Japan from the inside out

Logos, pathos, and Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 3, 2008

IT’S STILL TOO EARLY for a major retrospective of the Koizumi Jun’ichiro administration, which ended only 17 months ago, so I almost turned the newspaper page without reading the review of the book, Koizumi Seiken—Patosu no Shusho wa Nani wo Kaeta no ka?, or The Koizumi Administration: What Did the Prime Minister of Pathos Change? by University of Tokyo professor Uchiyama Yu.

But I’m glad I didn’t turn the page, because one passage in particular was key to understanding an important aspect of Japanese politics. The newspaper reviewer recapped the events of the Koizumi Administration—the third longest in the postwar period, the privatization of the postal system and the public road corporation, the dispatch of Self-Defense forces to Iraq, the visits to North Korea and Yasukuni Shrine, and his efforts to effectively dismantle his own party.

Then this section followed (my translation):

(Professor Uchiyama) discusses the advantages and disadvantages of a strong prime minister who frequently resorted to pathos (passions, sentiment) and top-down methods of governing. Even today, (Koizumi) still tops the list in some public opinion surveys when people are asked, “Who would you like to see as the next prime minister?” Many young LDP Diet members beseeched him to run in the most recent election for party president. But the author points out the dangers of Koizumi’s incorporation of pathos into politics, which was symbolic of his approach of stripping logos (reason and language) from politics, thereby weakening the logic of responsibility.

Not only does that quote describe one of the characteristics that set Mr. Koizumi apart from the other politicians in this country, it also goes a long way toward elucidating what many Japanese believe is the political ideal. There is a palpable sense of distrust of those politicians who appeal to the emotions of the people to enlist popular support.


This might explain why many foreign observers find Japanese politicians to be bland and colorless. Those same observers sometimes make the mistake of thinking those politicians are just as bland at home as at work–or perhaps they just choose to present them that way. But anyone who lives in Japanese society for any length of time realizes that most politicians across the political spectrum do have personalities; it’s just that people here are expected to behave in a certain way when they have serious jobs.

Obviously this aversion to pathos has not always predominated in Japan. It would be impossible to conduct a war and build an empire over several decades without resorting to pathos to arouse and involve the people.

But that has not been the case in the postwar period. After their defeat in the war, perhaps the Japanese developed an antipathy to the use of emotional political appeals as they applied themselves to studying and incorporating the principles of liberal democracy.

That would be in very sharp contrast to the people who tutored them in democracy during the Allied occupation. Americans are almost shameless in their preference for pathos over logos in their own political system, despite the lip service they give the latter. That’s why it’s instructive to read this paper, The Sentimentalization of American Political Rhetoric, written by Bruce E. Gronbeck in 2005.

The Director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Media Studies and Political Culture, Prof. Gronbeck argues that pathos is just as important to political discourse as logos, though he does briefly review the arguments against pathos in the West starting with the ancient Greeks. The professor states his objective as follows:

The goal is to suggest how imaged sentimentalization can contribute to citizen engagement.

He asserts that:

(S)entimentalization can be essential for creating and maintaining political identity and can provide motivational grounds for political action.


To try to excise the emotional in the name of political sanity and moral sanitation is to attempt the impossible while turning away from the humanizing capacities of sentiment, sympathy, empathy, or sheer feeling.

He concludes:

We can profit more politically from vision-sensitive knowing and feeling-driven action than we must lose to them.

As the last quote indicates, Prof. Gronbeck focuses on the use of pathos as projected through the medium of television. Here are some examples he cites from American political conventions:

  1. “Aretha Franklin’s performance of the national anthem for the Democratic National Convention in 1992. She opened up the text by turning The Star Spangled Banner into soul music.”
  2. “In 1992, the Republicans used Louis Armstrong’s It’s a Wonderful World with a film of sentimental images. It is heavy on happy children of varied ethnic backgrounds; it includes the young and middle-aged along with elderly adults living the good life. It shows diverse families hugging, praying and worshipping, playing sports and family games, and greeting each other warmly.”
  3. “Four years earlier, the Republicans had aired an ad late in the campaign that began and ended with candidate Bush holding a granddaughter. It intercut shots of mass adoration for Bush…with the Bush family barbequing together and Bush pledges to foster a kinder, gentler nation by listening to the voices of the quiet people who loved him.”
  4. “In 1996, the Democratic National Convention rolled out Christopher Reeve on American Hero Night. This was his first major public appearance following his paralysis. He spoke of family values and the political family that would join him to fight not only for research on spinal-chord (sic) injuries but also for helping all citizens without support. His appeal for party dedication to all in need was empowered emotionally by sights of his sheer, if awkward, physical presence: laid back in a head-locking, body-cradling power chair.”
  5. “Perhaps even more dramatic and equally sentimental was AIDS activist Mary Fisher’s appearance on the GOP stage that year with a twelve-year-old African American girl. Heideia had been an AIDS baby, and she read a poem about her ambition to be anything she wanted. Fisher added that, when AIDS has its way with me, her children will belong to the community.”
  6. “(T)he highlight of appeals to personalized sympathy at the 1996 conventions was the seven-minute, breath-by-breath description from Vice President Al Gore of his sister Nancy’s death from lung cancer. On the big screen, the Democratic Party and nationwide television audiences saw Gore narrate a story of regret, sorrow, then anger at the tobacco companies. The party audience was stunned into silence as Gore gulped for air, fought off emotional breakups, and allowed Nancy’s death to turn him into an instrument of political wrath. The cutaway shots of delegates paralleled the shots of Gore, as television viewers saw concern evolve into tears then an outpouring of support for the David ready to take on the Goliaths of corporate tobaccodom.”

Compared to these examples, what the Japanese press criticized as Koizumi Theater seems very tame indeed.

It’s clear that Prof. Gronbeck found Al Gore’s use of pathos to be the most impressive. As it turned out, however, Mr. Gore’s performance, rather than exemplifying the positive uses of pathos in politics, underscored the negative aspects of its use. Mark Steyn explains why in this 11 January 1997 article in The Spectator:

Many a tear has been jerked, but it’s all in the grand game of ensuring that, in three years, Albert Gore Jnr meets his rendezvous with destiny. To that end, everything must be pressed into service, including his routinely touted stricken relatives: in his speech to the 1992 Democratic convention, it was his son, who was nearly killed in a car crash; at the 1996 convention, it was his sister, who died of lung cancer. Gore `loved her more than life itself’, he told America in a hushed voice, and paused. `Tomorrow morning, a 13-year- old girl will start smoking. I love her, too.’ By this time, the gaps between his words were big enough to smoke half a pack of Marlboros in, `And that is why until I draw my last breath I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.’

No network news anchor saw fit to mention a speech Gore made in 1988, four years after his sister’s death: `Throughout most of my life, I’ve raised tobacco,’ he told a North Carolina audience. `I’ve hoed it, I’ve chopped it, I’ve shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn, stripped it and sold it.’ No television correspondent pointed out that in 1990, six years after the `nearly unbearable pain’ of his sister’s death, Gore was still taking campaign contributions from the tobacco industry.

Eventually, the Washington Post caught up with him and asked him why, if he was that devastated, he’d carried on hoeing, chopping, shredding, spiking, stripping and selling the stuff. His answer was ingenious: ‘I felt the numbness that prevented me from integrating into all aspects of my life the implications of what that tragedy really meant,’ he said. `We are in the midst of a profound shift in the way we approach issues. I really do believe that in our politics and in our personal lives, we are seeing an effort to integrate our emotional lives in a more balanced fashion.’

Now you see why the mere mention of Al Gore’s name induces eye-rolling in vast swaths of continental America.

It is apparent from the behavior of both parties in the current presidential campaign that pathos-based appeals still predominate in the American political process, and even their ostensibly logos-based appeals come wrapped in pathos. Indeed, it would be interesting to calculate how often today’s American Democratic candidates use the word “change” and compare that with the frequency of Mr. Koizumi’s use of the word “reform”.


But to return to the original point, it is difficult to imagine the Japanese indulging in spectacles such as those cited by Prof. Gronbeck to create political excitement and encourage popular participation. That is not to say that Japanese are not susceptible to pathos; the public were enthusiastic patrons of the Koizumi Theater. It’s just that pathos does not always mix well with politics here.

It should be noted that the American political examples cited as pathos are really examples of the degeneration of that concept into bathos, or trivial sentimentality—a fate that has befallen the texture of American culture as a whole. This might have escaped Prof. Gronbeck’s notice because he lives in that culture, and he is unaware of it in the same way a fish is unaware of the water. But Japan has not yet reached that point.

Also, the Japanese do not hold political conventions, and the sort of hoopla that both American parties still revel in every four years is unlikely to go over well here (if it would go over anywhere else, for that matter).

All of this might serve to put the administration of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in a different perspective. In retrospect, Mr. Abe’s idea of Japan as a beautiful country was an attempt to incorporate pathos in his own political approach, albeit nothing as heavy-handed as that used routinely by both parties in the U.S. The Japanese, he asserted, no longer have to be ashamed of themselves and apologize for being Japanese, because the bad old days are gone. We’ve paid our penance, so it is time to leave the post-war order behind. There’s nothing wrong with honoring our national anthem and flag, even though they were temporarily used as symbols for unsavory ends.

The amount of opposition he stirred up in some quarters is worthy of note. His opponents in Japan and overseas rolled out the heavy artillery to brand him as a nationalist, but a careful examination of his words and deeds would reveal that in other countries—such as the United States—his political stands would be considered an unremarkable display of patriotism, with a lower-case p.

To be sure, many of the people who labeled him a nationalist were those for whom patriotism is either an unfamiliar concept or a dirty word. Those in the press who applied the glue to the back of the label either shared the world view of the labelers or parroted them because their knowledge of him came second hand.


While people everywhere are susceptible to the use of pathos and respond positively to it, it might be the case that the Japanese remain more cautious about how and when it is used. Mr. Koizumi used emotional appeals to sway the electorate, but he was an adroit, skillful politician with an engaging personality. In contrast, Mr. Abe lacked political skills, and his personality, while not unpleasant, tended toward the bland businesslike demeanor Japanese expect from men at work.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Mr. Koizumi applied his skills and personality to propagating Mr. Abe’s themes as well as his own. His popularity in Japan certainly didn’t suffer because of his Yasukuni visits. I suspect Mr. Koizumi would have been more successful in promoting Mr. Abe’s agenda than some critics might want us to believe, but that is of course unknowable.

Another unknowable element is what will happen to the political process in Japan in the future. As memories of the past fade and a competitive two-party system becomes firmly established, a greater incorporation of pathos in politics is likely.

Both the expression of the Japanese political ideal and the reality of political discourse today might be gleaned from comments in Sangi-in Nanka Iranai (which I’m tempted to translate as We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Upper House), a book-length roundtable discussion featuring the participation of former upper house members Murakami Masakuni of the Liberal Democratic Party, Hirano Sadao of the Democratic Party of Japan, and Fudesaka Hideyo of the Communist Party.

Mr. Murakami expresses the ideal for politicians in Japan with logos-based principles that aren’t often heard in the United States these days:

Politics must be more sober and serious. Politicians need to be popular, but the pursuit of popularity must not be the objective of politics. To do so is to mistake the means for the end. There also must be a standard of morality, in which the minimum condition is that the politician must not lie.

It is important to remember that Mr. Murakami means what he says.

Ideals as these, however, must confront the reality that people consume politics through television, and that the demands of television are intrinsically pathos-based and seek the dramatic rather than the sober and the serious. Politicians become the servants of television, rather than the other way around. Mr. Hirano told a story about a television appearance he made last year:

When I recently appeared on a television program, the subjects of conversation were all about political crises involving the upper house election. I blurted out that we should discuss the reform of the upper house and its role in politics. All the other people on the program agreed with me. But that part was cut out of the broadcast.

I don’t expect to see a Japanese politician follow the lead of Al Gore and use the techniques of daytime soap opera in an election campaign, but it’s also likely that Prof. Uchiyama is fighting a losing battle if he wants to keep pathos out of Japanese politics.

Let’s hope that Japan is more successful than the Americans at resisting the temptation to indulge in bathos.


1. Both Mr. Murakami and Mr. Fudesaka resigned from the upper house under a cloud—Mr. Murakami because of a financial scandal (he protests his innocence) and Mr. Fudesaka because of sexual harassment charges (which he admitted were true).

2. People may find Prof. Gronbeck’s paper difficult to read, particularly non-native speakers of English. He is an academic in the social sciences writing for other academics in the same discipline, which means clarity is not essential, and he is not a particularly good writer to begin with. He also tends to use words that few people will understand, such as “psycho-epistemological” (assuming that word means something in the real world). It took me three tries before I could get through the essay from start to finish without stopping and without my eyes glazing over.


5 Responses to “Logos, pathos, and Japanese politics”

  1. Overthinker said

    The essay’s not that bad (I’ve had to deal with far worse) but he IS a bad writer, definitely. Clumsy sentence construction. Anyway, the idea of Japanese politicians descending to the levels of bathos (which is what the US level tends to be) is terrifying. I am in full agreement with Murakami’s statement, while also acknowledging how unlikely it is to come about. The danger of sentimentality is, as Plato noted, is where popular opinion (doxa) erodes knowledge/science (episteme): thus we get emotional appeals and reactions to events that should be discussed rationally, simply as the politicians feel that will make them look better. Whaling being a recent example. Also, wars, at least modern wars supported by popular opinion, are perhaps the classic example: their patriotism inflamed by sentimentalism, the Japanese were ripe in the 1930s to support and wage war against Asia and the US, even though there was increasingly little method to their madness. Sentimentality and bathos are bad enough, but when encouraged by politicians for their own (highly unsentimental) ends, such concepts as patriotism and religion are all too easy to use as tools. Which is why any leader going on about the subject needs to be viewed with a certain degree of suspicion.

  2. What about the pathos in the media and people when a Japanese boat was sunk by a US submarine accidentally, and PM Mori continued his golf game? I was in Japan at the time and I thought that to be totally illogical. Japanese people were talking about it and denouncing the hated PM, but they could not explain exactly what was wrong with continuing the game.

  3. bender said

    I’m not sure what logos Japanese politicians have…

  4. Takaaki said

    After reading this, nobody says you are non-poltical. 😛

    By the way, here are my blogs.


  5. […] Reason in Japan’s Abduction Issue I really enjoyed a (not so) recent post by Ampontan: Logos, pathos, and Japanese politics. I would really like to get my hands on a copy of Koizumi Seiken—Patosu no Shusho wa Nani wo […]

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