The brutal murders of Japanese hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa at the hands of ISIS have understandably captured the interest of the Japanese nation. Opinions on the victims have ranged from the deeply sympathetic to the victim-blaming. Moreover the Japanese public seems more willing to embrace Goto as a true victim than Yukawa. These domestic sentiments are important because they touch upon a question that is inherent in every crime: why are some people given victim status and others not?
Yukawa and Goto both suffered the same tragic fate, but the domestic reactions to the hostage crisis have made it clear that similar fates do not necessarily warrant similar victim status. Goto has been described as a brave and kind-hearted person on a journalistic mission to tell the truth about the Syrian war. For a while an “I am Kenji” campaign was even gaining momentum on the internet. There was little or no doubt about Goto’s status as a legitimate victim. Yukawa, on the other hand, was viewed with much more skepticism, not to say disdain. Yukawa was characterized in Japanese media as a confused loner with a death wish, who had gone to Syria as a military contractor in order to restore meaning in his life. Although few said it aloud, many Japanese probably felt that Yukawa had taken unnecessary risks and to a certain extent “had it coming”. Needless to say, no one “was” Haruna.
The denial of victimhood in Yukawa’s case has an ugly precedent. In April 2004 five Japanese who had been abducted in Iraq while doing media and voluntary work were released and allowed to return to Japan after suffering through horrendous threats of being burned alive by their Islamist captors. However upon their return they were met by angry protestors at the airport wielding contemptuous hand-written signs, one reading “you got what you deserve!” The Japanese government even demanded that the returnees pay the 6000 USD air fare. Most of the victim bashing emphasized that, by venturing into Iraq despite governmental warnings against doing so, the victims had failed to take ‘self-responsibility’.
It might not come as a surprise that circumstances apart from the actions of the perpetrators determine whether or not victim status is granted, but is it possible to say something more specific about what these circumstances are?
In order to answer that question it is useful to look at the case of Megumi Yokota, arguably one of the most famous and undisputed victims in Japanese history.
Yokota gained nationwide and eventually worldwide fame in 2002 when late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il admitted to a Japanese Prime Ministerial delegation that Yokota was one of 13 Japanese citizens whom North Korea had abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Megumi Yokota, or just Megumi as she is frequently referred to in otherwise formal Japan, had been only 13 years old when she was kidnapped at the shores of Niigata in 1978. The purpose of the abduction had been to have her teach North Korean spies how to “become Japanese” so that they could infiltrate Japan undetected. Moreover North Korea claimed that she had committed suicide in 1994 – a claim that the Japanese government still denies.
Megumi’s tragic story captivated the Japanese public and she quickly became the poster child of the Japanese government’s various enlightenment campaigns aimed at solving what became known as the North Korean abduction issue. Mangas and animes carrying her name and depicting her life story became popular, and Noel Paul Stookey of the American folk band Peter Paul and Mary wrote the ballad “Song for Megumi” which he performed at the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office. Furthermore, Megumi’s parents became household names as the front figures of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.
But why did Megumi, and not the other abductees, become the rallying point of the various abduction issue campaigns?
The answer is because she was an “ideal victim”.
Criminologist Nils Christie has argued that in most criminal cases the victim isn’t completely blameless and the offender isn’t completely culpable. However the closer one gets to these extremes the more likely it is that the injured party will be given “the complete and legitimate status of being a victim”. This is what he calls the “ideal victim”. Christie developed five criteria for the ideal victim. As we shall see, Christie’s criteria are perfectly fulfilled by Megumi Yokota.
1) “The victim is weak. Sick, old or very young people are particularly well suited as ideal victims”. – Megumi was 13 years old at the time of her abduction. By far the youngest of all the abductees.
2) “The victim was carrying out a respectable project”. – Megumi was on her way back home from badminton practice.
3) “She was where she could not possibly be blamed for being”. – Megumi was walking the same path as always.
4) “The offender was big and bad”. – The offenders were adult North Korean spies who had illegally entered Japan by boat.
5) “The offender was unknown and in no personal relationship to her”. – See above.
Megumi is the living (hopefully) incarnation of the ideal victim. Her symbolic power has unquestionably contributed to the fact that the abduction issue has captured far more interest among the Japanese public than conventional security issues like the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
Going back to the case of ISIS victims Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, one can argue that the only thing that substantially separates them is the second condition – “carrying out a respectable project”. It is hard to find fault with a journalist who goes to Syria reporting on the suffering of ordinary people in what is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. Going to said crisis as a military contractor, however, is not likely seen as a “respectable project” in Japan, where anti-militarist sentiments have been strong since the end of WW2.
It is harder to say why Goto was perceived more favorably than the 2004 Iraq hostages, who also arguably were carrying out “respectable projects”. Maybe it simply boils down to the fact that Goto died and the Iraq hostages survived. However it is also possible that Goto’s legitimate victimhood was secured because his death followed the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which spurred a tremendous celebration of freedom of speech, and Goto was, after all, a symbol of free speech.
There are of course no absolute laws of human behavior, but there seems to be a general correlation between victim status and points scored on Christie’s criteria list. This probably stems from our human disposition to simplify an extremely complex world. We constantly seek simplicity, and simplicity is often found in dichotomies such as good/bad and innocent/guilty. But in order judge about innocence and guilt, we need criteria, and Christies’ criteria are probably the closest we can get to saying something general about the construction of victim status.
It is, however, important that we do not let an imperfect victim status overshadow or justify the actions of the perpetrator, as sometimes has been the case in Japan. Beheadings and abductions are not justifiable.
Ph.D. candidate in Japanese studies at Free University Berlin’s Graduate School of East Asia Studies (GEAS).
At the time of writing, there is every sign that Japanese politics is at an historical crossroads. In December 2012 the Japanese electorate voted the conservative Liberal Democratic Party back to power after a three-year break from 2009. Before then, the LDP had governed the country almost uninterruptedly since the onset of the Cold War. With the help of a highly capable bureaucracy, the party presided over the country’s rapid economic recovery and consequent wealth creation in the 1960s and 1970s. Its long reign, however, has also created a rigid and inward-looking political culture, and a self-serving political class that is unwilling to carry out difficult but necessary reforms if they are deemed to threaten its vested interests. A policy that favours big business, ad-hoc pump-priming measures using public works projects, and various measures that hinder women’s fuller participation in work outside the home, are just three examples of this culture.
In Japan there was a real sense of euphoria when the party was ousted by the opposition Democratic Party three and a half years ago. However, a series of blunders, but also tough policies (such as an increase in the consumption tax, which some specialists asserted was necessary in order to balance the national budget) made the Democratic Party extremely unpopular, and the party was resoundingly defeated by the LDP in the general election of 2012. Backed by its simple majority in the House of Representatives, the LDP is now pursuing an aggressive monetary and fiscal policy, which some pundits regard as ‘a gamble’, and also, more alarmingly, flexing its muscles to revise the pacifist Constitution under the leadership of the hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Nationalistic rhetoric and provoking behaviour by some members of the party, such as their regular ceremonial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo which commemorates the Japanese war dead, are aggravating its already strained bilateral relationships with China and Korea.
This is happening against the backdrop of a myriad of domestic problems that the country now faces. These include the mounting national debt, the rapidly aging population, and the decline of local industry. All have been aggravated by the recent natural and man-made disasters, the Great Tohoku Earthquake and the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster in 2011, and come with international challenges, such as the rise of China and Korea as strong economic rivals amid unsettled regional security.
Some observers point to a general sense of malaise in today’s Japan, ‘a loss of hope’ as the Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe described it nearly two decades ago, a society which is still wealthy but unsure about its place and destiny. A most worrying sign is that many young people have become even more inward-looking and apolitical than previous generations.
Some fear that the LDP’s aggressive spending policy and its populist and nationalistic rhetoric may be a sign of the party’s reluctance to tackle more fundamental questions. They fear that under the veneer of the determined posture of the party lies the working of an opportunistic and populist group, who are trying to preserve the old-style of politics, an economics-centred, big-business-friendly modern-day policy of ‘Fukoku Kyohei’ (Rich Nation and Strong Army), and to preserve the monopoly of power of a self-elected few. More generous observers might say that they cannot identify persuasive alternatives, so stick to familiar policies on a larger scale. Either way, the LDP’s nationalistic posture may be dangerous, as it may work to agitate and manipulate an already vulnerable population. And if it lasts too long, this belligerent policy is also detrimental to Japan’s further transformation into a fully participatory democracy and to a more open and cosmopolitan society.
At the moment, Japan resembles a boat drifting in a rough sea without a competent helmsman, an image that may conjure up the Japan of the late 1920s and 1930s for more pessimistic observers.
And yet the resources of Japanese civic life seem to remain intact. There are many signs of a more assertive citizens’ politics, as demonstrated by the large numbers who travelled to the quake-hit areas to help recovery operations, and by citizens’ anti-nuclear movements in the wake of the Fukushima Disaster. Shortly after the disaster struck, a group of citizens began to stage regular anti-nuclear demonstrations on Fridays in front of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence; these continue to this day. More importantly the Japanese judiciary, the heart of the Japanese politico-legal system, which has long been criticised for its inaction, has also begun to produce some noticeable rulings which are more in tune with the spirit of the Bill of Rights. As ever, however, progress here is slow.
At present Japanese democracy is facing one of its hardest tests, which has to be borne by the generations who have no first-hand experience of the major events that have shaped modern Japan, namely the Second World War and its aftermath, to say nothing of the remote, epoch-making, yet still crucial transformations and aspirations of the Meiji period (1868-1912).
At a time of such uncertainty, history is often a useful guide to gauge the present. It is high time to examine Japan’s democratic legacies (it is one of the oldest democracies in Asia) and to measure the strength of its foundations so as to judge where it is heading. What therefore were the major mistakes that the country made in the pre-war years that led it to war? What were the alternative paths that Japan could have taken so as to avoid it? How, in the past, did individuals learn to confront the state, and what principles sustained them in criticising their own government and society?
My forthcoming monograph, Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan , juggles with these questions with a deep concern for the present and future of the country. The Japanese tradition of dissent may also be relevant to other Asian countries which are also pursuing their own democratic futures. The claims of the rule of law, parliamentary politics, and individual rights, are intensely relevant to divided Korea, Burma, and elsewhere, too. The Japanese experience the book tries to recover is full of cautionary tales, but it can also provide inspiration and hope for a better and fairer future, both within and outside Japan.
BIO DETAILS: Dr Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins is a former lecturer in modern Japanese history at Durham University, and is currently a tutor in Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her monograph, “Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan: Three Forms of Political Engagement“, will be published by NIAS Press in August.
On 8th March, the Alexandersalen was the venue for the symposium ‘One Year On: A Symposium Commemorating ‘311’, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011’. The event was held with Danish scholars on Japan and Japanese scholars working in Denmark, who had the desire to do something from Denmark for Japan as people prepared to commemorate the first anniversary of the catastrophe that claimed so many lives. More than 70 participants with various backgrounds came to the symposium, including those travelling from Japan and Sweden. I participated in the event as one of the organizers as well as the panel discussants.
The goal of the symposium was not to make a ‘grand theory of 311’ but to commemorate the first anniversary of the event. Professor Takashi Suganuma (Rikkyo University & Roskilde University) reflected this by opening the symposium with one-minute’s silence. Dr. Geir Helgesen (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies) followed with his opening speech, referring to the shock the world felt as it watched the footage of the Tsunami on the news, as for many Japan was known to be one of the most prepared nations for natural disasters.
The afternoon’s proceedings begun with Professor Chiharu Takenaka (Rikkyo University, Japan), talking about ‘Reflecting on a year since 311’. Her lecture offered a broad overview of what the Japanese people learned from 311, touching upon the monthly workshop she and her colleagues at Rikkyo University have conducted since 311 to share experiences with students, NGOs, journalists and afflicted local communities. Takenaka mentioned key developments in Japanese society, such as changes in Japan’s relations with US, China and South Korea as people received assistance from them during and after the Great Earthquake. She also pointed out that there were drastic changes in the Japanese people’s views on individuals vis-a-vis communities, democracy, risk, as well as Japan’s position in Asia. She concluded by saying that it is going to be a long process for the people in Japan to integrate the experiences and lessons learned from the Great Earthquake but as Sakura (cherry blossom) in Rikuzen Takata (one of the most severely hit areas) managed to bloom shortly after the Earthquake, people are slowly but surely beginning the process of recovery.
In the first panel discussion, moderated by Professor Toshiya Ozaki (Rikkyo University & Copenhagen Business School), the civil engineering dimension of 311 was taken up. In ‘When one says safe enough and others disagree’, Dr. Kazuyoshi Nishijima (DTU) introduced the basics of risk evaluation. He explained how risks are assessed from an engineering point of view and how that was (or was not) implemented in cases such as Tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plants. Nishijima also explained the thinking called ‘yet still probabilistic thinking’, which he believed should be used much more often to help societies make decisions through calculating how they could optimally allocate limited resources available. Nishijima’s lecture was particularly interesting as it made the audience realize how we, on a day-to-day basis, chose to ignore the possibilities of fatal accidents. Then followed Dr. Anni Greve’s presentation (Roskilde University) ‘Coping with the incalculable: Tokyo after the Great East Japan Earthquake’. Greve spoke about how Tokyo had managed to rebuild itself after several events of massive destruction in the past. Greve found that Tokyo’s unique capabilities to handle serious crises were seen again after the Great Earthquake through her analysis on the professional groups that engaged in the reconstruction process, such as architects, the mayor of Fukushima, school teachers and firemen. She concluded that the effects of 311 are cross-continental, suggesting this as one indication of the process of ‘cosmopolitanization’, as defined by Ulrik Beck.
The second panel discussion was about the civil society dimension of 311, which was moderated by Dr. Mika Yasuoka (ITU & Kyoto University, Japan). In ‘The Great East Japan Earthquake: Japan as an Aid Recipient’, Dr. Aki Tonami (myself) talked about how Japan, which has been mostly known as an aid donor rather than a recipient, experienced and viewed the Great Earthquake, both from the view point of the government and the Japanese NGOs. Overall, the Japanese government and NGOs were very grateful for the assistance offered from abroad. At the same time, they faced operational and institutional difficulties, which could be unique to a developed country that was suddenly put in a position of needing help. Dr. Annette Hansen (Aarhus University) backed this by her notes on postings to the Facebook site for the alumni of AOTS (The Association for Overseas Technical Scholarship) and JICA (The Japan International Cooperation Agency) training courses in Japan in the aftermath of the Earthquake. Her main findings from her presentation ‘Responses to the 2011 Triple Catastrophe on Facebook’ were the number and the nature of messages posted on the Facebook site changed over time as the aftermaths of the Great Earthquake revealed themselves, and Facebook was used as a space for reaching out from and to Japan for those who had once received training in Japan.
Interesting points were raised during discussions among the panellists and with the floor throughout the symposium. One of the audience pointed out the biggest difference between the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake was that use of the Internet – because of that, people’s accessibility to information was naturally much more improved this time around. Another audience member suggested that, while expats living in Tokyo became much more involved in the Japanese society after the 311, Japan has not yet managed to recover its image as so many foreigners left Japan after the nuclear incident. How the nuclear accident has been dealt with and the future of Japan’s energy policy were also questioned.
This last point was indicative of a symposium, which illuminated that, even though one year has passed, it is not ‘over’ yet and the reconstruction process has just begun. The range of presentations and discussions covered reminded me once more of the variety of issues that Japan faced (or is still facing) as a direct consequence of the events of 311.
Five years after the long novel Kafka on the shore, Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s trilogy 1Q84 was published in Japan in 2009-10 where it quickly became a bestseller. With details of the book kept strictly secret prior to its release, anticipating Murakami readers had to satisfy their curiosity with train posters such as the above.
The Danish translation of book 1 is released on September 29 and for the first time Danish readers will get their Murakami fix before the English translation hits bookstores across the world at the end of October.
PhD candidate at University of Cambridge and associated PhD candidate at NIAS, Gitte Marianne Hansen shows how Murakami’s latest novel relates to a group of largely ignored Murakami works that portray female protagonists, main characters and narrators.
SPOILER ALERT: this text reveals a few details from Murakami Haruki’s latest novel1Q84, book 1, chapter 1.
A female serial killer’s literary roots: Murakami Haruki, 1Q84 and Aomame
With sale-records in Japan and immense interest across the world, Murakami Haruki’s literary world needs little introduction. In 2010, tickets to the literary event Verdenslitteratur på Møn immediately sold out when the small literary society, based on a remote island in southern Denmark, welcomed the Japanese author as its guest of honor. Although Murakami had insisted on rules that almost seemed paranoid in a Danish context, we can expect an equally high level of interest when the Danish translation of book 1 of Murakami latest novel 1Q84 is released next week.
From 1982 to 1Q84
After reading only a few lines into 1Q84 it soon becomes evident that this is going to be a different reading experience than Murakami’s other long novels. Aomame, the first of two protagonists we meet, is female and not only very confident, but a cold-blooded serial killer as well. Interesting, right? Especially considering that Murakami’s works have been called a mirror of Japanese patriarchy and that his female characters have irritated some of Japan’s leading feminists who claim Murakami portrays women as objects for male subjectivities. These previous critiques of Murakami’s works may make a necessary point regarding some of his gender representations, perhaps especially those where an older male protagonist has relationships with very young girls, as in Supūtoniku no koibito (1999) [translated as Sputnik sweetheart] and Hitsuji wo meguru bōken (1982) [translated as A wild sheep chase]. However, such criticisms are incomplete because they do not take into account often-overlooked works in his authorship that portray female subjectivities. With the presence of Aomame, these works can no longer be ignored.
Although Murakami is best known for his first person male narrations, 1Q84 is not the first of his works to portray a female main character or question issues regarding women. Beginning with Bāto Bakarakku wa osuki? (1982) [not officially translated], later renamed Mado (2005) [translated as Window], where the male narrator recalls an encounter with a lonely housewife, Murakami has consistently authored a group of works that depicts the reality many women in Japan face. This group creates awareness of women’s issues and portrays protagonists, main characters, and narrators that are female. We can categorize these works into four literary styles: watashi-stories, boku-stories, third person-stories and watashi-tachi-stories.
Four literary styles
Watashi-stories – a female protagonist uses her own voice to narrate her own story via the first person pronoun, watashi (I), as in Nemuri (1989) [translated as Sleep], Kanō Kureta (1990) [not officially translated], Koori otoko (1991) [translated as The ice man] and Midori iro no kemono (1991) [translated as The little green monster]. In the Japanese language, watashi is used both by men and women, but men’s usage is typically limited to formal or polite speech whereas women use watashi in both informal and formal situations. Although some exceptions exist, male protagonists in Murakami’s works usually use boku (I) and not watashi (I) when they reveal their personal stories, and breaking this ‘rule’ often adds an interesting nuance of uncertainty or mystery to the characters.
Boku-stories – using the exclusive male first person pronoun, boku (I), a male narrator retells a female main character’s story as it was told to him, as in Bāto Bakarakku wa osuki?/Mado (1982/2005) [translated as Window], Takushii ni notta otoko (1984) [not officially translated], and Rēdāhōzen (1985) [Lederhosen].
Third person-stories – a third-person narrator narrates the story of a main female character, as in Tairando (1999) [Thailand], Hanarei bei (2005) [translated as Hanalei bay], Shinagawa-saru (2005) [translated as A shinagawa monkey], and most recently in 1Q84 (2009; 2010) [translated as 1Q84, forthcoming October 2011].
Watashi-tachi-stories – the unusual use of the plural pronoun watashi-tachi (we) in Afutādāku (2004) [translated as After dark].
Aomame’s predecessors – Murakami Haruki’s female narrative-works
Consisting of both short stories and novels, this diverse group of Murakami works is not confined to a particular literary style and addresses various political, social and personal issues that women in contemporary Japanese society face. In an article I wrote shortly after book 1 and 2 of 1Q84 was released in Japan, I therefore suggested using the term ‘Murakami Haruki’s female narratives’ to broadly categorize this group of works. The aim was to show that this group of works exists and to demonstrate how the works connect to the ‘female experience’ in contemporary Japan via three distinct themes: ‘housewife isolation’, ‘contemporary femininity’ (contradictive femininity) and ‘women and violence’ (both violence towards the self and towards others).
Aomame’s predecessors are not feminist empowered female characters who stand up for themselves and demand freedom from their female roles. For example, watashi in Nemuri gives up trying to free herself from her family, watashi in Midori iro no kemono re-suppresses her own ‘other self’ through self-harm and Kureta in Kanō Kureta narrates her own murder. But the majority of contemporary (Japanese) women are also not feminist empowered individuals and it is this reality Murakami delicately captures in his female narrative-works.
Against this backdrop of physical violence towards women and female character’s inability to stand up for themselves, 1Q84 is a strange breath of fresh air. Aomame’s organized slaughter of abusive husbands suggests an opposition to the silent witnessing of female victimization. Murakami’s latest female protagonist is different from the main characters in his other female narrative-works. This is evident in the beginning of this complicated story when she symbolically frees herself from the social norms for women by rolling up her tight mini skirt and taking off her high-heeled shoes – two essential contemporary female clothing items that, at least symbolically, restrict women’s mobility.
Aomame’s mission begins with her crawling down the emergency exit away from a jammed highway where traffic is not moving. The scene where a mother firmly ignores her young daughter’s plea to go outside after witnessing Aomame’s escapade from her car window, suggests that Aomame is the much-needed heroine that can inspire the next generation of girls to find their own “emergency exits”. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that Aomame herself may be unaware of her own importance.
Although Aomame is Murakami’s first female character to fight in an aggressive way, 1Q84 is not the first work that deals with issues such as violence, isolation and fragmentation that women face in Japanese society. On the contrary, Aomame has evolved from a consistent group of largely ignored female narrative-works that expose the raw realities of female lives. Murakami’s decision to create this determined, strong and violent female character shows an intense frustration over how women are trapped by their female roles. As a group, his female narrative-works delicately express how the conscious recognition of ‘I want out’ is often not enough to induce real change to female lives in contemporary Japan – and in many other societies.
Without revealing any further details about book 1, 2 and 3, I can say this much: I will be among the many queuing to get their hands on book 4 if and when it reaches Japanese bookstores. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing how Danish and English readers receive Aomame and her mission in the peculiar world of 1Q84.
Gitte Marianne Hansen
PhD Student, Japanese Studies,
Department of East Asian Studies,
Faculty of ASian and Middle Eastern Studies,
Associated PhD Student, NIAS
Part of this text was first presented at the annual Japan Studies Association held at Tokai University, Honolulu, Hawaii and later published in:
Gitte Marianne Hansen. 2010. Murakami Haruki’s Female Narratives – Ignored works show awareness of women’s issues. Japan Studies Association Journal Vol. 8.
A series of lectures (in Danish) on Murakami Haruki’s authorship are scheduled this autumn at Københavns Folkeuniversitet in Copenhagen.
“What is going in Japan with six prime ministers in five years?” seems to be a frequently asked question these days. In this blog post, I will try to answer this question – or at least shed some light on how we can understand current Japanese politics. We need to understand, firstly, why Kan chose to resign; secondly, why Noda became prime minister; and thirdly, whether or not Noda will last for more than a year.
Why did Kan resign as prime minister?
The short answer is that Kan made a political deal with the leaders of the two opposition parties, LDP and Komeito, to resign in exchange for quick passage of new laws. This only leaves us with more questions and the longer answer is that LDP and Komeito control the Upper House in the Japanese Diet and are thus able to delay the passage of bills for at least 60 days. After 60 days the Lower House can overrule the Upper House’s decision, but only with a two thirds majority (which DPJ with a bit of help from a few other parties are able to). 60 days is a long time in the current situation, where Japan is faced with a tremendous task of rebuilding after the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident at Fukushima. Waiting more than 60 days for passage of new budget for rebuilding and a new energy law would have put a lot of pressure on DPJ from the Japanese people. The voters would understand the DPJ as irresponsible, if nothing happened.
Popular support for Kan and his government was low to begin with due to other political failures, so it was easy for the LDP and Komeito to put Kan under pressure.
But in Japan, you don’t have to be prime minister to have influence over government policies. There are many examples of prime ministers as mere puppets – or mikoshi as the Japanese say referring to the portable shrine used during festivals. The shrine is steered through the streets by the people carrying it. Kan may not be prime minister now, but is still influential as one of those backing Noda.
Kan has left the scene, but only to go back stage. In the eyes of the Japanese, he played the role of the hero – and in Japan the hero often dies fighting to very end to fulfil a greater purpose. Kan argued many times, that the important thing was to pass the extra budget to begin rebuilding and to pass a new bill changing the energy system moving toward renewable energy and separating the authorities regulating the nuclear power plant and the authorities checking the plants.
Why did Noda become prime minister?
In Japan there are two archetypical prime minister. The first is the strong and charismatic leader who is at centre stage clearly articulating politics and direction. The prime ministers of the economic miracle period are usually associated with this type. Only Koizumi from 2001-2006 is a current example. Then there is the weak prime minister controlled by a shadow shogun or at least controlled by the shifting powers of intraparty interests – the infamous factions (or habatsu).
Both types of prime minister share some characteristics. Their strength and duration of time as prime minister depends on first of all, the level of support from the elected incumbents within own party, the level of support from all members of the party, and finally, the level of support from the voters (often filtered through the media).
The DPJ is split between two camps; those behind Ozawa, the former leader of DPJ, grand old man in Japanese politics and founder of several parties. And those not behind Ozawa. When the DPJ incumbents voted for new party president five candidates ran. In the first round no one won majority, but Ozawa’s candidate, Kaieda, was the strongest. In the second round, only Noda and Kaieda ran, and Noda only won, because a majority of incumbents would not like Ozawa to become the next strong shadow shogun, because his politics are too conservative to many. Noda, 54, is young (in Japanese terms) and represents the large group of younger politicians who wants politics to have content and vision – in stead of being about intraparty fighting and tactics.
Noda gained the support of Kan’s faction and also from the popular former foreign minister, Maehara who was one of the five candidates, and Noda was quick to say that he would follow in the footsteps of Kan and continue Kan’s politics – and also pay honour to the deal Kan made with LDP and Komeito to revise DPJ’s political manifesto. Noda has also chosen to give different factions within the DPJ a place in his government.
Will Noda continue the trend of short-lived prime ministers?
So it seems that Noda is already in place firmly tied to the mikoshi with very little manoeuvrability. However, several factors suggest that he might step out of the shadows of Kan and other intraparty and opposition party interests. If he can gain strong support from party members he will be able to win the formal election of party president to be held September 2012. How could he do this? He has already shown himself to be able to create alliances and is currently the best candidate in the eyes of the anti-Ozawa factions. Noda also possesses strong rhetorical skills. He has been training these almost every for the past 24 years by speaking in public at train stations explaining his politics to ordinary Japanese people. He has already demonstrated his ability to speak clearly and using images easy to understand in his inauguration speech. Prime Minister Koizumi was an expert in public speaking and understood how to translate this into political power. Maybe Noda can do the same?
But even though Noda understands intraparty tactics and has remarkable rhetorical skills, he still needs to be able to solve the massive problems Japan face. These include credible and effective rebuilding after the earthquake and tsunami – and control of and long term clean-up after the Fukushima nuclear disaster; the stagnant economy; the fast growing number of elders and smaller and smaller workforce to support paying for pensions and health care; various unsolved international challenges such as an agreement with the USA over Futenma Air Base in Okinawa, Northern islands dispute with Russia, and relations with China just to mention a few. But the biggest challenge by far is the people’s lack of trust in government. And Noda only has one year to convince his own party that he is the best leader to represent the DPJ in the elections for the Lower House to be held in August 2013 at the latest.
The first task is to kick start the Japanese economy through massive rebuilding of the disaster hit region. To finance this, Noda will try to implement a temporary tax and also gradually increase the consumption tax. Whether or not these moves will be seen as unpopular depends on how soon the people will experience real and positive change – and how well they will perceive Noda’s public appearances. We must remember that the low support rates for the past five prime ministers was due to the failure of solving Japan’s problems.
Department of Political Science,
Those who have already been to Japan – and particularly the bigger cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya – know that people consume a lot and in a fast pace. Despite the economic downturn in 2008, Japanese people have continued to spend remarkable amounts of yen on designer products. Design products to many Japanese people are what honey is for Winnie the Pooh. Japan is a haven for design products and aesthetics aficionados, so it would be silly not to try to get your products there or become inspired by their aesthetics.
While many scholars have already been investigating Japanese consumption and consumers, little is still known how foreign designers and design companies can penetrate the Japanese market, which is why in the summer of 2010 we initiated a project to study Finnish designers and design companies entering the Japanese market. Our findings are based on an empirical study dealing with Hirameki Design x Finland – the biggest Finnish design export initiative to date.
Below, I will briefly introduce our research group, after which I discuss some of our main findings. Finally, I will offer my take on how design-related research in the Scandinavian-Japanese context should develop.
Our research group – titled JaBuPro – consisted of eight researchers (one coordinator, three PhD students, and four Master’s students from Aalto University, Finland) who – for various reasons – had fallen in love with Japan and Japanese aesthetics.. Before this project, our coordinator – Virpi Serita – had already coordinated two student-driven Japan-related projects (first about business communication, second focusing on marketing Finnish design in Japan), so against this backdrop our recently finished project was a natural continuation to the previous two projects.
The book we released – Doing Design Business in Japan: Experiences from Hirameki – was mainly practical in focus; aimed at giving hand-on guidance to designers. In this publication we touched Japanese business etiquette and culture, storytelling, network models to name few examples. In terms of academic contributions, members of our team have worked on various topics. Some have written conference papers on the internationalization motives of Finnish design companies, one is currently working on questions dealing with the Japanese mobile market and accessible design, while others are working on PechaKucha presentations as visual knowledge communication tools in multicultural settings. Thus, the academic and practical contributions of our guerrilla project (we all worked on it in addition to our PhD and Master’s studies) varied from internationalization strategies and accessible design to visual knowledge creation and storytelling as a communicative icebreaker in Japan.
As we saw it, the challenge related to managerial books on Japan is that they always seem to focus on stereotypes and heavy industry. The problem with these kinds of books is that they over-simplify Japan and the Japanese, and leaves out some of the “softer” elements of conducting business.
Focusing on the generally accepted stereotypes does not bring us closer to each other culturally simply because stereotypes often do not apply in practice. Furthermore, there are also great variations between different industries and professions – particular rituals and norms being held as more important in certain fields than in others. We found, for example, that the Japanese business etiquette it not followed as strictly within the creative industries as it might be within heavy/traditional industry. The tendency to ignore internal diversity has had a strong hold on cultural analysis within business disciplines (e.g. management, international business, marketing), and cultural research has taken major steps, these disciplins still rely heavily on Hofstede’s notion of culture. We found, however, that equating culture with nationality has a tendency of leading to empty constructs since within a nation, it can be argued that there is cultural deviation between professions, cities, educations and so forth. In fact, during our project we found that often the Finnish designers felt they could easily relate to their Japanese counterparts. Thus, with our project it was our ambition to contribute to making a shift the focus of cultural studies in business, from explaining to describing. The ambition was to give our reader rich and detailed accounts of a specific context rather than attempt making reductionist generalization.
We also found, during our data collection phase that storytelling (something we would characterize as a rather “soft” business practice) plays an extremely important role in Japan as a means to convey not only knowledge, but also emotions. Indeed, in terms of storytelling, it would seem that Japan is one of the most fertile contexts to collect empirical material. Japan has a very long history of storytelling, and the power of stories has endured or even become stronger in the 21st century and today stories are an essential aspect in consumption, and business negotiations, for example. Our focus was on the intersection between stories and business negotiations and one of our findings was that stories can be used to connect with one’s client or to break the ice in business negotiations. What makes business negotiations interesting in Japan is that things have a tendency of progressing slowly and matters are usually dealt with indirectly. In this light, approaching your potential customer or agent indirectly with stories (behind your product or company, for example) seems to be a path worth investigating.
To conclude, we launched the project because we felt the companies required tools to expand to the Japanese market and because our theoretical understanding of Finnish (or Scandinavian) design companies entering the Japanese market is still rather limited.
In terms of further research, the intersection between Scandinavia, Japan, and design is interesting not only because it hasn’t been studied extensively, but also because we still don’t know much about the actual processes related to internationalizing design products and services, and how meanings and symbols embedded in a design product are carried from culture to another (or from a market to another). Thus, cultural studies have a lot to offer to design-related investigations.
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JaBuPro research group (you can download the book from the web site): http://www.jabupro.fi
Hirameki – Finnish design export initiative by Design Forum Finland: http://www.hiramekidesign.com
Aalto University: http://www.aalto.fi/en/