Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007

COUNTERPOINT

The power of telling tales versus making apologies


Special to The Japan Times

In his new book, "The Political Brain," Drew Westen analyzes in detail the election debates of 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Westen points out that it was Gore's dispassionate approach to issues that hurt him. Bush, then as now, presents himself as someone who knows what is right (and moral) and sticks to it, come what may.

Most Americans respond to the style of a candidate who conspicuously takes the moral high ground, waving flags, copies of the Bible and state-of-the-art weaponry in the air. In Japan, however, such a politician would be ridiculed for what he or she is: a self-righteous, self-serving poseur.

The styles of Japanese and American election campaigns could not be more different. Even in our day, when European electioneering is looking more and more "presidentially American," Japanese campaigning remains uniquely suited to the essentially nonconfrontational mores of the society here.

The Japanese equivalent of the whistle-stop tour's railway car is the senden ka, or publicity vehicle, that rides around your neighborhood repeating the name of the candidate over and over, adding, yoroshiku onegai shimasu, meaning, in this case, "Please vote for me." A large open-top truck might be stopped in front of a station while the candidate vents his ideas in the most abstract terms to small groups of bystanders and sakura (plants). The hoarse voice, the impassioned chopping of the hand in the air, the fine film of sweat on the brow or upper lip — this is what it's all about, not the substance of ideas.

"Look how much effort I am expending on your behalf," the candidate is telling the unwitting public. "How could you not vote for me when I am so earnest?"

Bush wouldn't even get elected mayor of Crawford, Texas, with such an approach. American candidates for high office must tell a story about themselves, weave a narrative that the electorate will listen to and identify with. The two most successful such candidates in recent years have been Bill Clinton, the boy from the Arkansas bush ("I still believe in a town called Hope"), and Ronald Reagan, who skillfully dumbed down his copy to rewrite American history as a never-ending episode of the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful."

Emblems (the Stars and Stripes); icons (the Statue of Liberty, now the non-existent World Trade Center towers); symbols (Uncle Sam, the bald eagle); sacred words and phrases from the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, former presidents' speeches and the Bible — the clever weaving of all of these into a candidate's narrative forms the fabric of campaign strategy in the United States of America.

By contrast, a Japanese candidate who invoked the Rising Sun, the cherry blossom (which was expropriated during the war as a symbol of a swift and gallant death), the Imperial chrysanthemum or any variety of religious mumbo-jumbo would appeal only to the far rightwing of the Japanese electorate. Junichiro Koizumi courted just that support by visiting Yasukuni Shrine and denying that there was anything unusual in doing so.

He tried to rewrite the narrative of politics and, for a time, got away with it. But such appeals to "the Japanese spirit" as a national symbol are neither mainstream politics nor generally effective. When Shinzo Abe tried to take up this nationalistic narrative, he fell flat on his face.

It was Koizumi's personal charisma that had accounted for the strategy's success — he was one of a kind.

The role of the apology in public life is certainly not the same in the U.S. and Japan. No politician anywhere in the world likes to apologize, and the public is generally not drawn to one who does. If American politicians apologize, they run the risk of being seen as "wimps." But appearing humble and modest, even if it warrants the occasional apology, is a big plus in this country.

Japanese candidates must appeal to the voter by asking — sometimes this sounds much like begging to the Western ear — for their support. Apologies are proffered as a tactic to appear modest before the electorate. If this appears wimpish, so be it. The apology must sound sincere. Nothing smacks of conceit in Japan more than an insincere, passive-aggressive apology.

One American candidate who did famously apologize — and on TV — was Richard Nixon. As a candidate for the vice presidency in the 1952 election, Nixon apologized for accepting a dog named Checkers, but went on to say that it was for his kids, who love dogs, and "regardless of what (anyone says), we're gonna keep it."

This was brilliant Californian showmanship, turning any anti-Nixon voter into an instant dog- (and children-) hater. But this type of apologia would not have worked in Japan. In Japan, an apology is an apology. You've got to bow your head, the number of seconds your pate shows indicating the depth of your remorse. You've got to repeat the cliches of contrition as if you mean them. And if you try to justify your actions in any way, you get the boot.

The demographics of elections in the two countries naturally vary greatly. The U.S. is a country of immigrants from all over the world. Japan, while having a few ethnic minorities, is not. Ethnic minorities and their problems play little or no part in an election campaign. In fact, Japanese politicians rarely take up the plight of any group if that group's interests are unrelated to the specific electorate they are trying to woo.

This is because human rights are not an issue in Japan. Even the word kenri (rights) has a much more abstract and distant ring to it in Japanese than English. Of course, the real problems of farmers, old people, teachers, or any group of people with grievances will be taken up by candidates in order to garner the votes of such people. But you will not see a candidate, even a liberal one, arguing for the rights of ethnic Koreans in Japan just because it is the progressive thing to do.

American candidates must take a clear stand on all issues of race and ethnicity. This proves that their candidate's narrative is moral and just. Japanese people may sympathize with minorities in Japan, but their plight is not an issue. Voters are concerned with self-interest; and in so far as this affects the common good, they will embrace the common good. Their thinking moves from the very specific to the general.

In America, the sweeping general good is appealed to before anything, as a matter of rights and justice. People in the U.S. seem to believe that their own form of democracy is superior to all others. When they talk about universal values, what they really mean is "American values."

Democracy as we know it in the West had its origins in ancient Greece and Rome. England with its legal precedents, France with its idealism of equality, and Germany with its institutions of social welfare refined it. The United States adapted democracy to suit its own history, creating a society that the vast majority of Americans find superior. But democracy in Japan — and, indeed, in India, Korea, China, Vietnam — does and will look very different.

How could it not? Human values may be the same, but the way they are expressed and their fruits realized are not. If Americans and other people in the West do not recognize this, there is a danger that democracy will suffer gravely on both sides of the divide. Every culture comes with its own form of democracy. Attempting to impose "shared" values on other cultures will only, in the end, lead to disaster for us all.



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.