Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hatoyama's media problem

As expected, the translation of Hatoyama Yukio's essay in VOICE (discussed here) has caused a stir in the United States.

Asahi quotes several anonymous former US government officials, as well as Sheila Smith from the Council on Foreign Relations, criticizing the essay. One of the former officials suggested that the Obama administration will simply ignore the essay. On the whole the essay will be at most a footnote in the transition to a DPJ government — the US-Japan alliance certainly isn't in danger because Hatoyama appeared in foreign media indulging, perhaps at greater length than other Japanese politicians, in the demolition of the straw man of "American" global capitalism.

But I hope the DPJ takes to heart the lesson of what can happen when the party is careless about what appears in the press with the party leader's byline.

The Japanese media — particularly Yomiuri and Sankei, as well as the bevy of conservative journals, of which VOICE is one — will be waiting for the DPJ to fail, and will do everything they can to hurry the process along. Sankei has been on the job of smearing the DPJ for months, and as even released a book "dissecting" the DPJ. And then there's Bungei Shunju, the current issue of which is devoted to "studies of the DPJ that nobody knows" — and its sister publication, Shokun! They will repeat every rumor, welcome every leak from anonymous bureaucrats, and pile on every gaffe by Hatoyama and members of his cabinet. They will try to ensure that the DPJ's honeymoon is as short as possible. Whatever role Ozawa Ichiro plays after the general election, they will use the trial of Ozawa aide Okubo Takanori to smear a DPJ-led government.

Managing the press will be an essential task for a Hatoyama government, a task that I fear the DPJ is not taking seriously. After all, why was Hatoyama's essay published in VOICE in the first place? Was it a bid to placate conservative elites, who have shown themselves to be nothing but skeptical of the DPJ? Why was the party not aware that VOICE would then turn around and syndicate an English translation? I am not one for conspiracy theories, but I wonder if VOICE — or whoever was responsible for the translation (I don't believe that it was the DPJ) — knew exactly what it was doing disseminating an essay that would clearly embarrass Hatoyama and make him look more radical than he actually will be in government. Why didn't someone at the DPJ realize that letting the party leader — or someone using the party leader's name — expound at length on his political "philosophy" in an essay complete with obscure references and poorly crafted arguments would make the party look bad on the eve of the general election?

Some commentators to my post wondered what was the problem with the substance of Hatoyama's essay — or with letting the "truth" be know by Americans. Again, I don't see too much problem with the policy content of Hatoyama's essay, insofar as it has policy content. A bit more distance from the US through cooperation in Asia while remaining within the alliance? I suspect that Japanese governments of whatever party will pursue this approach in years to come. But did Hatoyama have to sound so much like a Chinese Communist Party theorist trying to determine the precise moment when unipolarity will give way to multipolarity? Did he have to heap so much scorn on the country that still provides for Japan's defense and from whose government the DPJ will want cooperation on a number of issues, including but not limited to negotiations regarding the realignment of US Forces in Japan, the Status-of-Forces agreement governing the US military presence, the role of nuclear weapons in the alliance, and a free-trade agreement between Japan and the US, the last of which is an important piece of the DPJ's approach to the US-Japan relationship? There were other ways to make the same points without being nearly so antagonistic and furnishing DPJ skeptics with more reasons to doubt the party's abilities to govern Japan. At the very least, some senior official from the DPJ, if not Hatoyama, ought to have written (or lent his or her name) to a piece written originally in English for submission to an American publication. It certainly should do so now.

As the DPJ makes its preparations for a new government, it must also think hard about how it will manage its relations with the press, domestic and foreign, especially given Hatoyama's tendency to speak a bit too freely. A quote from an FT article by Mure Dickie on Hatoyama's shortcomings captures it quite well: "[Mr Hatoyama] has a very free point of view. From morning to night, he always wants to do the right thing. The problem is he doesn't know what the right thing is." It is for good reason that the press's access to Hatoyama has been limited during the campaign. From the time Hatoyama took over as party leader in May he was giving impromptu, burasagari press conferences once a day, but those press conferences stopped when the campaign began. Originally reported by Yomiuri, other media sources have reported on the lack of access to Hatoyama. Sankei notes that while the DPJ says that the reason is simply a matter of time, it cites anonymous sources in the party leadership in reporting that the actual reason for the lack of access is to prevent Hatoyama from making gaffes that could prove fatal during the campaign. But lest you think this report is simply the result of Sankei's bias, Asahi offers the same explanation based on an anonymous source at party headquarters. Asahi adds that there is no such policy in place for other senior party leaders, including Ozawa Ichiro.

Naturally if the DPJ wins Sunday, it will not be able to keep Hatoyama from the press forever. The danger of Hatoyama speaking too much and undermining his own government will remain. Much as Kawamura Takeo, Aso Taro's chief cabinet secretary, has been kept busy explaining away Aso's indiscretions, Kawamura's successor in a Hatoyama cabinet will have the same task. Indeed, explaining away bizarre or contradictory remarks by Hatoyama will likely be an essential task for the cabinet as a whole. It best be filled with officials capable of being as clear and decisive as Hatoyama is vague and self-contradictory.

Ultimately, the DPJ needs to become better at image management and strategic communications — and soon. A vetting process that includes outside experts for publications by party leaders would be a good start.

7 comments:

wataru said...

I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around what's so wrong with a politician telling it like it is. Japan has been in an abnormal relationship with the US for 60 years. It's refreshing to see the likely next prime minister making a clear break with this traditional thinking.
Think about it. What is it that America is supposedly protecting Japan from? If anything, the countries that don't like Japan's close alliance with the US. So isn't it in Japan's security interest to downgrade that alliance?
What Hatoyama wrote may be considered undiplomatic and naive by so-called realists, but it is about time such things were said openly. It's an important first step toward a vital change. As a (naturalized) Japanese citizen, I am embarrassed by the current dependence on the US and will be happy if Japan takes a more Asia-centered course.

Noah said...

I think the part that's objectionable is the idea that "globalization" = "Americanization"...

Anonymous said...

I'm having a hard time understanding observers who persist in spinning this as a narrow policy issue. Is the DPJ a party capable of pushing through a required restructuring agenda having lost control of their message before even being elected, forming a government and taking power ?

If debacles like this continue to mount, it clearly risks sending the wrong message to friends and adversaries alike, throwing all domestic and security policies into turmoil.

PaxAmericana said...

Anon,

I would argue that the DPJ has been pretty much in control of their message. Hatoyama's article may have been a mistake, but I'm not sure how you get that it sends the wrong message to friends and foes alike, or throws policies into turmoil. What policy is going to be thrown into turmoil over this?

The DPJ (and Japan) have a tough road ahead in moving away from the US and towards Asia. They may not be up to the challenge.

wataru said...

Who is spinning it as a narrow policy issue? Hatoyama outlined a whole different philosophy from that of the LDP. Imagine that, not every politician in Japan shares the same view of Japan's role in the world. And here is one who is not afraid to send a strong message that change may be on the way. More power to him.

Tobias Harris said...

Waturu,

You Hatoyama is "telling it like it is" — which may be so (although Noah is spot on) — but my point is that the job of the prime minister-to-be isn't to tell it like it is: it is to get things done.

In any case, I'm not clear why you see Hatoyama's thinking as so profound. I think it's a terribly written essay, independent of the ideas expressed. Mushy, full of poorly defined sentiments, and largely devoid of serious policy content.

You say it is time such things were said openly. I would prefer that such things were said openly and well, and in ways that will strengthen the hand of a Hatoyama government.

In any case, the one portion I didn't find objectionable was his description of Japan's predicament, caught between China and the US. Of course Japan should turn to other Asian countries as a way to ease this predicament. But Hatoyama is hardly the first to realize this solution.

Anonymous said...

Hatoyama, though, is not just talking about a currency union with China and South Korea, but also about a military and political alliance.

Until the DPJ can give specifics as to what issues, territorial or historical, etc. are up for regional discussion I'm skeptical these ideas can gain any more headway than under the LDP.

And they're nearly doomed to fail if Japan can't figure a way to bring a greater leadership role to Asian collective security than they do to international dispatch of forces abroad.