi, of course, did not “throw in the towel”. He left with a lot of gas in his tank thanks to the 2005 Lower House landslide victory, respecting LDP rules that restrict party Presidents (and perforce Prime Ministers) to two full consecutive terms.

The Upper and Lower Houses of the Diet have been paralyzed for more than a year now.
Not true, as I’ve taken pains over the past year to explain on this blog. For example:
The government has been paralyzed by issues ranging from the appointment of a central bank governor to an antiterrorism refueling mission in the Indian Ocean. But it did manage to appoint a BOJ Governor, if not the candidate of its choice. And it did resume the refueling operations, true, after a one-month hiatus.

Fukuda has not said when his resignation takes effect.
True, but it’s not his to determine. He remains as LDP president until the LDP elects a new leader remains as Prime Minister until the Diet elects a new Prime Minister and the Emperor make the appointment.

Not bad, though; I give this an A- for effort.