American Media Goes Crazy Over Japan, Again

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Japanese Elections

Yukio Hatoyama, third from left, leader of Democratic Party of Japan, places a flower on the name of a party member who was announced a winner at Laforet Museum Roppongi in Tokyo, Japan.

Japanese politicians are not really in control of their country and serve more as a source of amusement for the powerful bureaucrats and industrialists who really run it. But the American media wants to believe that dramatic change is possible in Japan. So every so often, they whip up incredible expectations regarding an election. The victory of the Democratic Party of Japan in elections in late August is the latest example. The Wall Street Journal headline proclaimed, "Rise of New Era in Japan." It said: "The historic change in government could usher in a new era for Japanese politics that replaces the staid consensus that guided Japan in its postwar boom years with a more fractious, competitive environment."

The New York Times headline similarly heralded, "With Bold Stand, Japan Opposition Wins a Landslide." The article explained: "Many Japanese saw the vote as the final blow to the island nation's postwar order, which has been slowly unraveling since the economy collapsed in the early 1990s." This is wildly inaccurate -- Japan's economy has not "collapsed." It is still the world's second largest economy and it is far more sophisticated than China's.

Here are the realities:

This may not be a new era at all. The Democratic Party doesn't have the clout to really govern and force its will on the ministries. I predict they will have a short-lived stay in office.

The "staid consensus" isn't going away. The same people who have guided Japan's economic emergence on the world stage for the past few decades are still solidly in charge.

The postwar order is not "unraveling." Japan is one of the world's most controlled societies. It is not going to lurch over the edge of radicalism.

In fact, within a matter of days after the wild headlines, we discovered that the real architect of the Democratic Party's election victory was none other than Ichiro Ozawa, 67, one of the godfathers of old-style Japanese politics.

This is vintage Japanese politics -- a former prime minister acts in the role of kingmaker to put a new face in the hot seat, in this case Yukio Hatoyama. The kingmaker continues to exert influence and ultimate power behind the scenes. "In effect, this is going to be an Ozawa administration," a political analyst told the Journal. "Mr. Hatoyama and other leaders will be obliged to listen to what he wants." The Japanese media have nicknamed the new crop of DPJ leaders "Ozawa children."



So within two weeks after the election, the Japanese media was already tearing down Hatoyama because he gave a top party position to Ozawa. Even before he officially takes office, its clear his days are numbered.

This is another classic case in which editors in New York and Washington wanted to believe that an election in Japan represented real change. They were projecting their values onto a country that has a very different system. Correspondents based in Japan had to go with the flow, so to speak, accepting the direction that their editors demanded. But now correspondents are getting their version of the story out, and it is far less transformational than editors back home wanted to believe.

I’ve been watching this pattern since covering an election in Japan in August 1989 when the Socialist Party won a majority of seats in the Upper House of Parliament. Editors back home leapt to the conclusion that radical change had occurred. On the ground, it was clear that the Socialists would not have staying power and would certainly not be able to challenge the status quo. In fact, the Socialists were soon thrown out.

The American media’s coverage of this latest election shows that it has not really learned anything about Japanese politics in the 20 years I’ve been following them. Shouldn’t the people who control the coverage of a country have some basic knowledge about that country? Pity the poor American newspaper reader who is told that the post-war order in Japan is unraveling, only to find out within weeks that nothing has really changed.

As People columnist Al Kaff writes: Back in the 1950s, when the UP bureau sent out a dispatch on an upcoming election, New York invariably sent back a message: But what are the issues?

Tokyo manager Rud Poats would reply: There are no issues.

This is vintage Japanese politics -- a former prime minister acts in the role of kingmaker to put a new face in the hot seat, in this case Yukio Hatoyama. The kingmaker continues to exert influence and ultimate power behind the scenes. "In effect, this is going to be an Ozawa administration," a political analyst told the Journal. "Mr. Hatoyama and other leaders will be obliged to listen to what he wants." The Japanese media have nicknamed the new crop of DPJ leaders "Ozawa children."

So within two weeks after the election, the Japanese media was already tearing down Hatoyama because he gave a top party position to Ozawa. Even before he officially takes office, its clear his days are numbered.

This is another classic case in which editors in New York and Washington wanted to believe that an election in Japan represented real change. They were projecting their values onto a country that has a very different system. Correspondents based in Japan had to go with the flow, so to speak, accepting the direction that their editors demanded. But now correspondents are getting their version of the story out, and it is far less transformational than editors back home wanted to believe.

I’ve been watching this pattern since covering an election in Japan in August 1989 when the Socialist Party won a majority of seats in the Upper House of Parliament. Editors back home leapt to the conclusion that radical change had occurred. On the ground, it was clear that the Socialists would not have staying power and would certainly not be able to challenge the status quo. In fact, the Socialists were soon thrown out.

The American media’s coverage of this latest election shows that it has not really learned anything about Japanese politics in the 20 years I’ve been following them. Shouldn’t the people who control the coverage of a country have some basic knowledge about that country? Pity the poor American newspaper reader who is told that the post-war order in Japan is unraveling, only to find out within weeks that nothing has really changed.

As People columnist Al Kaff writes: Back in the 1950s, when the UP bureau sent out a dispatch on an upcoming election, New York invariably sent back a message: But what are the issues?

Tokyo manager Rud Poats would reply: There are no issues.

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