Monday, August 31, 2009

Hatoyama shifts the blame

The DPJ is transitioning into power, and Hatoyama Yukio is doing burasagari press conferences again after not doing them during the campaign.

(For those wondering what burasagari means, it simply refers to impromptu press conferences given by politicians to reporters as the politicians walk to or from, say, a car. The term, which means "hanging" or "dangling," refers to the reporters' dangling on the politician.)

In his first post-election impromptu press conference, some intrepid reporter asked the prime minister-in-waiting what he thought of criticism from the US of his essay in VOICE.

In response, Hatoyama went into full damage control mode and shifted the blame. The New York Times, he said, had published the contribution as an excerpt from his original essay. [I had originally written VOICE, but it seems that Hatoyama was referring to the New York Times, even though the Christian Science Monitor released it first.] Hatoyama said that his views were distorted, that globalization has "negatives, but naturally it also has positives." (He provided no details about the positives.) He stressed that he is not anti-American, that the whole essay needs to be read to be understood, and that he was simply outlining his "dream" of an East Asian community, recognizing that it is not realistic for the time being but that reality begins in dreams.

I do not buy the idea that his original essay was distorted through translation — if anything the translated, abridged version was far superior to the original, which I found to be "a mishmash of pop-anti-globalizationism, mystical brotherhood-ism, and nostalgic conservatism," and distressed by the idea that it might be a serious guide to Hatoyama's thinking. And at no point in the original essay did Hatoyama give much thought to the positives of globalization. The original reads just like a longer, harsher version of the translation, with nearly a page of discussion of how capitalism treats people as means, not ends, and about how it destroys values, traditions, and communities. Perhaps the only "kind" words Hatoyama has for globalization is when he says that it is inevitable, meaning that the challenge for Japan is dealing with it through more Asian cooperation and greater subsidiarity to empower Japanese localities.

But at the same time, his willingness to write off the essay as his "dreams" provides Hatoyama with a convenient way to distance himself from its contents. I still think Hatoyama's "political philosophy" — by which I mean far more than his thinking on globalization, which is fairly pedestrian of late — is bizarre and does not make him look particularly serious, but it does not appear to be a guide to how Hatoyama will govern, per se.

But I do hope that Hatoyama and the DPJ have learned from this episode. First, do not publish essays in VOICE. VOICE and other conservative publications will be following the Rush Limbaugh approach in their treatment of the DPJ government: they want it to fail. Hatoyama's essay should be the last time a DPJ leader's thoughts appear in VOICE, which means that the cabinet should exercise tight control over how cabinet members (and backbenchers?) deal with the media, at least as far as long-form prose is concerned.

Second, what is said in Japan no longer stays in Japan. They better get used to it and learn to choose their words carefully. The village gossip no longer stays in the village. And if a DPJ leader wants to address a foreign audience directly, with, say, an op-ed in an American newspaper, ask an outside expert or three for their opinions of how it might be received.

Third, most of the world has little idea who Hatoyama is and what to think of this party that has just swept into power — and many of those who have some ideas about the DPJ have dated information. First impressions are being formed. The DPJ's leaders must choose their words carefully. (They should always choose their words carefully, but it is particularly imperative now.)

UPDATE: Ikeda Nobuo, perhaps Japan's leading economics blogger and my fellow Newsweek Japan contributor, has also been following this episode closely and notes in the comments that Hatoyama's office actually posted a full translation on Hatoyama's webpage. As Ikeda notes at his blog, this discovery suggests that Hatoyama's argument that the English translation was not the result of a deliberate contribution by Hatoyama is mistaken.

This discovery only leads to more questions. How did the translation get from Hatoyama's office into syndication? Why were people at the DPJ surprised to learn that the translation had appeared in foreign media? Who, ultimately, is responsible for this essay reaching English readers? Did someone in Hatoyama's office release it without authorization? Or did Hatoyama sign off on it without giving much thought to how it would be received?

I stand by my argument that DPJ leaders should be wary in their dealings with conservative publications, but it seems that in this case VOICE's role stopped with the publication of the Japanese version.

The more I learn about how this essay came to appear in American outlets, the more I am concerned about the DPJ's ability to manage its image in the media.


xoo said...

Reading this makes me nervous just thinking about the Future of Japan. Anyway great site! I hope you keep writing.

Noah said...

Well, Europe certainly has had plenty of starry-eyed out-of-touch well-meaning patrician idealists down through the centuries...why shouldn't Japan have one too?

Brotherhood for all!! :)

ikedanobuo said...

Hi, I'm your colleague in Newsweek Japan.

I agree with you, but VOICE has nothing to do with this problem. Hatoyama office translated and published the article on its website. Probably CSM abridged it and NYT edited the abridged version.

Tobias Harris said...


Pleasure to see you commenting. Thank you, by the way, for your note on my Foreign Policy article on Ozawa.

Thank you for clarifying. I've been trying to figure out precisely who is responsible for the article and had heard conflicting accounts.

Martin J Frid said...

Come on, it was good they got something published abroad (it was also in Financial Times, widely read in Europe). We need more views, not less.

Why would that particular article make anyone worried?

ikedanobuo said...

Update: this morning a DPJ official explained me the detail. "An agent of LA Times" might have caused the confusion.

buvery said...

In my opinion, the issue is not how to control the tiny amount of the selected information, but to flood the media with much larger volume of authentic information.

It is a waste of time to try to control information disseminated by NYT or other Japan-bashing news outlet. Rather, DPJ should try to redirect the attention to its original article on its official web site.