Scandals help eclipse scandals, and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is likely to have breathed a sigh of relief when news surfaced last week that an aging pop star, Tatsuya Yamaguchi, had made unwelcome advances on a schoolgirl. Combined with Japan’s progress in North Korea diplomacy, the issue shifted the public gaze away from the accusations of cronyism that have dogged the government since last year, and from an alleged case of sexual harassment involving a top bureaucrat.
But the respite seems temporary. On Monday, women marched in Tokyo, Kyoto and Sapporo in protest of comments by the gaffe-prone finance minister, Taro Aso, that suggested sexual harassment is not a serious offence. In Manila on Friday, Aso told reporters that there is “no such thing as a sexual harassment charge” and that “it’s not the same as charges of murder or sexual assault”.
His statement followed the resignation in April of vice finance minister Junichi Fukuda after a weekly news magazine reported he had made inappropriate sexual comments to a TV journalist.
The topic of cronyism has also returned to the spotlight. Abe had been under scrutiny for his involvement in the sale of cut-price government land to an elementary school in Osaka. After denials, it emerged that documents relating to the sale had been altered, and a regional official involved in the sale committed suicide, fueling renewed media interest and speculation that Abe may be compelled to resign. Now, a former secretary is set to testify in a separate case that accuses Abe of using his personal influence to establish a veterinary school.
"[The government] is having to come to terms with an increasingly volatile and unfamiliar media landscape."
—Masayo Nagai, APCO
The government’s standard response has been to play the recent issues down in the apparent hope that they will go away. But the opaque, sometimes defiant communications approach has arguably made things worse. Observers think it highlights the government’s failure to understand the importance of crisis communications, and risks damaging Japan’s image abroad.
“From a communications point of view, I don't think things have been handled well,” said Sadaaki Numata, a former Japanese diplomat who served in the US, UK and Canada, among other countries. He said he learnt from experience that the “less said the better” approach often backfires, especially when dealing with the western media. While mainstream domestic media outlets are typically not as aggressive, he said, they are becoming more active in investigative journalism.
Masayo Nagai, managing director of APCO in Tokyo, agreed that the government "is having to come to terms with an increasingly volatile and unfamiliar media landscape". She said the traditional press club system and its "cosy relationships" was being challenged by media outlets outside the system "producing serious journalism, not afraid to pull punches and savvy in their use of social media". She said this meant the government would have to "exercise more flexibility and transparency to avoid being caught off-guard".
Numata said the lack of transparency, and also lack of decisiveness in terms of response, around the land-sale issue had led the media to seize on the notion of a coverup. He said greater openness along with a clear, explanation could have prevented the issue from blowing up.
“From a communications point of view, I don't think things have been handled well.”
—Sadaaki Numata, former Japanese diplomat
However, “just being open may not have done the trick,” he said. “If you make the information available, you have to support it with logic and you have to come out with a clear message. Had they done that I think the issues may not have become aggravated.”
He also criticised Aso’s pugnacious stance after the sexual harassment case, and said the minister’s own response had been “too self-centred”. “To be aggressive is one thing, but the question is whether you’re being aggressive with an effective counter-narrative that appeals to the public. Just being aggressive without a message is not effective.”
Numata said the media also had a duty not to focus unduly on “salacious” details, which cast Japan in a poor light internationally. From the subject’s perspective, “it’s important to bear in mind that you are fighting for information space. You are fighting for the high ground and you have to present your case very quickly and then see how it goes, instead of waiting around forever”.
Asked whether the government understands the value of crisis communications, Numata said: “I wish I could say yes, but my honest answer is that the government is still in a learning process”.
However, a Tokyo-based Japanese communications consultant, who has worked with the government and requested to remain anonymous, said he thought senior politicians did not always recognise the need for media training or the necessity of going beyond making “one-way comments to the media”. Judging by Aso’s handling of the sexual harassment case, the Gender Equality Bureau, which is part of the Cabinet Office, has yet to exert much influence on communications at the highest levels of government.
“I don’t think the media are necessarily getting stronger, but female reporters are getting stronger."
—A Tokyo-based communications consultant
Ultimately, this puts the future of Abe, who is seeking to remain in power through to Tokyo 2020, in question. While scandals do blow over, the #MeToo (or equivalent) movement seems to at last be taking hold in Japan after a slow start. “I don’t think the media are necessarily getting stronger, but female reporters are getting stronger,” the source noted, adding that women are unlikely to forget Aso’s ill-judged response to the recent issue any time soon.
The source contrasted the bureaucratic approach with that of the private sector, which he said had improved considerably in recent years. He said business clients were expressing increasing interest in gender equality-related training, while “in government they don’t take it seriously yet”.
He added that a commercial enterprise would typically suspend and investigate an executive accused of harassment, then make the findings public and potentially dismiss the person rather than simply admonishing them and allowing them to resign. “That’s basic governance,” he said. “Right now, there’s a lack of governance.”