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Sunday, June 15, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

Nuggets of 'wisdom' can speak volumes beyond what's said


"Biting Comments, Curious Statements and Famous Misstatements" is the headline on the lead article in the June 5 issue of the popular Japanese weekly magazine Bungei Shunju. It features dramatic ejaculations of famous politicians, sports figures and entertainers, among others.

It is interesting to take a look at Japanese society in the light of — or, perhaps more appropriately, in the shadow of — some of these colorful statements.

Here's Takeo Fukuda, father of the present prime minister and himself top dog from 1976 to 1978: "When the people speak, it carries the force of the gods, but even the gods sometimes say weird things."

Well, the people spoke clearly enough on Nov. 27, 1978, and Fukuda lost his prime-ministerial position to Masayoshi Ohira.

The question facing us now is: What will be the fate of the present prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, when the people are given a voice again?

Another prime minister who gleefully showed contempt for democracy was Nobusuke Kishi, jailed in the late 1940s — but never formally indicted — as a Class-A war criminal.

In May 1960, when thousands of demonstrators were on the streets protesting the renewal of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States, Kishi remarked: "Demonstrations are noisy, but the Jingu Baseball Stadium is full of people."

In other words, there were more people interested in baseball than politics in Japan, a situation which has not effectively changed since Kishi so tersely pointed it out.

Kishi was forced to resign in July 1960 — though the protesters didn't even get to first base in terms of what they were striving to achieve.

And then there's Ichiro Ozawa, now leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto), who has also been known for his indecorous outbursts.

In April 1994, when he was a member of the ruling coalition and the Socialist Party left it to join the Liberal Democratic Party, Ozawa sagaciously mused: "What's the difference what woman you sleep with?"

Ozawa had made this highly sexist, but revealing remark, in private to journalists, who went public with it. If one needed an example of the proverb "politics makes strange bedfellows," then look no further than the career of Ozawa.

Yet more: When, in 1976, the industrialist and prime ministerial confident Kenji Osano (1917-86) was being investigated over the Lockheed scandal, in which bribes were paid by the U.S. aircraft manufacturer to Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, Osano replied to every question with: "I have no recollection of it."

This handy bon mot — kioku ni gozaimasen in Japanese — has passed the lips of many a Japanese politician, and it vouches well for the severe case of memory loss that often seems to afflict Japanese officials, whose motto for retaining and wielding power might well be: "Lest We Remember."

As for Prime Minister Tanaka, he reminded his nation in 1972 that, "Politics is numbers, numbers are power, and power is money."

These uncultured pearls of wisdom were echoed years later, in 2004, by high-flying IT entrepreneur Takafumi Horie, who expressed his wisdom that, "People's hearts can be bought with money."

The fact that both Tanaka and Horie were indicted for serious fraud hardly detracts from the volumes of truth that their words speak about modern Japanese public life.

Sumo wrestler Konishiki, meanwhile, is credited with the following in 1992: "The reason why I wasn't made a yokozuna (grand champion) is due to racial prejudice."

There was certainly opposition to Konishiki, who originally hails from Hawaii, becoming a yokozuna in Japan's national sport. But now that three non-Japanese have become yokozuna, it could be said there has been much progress in recent years. If the British must bite their stiff upper lip over the fact that non-British may play better cricket than they do, then the Japanese can live with foreign-born yokozuna. Sadly, though, Konishiki became a sacrifice to progress.

Nonetheless, one has to take a beret off to film director Akira Kurosawa, who scaled the heights of chutzpah during the shoot of "Kagemusha" in 1979. Filming at Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture, he was annoyed by the sound of Shinkansen bullet trains racing by not far from his location. "Stop the damn train!" he hollered to his assistant director. "The Shinkansen! Get National Railways on the phone and tell 'em to stop it!"

There would have been no way that the National Railway Corporation of the time, a public company, would have acceded to "Emperor Kurosawa's" demand. But had the company been private, as it is now, they might have buckled, or at least slowed the trains down for him in exchange for a credit on the film.

If heaven and hell exist, there is no doubt a particularly ignominious place reserved in the latter locale for paparazzi, where their every action and bodily function will be filmed and appear on YouTube. One sports figure who gave the paparazzi what for is soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata. After joining the Italian club Perugia, he screamed at them: "You're a pain in the ass, assholes! You Japanese, get outta here, morons!"

Apparently not satisfied with this, for good measure he added, "You're damn nuisances, worms!"

Still not quite feeling fulfilled, he switched to Italian, a reputedly more colorful language than Japanese, calling these wormlike, moronic shutterbugs: "Pezzo di merda." In English — if you will pardon my French — this translates roughly as "piece of shit," though the use of the singular to describe the paparazzi there is somewhat irregular.

But famous statements do not all necessarily become social documents. Some are very personal and heartrending.

Singer Seiko Matsuda was to marry singer Hiromi Go in 1985 until the couple broke up in January of that year, just before the wedding. Matsuda tearfully confessed: "He said to me, 'In the next life, let's get married for sure.' " Five months later, she married someone else; and Go subsequently denied that he ever said anything of the sort. Now, I am not a Buddhist, but if Matsuda and Go do get another shot at life, and marriages are, in fact, made in heaven, I hope they sort out who said what before they tie the knot up there.

Sometimes one of these curious statements can be a prophecy. Such was one made by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato on June 17, 1972 during a press conference. "I'm talking to the television. You print journalists, go home," he demanded.

Did Sato, known like his brother, Prime Minister Kishi, as one who utterly disdained public opinion, foresee the decline of print journalism in Japan? The Japanese print media is renowned for its timidity and its reluctance to pursue investigative journalism. Leading politicians, keenly aware of this, are deft at manipulating the press. The journalists were lucky that Sato was telling them only to go home, and not somewhere else.

Politicians' statements, willy nilly, expose their true sentiments. Moreover, they are all the more telling for the fact that, in Japan, they are often made with impunity. The article in Bungei Shunju could just as well have been headlined: "Truer Words Were Never Spoken."



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