Japan from the inside out

Things we said today

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 7, 2008

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Aso Taro

Aso Taro

WHENEVER A NEW Japanese Cabinet is sworn in, it’s almost automatic that one of the members will slip up during the introductory press conference or other public occasion and reveal what he really thinks. This often results in a brief but intense media maelstrom.

Former Foreign Minister Aso Taro, who already has a reputation as a man liable to say anything, was appointed secretary-general of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party last week. Sure enough, just a few days later he found himself frying on the media griddle caused by something he supposedly said. Or something his political enemies want people to think he said.

Eda Satsuki

Eda Satsuki

On Monday, Mr. Aso paid a visit to upper house President Eda Satsuki, a former member of the Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition party. (The leaders of legislative bodies resign from their parties when taking office, but Mr. Eda is still listed as a member on the party’s English-language website.) The Diet has been in a state of semi-gridlock since the DPJ gained control of the upper house in July 2007.

Mr. Aso wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk about the political situation. The opposition charges that the LDP has failed to take their opinions into account, while for its part the LDP claims that the DPJ is behaving irresponsibly.

The Tuesday morning edition of the Nishinippon Shimbun carried a brief article about a comment Mr. Aso made during his meeting with Mr. Eda. According to “informed sources” (i.e., people who were there and squealed to the press), Mr. Aso said (translating from the Japanese):

Even the Germans chose to allow the Nazis (to form a government), and look what happened.

He continued:

If you (the DPJ) intend to form a government, you should work seriously to formulate policies. The people are watching.

To which Mr. Eda replied:

I wonder which of us the people are watching.

“Cleverness is serviceable for everything, and sufficient for nothing.”
– Henri Amiel

The people are watching them both, which is the reason the LDP lost its upper house majority and the reason the DPJ has yet to obtain the lower house majority necessary to form a government.

Meanwhile, DPJ Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio, Mr. Aso’s counterpart, became upset at the mention of Nazis:

That dishonors the party and the people. I demand that he withdraw the statement.

Mr. Aso had some explaining to do, so he did just that at a press conference:

I didn’t lump the DPJ and the Nazis together. I just talked about the importance of (serious) deliberation.

The AP picked up the story, and they quoted Mr. Hatoyama as saying:

“In linking us to the Nazis, this remark could give the impression that if the DPJ assumes power it will embark upon oppressive politics.”

But there wasn’t the need for any kind of impression to be formed in the first place.

The remarks Mr. Aso are supposed to have made came in a private discussion between Mr. Aso and Mr. Eda, with a few aides probably present. The only reason anyone knows about it is that the DPJ chose to break a confidence and tell the public.

Since only a few people know what he really said or the intent with which it was delivered, and the people who brought it up have a vested interest in making Mr. Aso look bad, it might not be a good idea to take at face value DPJ claims about its enemies to gain political capital.

“The DPJ is behaving like a grade school boy with a loaded gun.”
– Ibuki Bunmei, the recently appointed Finance Minister, during last year’s Diet session

That should give you an idea why Mr. Aso was asking them to behave more responsibly.

That brings us to Mr. Hatoyama’s behavior. The word I translated as “dishonor” above was 冒涜 in Japanese, which a Japanese-language dictionary defines as “defaming someone (or something) in authority”. It is most frequently used in a religious sense, such as to blaspheme.

Hatoyama Yukio

Hatoyama Yukio

Has Mr. Hatoyama become infected with an Obama-esque conceit about the standing of his party? He demands that Mr. Aso publicly retract what seems to have been an analogy made in private, and that the rest of us take the DPJ’s word that Mr. Aso meant what they said he did, or that he said anything of the sort at all.

If he’s so concerned about the potential for creating a bad impression of the party among the people, why didn’t he keep his mouth shut to begin with and berate Mr. Aso in private?

Incidentally, Hatoyama Yukio’s political career started in the LDP as a member of former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro’s faction, but he later left both the faction and the party.

“He’s like melted ice cream.”
– Nakasone Yasuhiro describing his impression of Hatoyama Yukio

He’s still dripping. Along with his fellow party members who came up with the bright idea to make a big deal out of this.


Everyone likes to read quotes, Emerson excepted. They’re the intellectual equivalent of chocolates in a Whitman’s sampler.

In one of its June issues, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun ran a retrospective of the darndest things some well-known Japanese have said over the past 50 years. A few of these bonbons deserve a wider audience, and here they are for your delectation.

“Politics is numbers, numbers are power, and power is money.”
– Former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei

The Boss Tweed of postwar Japanese politics, Mr. Tanaka was the equivalent of a political cash register and the instigator of much that remains wrong with the system today. Some reports say he was sitting in a jail cell in 1947 on the day he was first elected to the Diet, charged with financial irregularities, though he was later found not guilty in that case.

Tanaka Kakuei

Tanaka Kakuei

He wasn’t so lucky after being arrested again as a Diet member in 1948 for bribery; a court found him guilty in 1950. But Mr. Tanaka had a knack for winning friends in high places and putting together a powerful, well-oiled political machine, so the verdict only slowed his rise to the top without stopping it. He became the country’s youngest postwar prime minister in 1972, but resigned in 1974 during a court trial related to his questionable land dealings. (He put the title to the properties in the name of a geisha.)

That still didn’t stop the Shadow Shogun, as he was known, from pulling the strings behind the scenes. He was arrested again in 1976 when a Lockheed vice-president testified that Mr. Tanaka took an $1.8 million bribe so a Japanese airline would purchase the company’s aircraft.

“The demonstrations are noisy, but there are capacity crowds at Jingu Stadium.”
– Former Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke

The grandfather of recent Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Mr. Kishi was trying to downplay the large and violent demonstrations in 1960 against the extension of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that he supported. Jingu is the home park of the Yakult Swallows baseball team.

Despite the option of other entertainment, 500 people were injured during the unrest, and one Tokyo University student died the month after Mr. Kishi made this comment. The turmoil eventually drove him from office.

“They say the voice of the people is the voice of heaven, but sometimes heaven speaks in a strange voice.”
– Former Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo

The father of current Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, Mr. Fukuda served from 1976 to 1978. Although popular with the public, he and the aforementioned Mr. Tanaka were bitter rivals despite belonging to the same party. The Shadow Shogun ignored the popular will and used Ohira Masayoshi to unseat him in an internal LDP election. That’s what prompted Mr. Fukuda’s musings about the voice of heaven.

“With this life I lead (as prime minister), I even have wet dreams.”
– Former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro

It’s well known that sex is never far from Mr. Koizumi’s thoughts, but that never bothered the Japanese public. They yawned when reports surfaced that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. This was one of several such off-the-record comments during his term of office, and he also shocked (and probably delighted) several heads of state during official visits with his locker room stories.

If I weren’t a member of the Diet, I would definitely be an adult video star.
– Yamasaki Hiraku, AKA Taku

Politics killed the video star

Politics killed the video star

What better choice than Diet member and former construction minister Mr. Yamasaki to follow his randy former ally, Prime Minister Koizumi, on this list? He has been involved in several sex scandals and accused of adultery, sadomasochism, and rape, though he really doesn’t look the part.

Mr. Yamasaki speculated about his potential for an alternate career during sex with a lover while watching an adult video. At least, that’s what his partner told the magazine in an interview in 2002.

“I’m talking to the television. All the newspaper reporters should leave.”
– Former Prime Minister Sato Eisaku

So said Mr. Sato on 17 June 1972, when he stepped down from office. He made the television reporters leave too, and spoke to a camera in an empty studio for 16 minutes.

He probably enjoyed every minute of it.

“Illness comes from the ki (spirit). All you have to do is stay on an even keel, and illness will flee.”
– Former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro

Mr. Nakasone is also known to be something of a loose verbal cannon, and he made this remark on 6 August 1983 to an audience at a nursing home for atomic bombing victims in Hiroshima. Hibakusha groups thought it indicated a lack of understanding of their problems.

The thing of it is, Mr. Nakasone was giving them good advice and probably was trying to help them out. But politicians often fail to realize that discretion is the better part of valor in these situations. In this case, the course of discretion might have been to hold off on the advice and mouth platitudes.

After all, as P.J. O’Rourke notes, nowadays people think that taking offense is so important they go out of their way to snatch it.

“Stop the Shinkansen! Go talk to the railroad!”
– Film director Kurosawa Akira

The demanding Mr. Kurosawa was noted for being an autocratic director, and he became enraged during the 1979 filming of his historical drama Kagemusha on location at Himeji Castle because he had to stop shooting every time the high-speed Bullet Train roared by. But the Shinkansen’s schedules are reworked for no man, so he had to work around it.

“Movies aren’t the life work for a man.”
– Movie star Ishihara Yujiro

The matinee idol of his generation, Mr. Ishihara made 102 feature films during a career that started in 1956 and later continued with a popular cop drama on television. (Imagine Kojak with Telly Savalas playing it straight and you have it.)

Mr. Ishihara, the younger brother of current Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro, was often heard to say this, but he never did offer his opinion on what the real life work for a man should be.

“I’m going to stop wearing underpants.”
– Katsu Shintaro

Mr. Katsu was a leading force in the Japanese entertainment industry as an actor, producer, and director. The son of a kabuki actor, he starred in 26 films as Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, as well as a spin-off television series.

He also had too much of a taste for drink and drugs, and the above comment came during a press conference with Japanese reporters after his arrest at the Honolulu Airport on 16 January 1990 for carrying pot and cocaine in his underwear.

At the same press conference, he joked that he intended to start a new business as a haberdasher and sell Katsu pants in which anything could be hidden.

Now, now, no wise guy comments from the back row!

The actor was supposed to have played the lead in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha mentioned above, but he left without finishing the first day of filming after a serious disagreement with the director.

“You can buy a person’s spirit with money.”
– Horie Takafumi

A youthful Internet entrepreneur, Mr. Horie briefly became a media darling and extremely rich after creating a popular Internet portal site.

But hubris catches up with us all in the end. He was sentenced to 30 months in jail for securities fraud in 2006, and lost his appeal about two weeks ago. Though his company has been reorganized, he is still rather well-to-do, as reports indicate his wealth has been whittled down from the billions of dollars to the mere millions.

Shukan Bunshun also quoted the man known as Horiemon as saying, “Women follow the money.” Well, you’re right, but stop and think a minute. People can get away with saying that in public only if they have a background in evolutionary biology.

The daintiest last, to make the end most sweet.
– William Shakespeare

“What difference does it make which woman you sleep with?”
– DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro

No, opposition party bigwig Ozawa Ichiro was not mulling a career as an adult video star nor was he marveling over women tagging along after the money. In fact, this wasn’t about women or sex at all—he was talking about political parties and factions.

There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m not going to go looking for it.

Mr. Ozawa made this comment off the record to reporters regarding the then-Socialist Party on 25 April 1994 when they bolted the eight-party coalition that had ousted the LDP from power the year before. As the Shadow Shogun of the early 90s, he was doing then what he still does best today—creating unwieldy political coalitions from incompatible elements.

Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro resigned three days later, and his multi-party coalition fell apart for good two months after that.

The migratory Mr. Ozawa has evolved from being a youthful protégé of Tanaka Kakuei, to the behind-the-scenes boss of the short-lived anti-LDP coalition, to the head of a small party that rejoined the governing coalition with the LDP, and then to the presidency of the DPJ after it merged with his mini-party. He is now trying to coax history into repeating itself by taking a few pages from Mr. Tanaka’s textbook of political dealing and wheeling to pry the LDP loose from power again. He is also not above dark threats to the DPJ leadership that he would bolt the party and take his friends with him if they don’t follow his lead without question.

The quote does tend to put Mr. Ozawa’s political philosophy in perspective, doesn’t it?

He was livid when the statement was reported in the press, calling it “black journalism”. It touched off a running battle with reporters that continues to this day.

This photo of the young Mr. Ozawa, by the way, comes from an article in the Shukan Bunshun in 1976. It was a four-page spread on the politicians affiliated with Mr. Tanaka. Mr. Ozawa was listed at the bottom of the fourth page.

This post began with a story on the public revelation of a political comment made in private. How better to end it than with another off-the-record comment that the speaker’s foes made public?

One Response to “Things we said today”

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