Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe is currently in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Abe has been in power for five years now. That feat alone is remarkable in a country famous for its “revolving door” leadership. Even more extraordinary, however, was Abe’s ability to consistently score above 50% in the popularity polls, year in, year out.
Recently Abe’s aura of invincibility has taken a major battering with his popularity levels plummeting to the mid-30s. What I find ironic is that the supposed scandal driving his popularity down is such a non-event.
To get a sense of perspective, it’s a good idea to compare Abe’s recent polling woes with those of his G7 counterparts. When German chancellor Angel Merkel took a unilateral decision to admit one million asylum seekers into the country in 2015, her poll numbers crashed. Meanwhile, in 2016, David Cameron had to resign the premiership after the referendum he had called resulted in Britain having to leave the E.U.—not the outcome he had been expecting or wanting.
In both cases, the leaders were punished for decisions that would have a real, direct impact on the lives, communities, economic prospects (and possibly even the security) of their citizens.
But what is it that’s causing Abe’s numbers to crumble? Can anybody explain what Abe did wrong? Nothing, really.
Just rumors that he waved through the approval of a veterinary medicine department at a provincial university that an old friend of his is running.
If this deserves the name of a scandal, then it is a completely victim-free scandal. No money changed hands. Nothing illegal took place. The worst that can be said is that proper procedures may not have been followed—though even that remains to be proved.
As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing is a storm in a tea cup.
It makes me think of some excellent advice I got from my old and respected business partner, the legendary venture capitalist Alan Patricof. One of his favorite sayings was, “Don’t create devils inside.”
What he meant is that we all have a tendency to conjure up problems (or “devils”) where there aren’t any.
Alan also mentioned that the ability to distinguish between small, insignificant problems and big, serious problems is very important.
The business of the media is to stir up “devils,” both small and big, to drive the news cycle. The Japanese media in particular seems to feel that its job is to criticize power so relentlessly that none of our prime ministers can stay in office long enough to implement any sort of coherent policy agenda.
I once asked the most influential TV broadcaster in Japan, Mr. Soichiro Tawara, an on-the-record question: “What is the role of journalists?”
His answer was: “The role of journalists is to criticize power. I criticize Japan’s prime ministers every year on TV. The result? They all ended up stepping down on an almost yearly basis. Frankly, I thought that the office of PM was much stronger than that.”
In the case of Abe and his friend’s university, the media harped on about a minor issue so long and loudly that the “devil” grew from small to big and began to “haunt” the public consciousness.
Part of the fault lies with the media. Part of the fault lies with Abe’s own government for their poor response.
Abe’s officials failed to take control of the narrative, reach out and engage with the people. By doing too little, Abe’s side created a void where the rumor, suspicion and prejudice served up by the media could proliferate unhindered. In short, Abe’s team lacked “narrative intelligence” in the battle of perception.
Mr. Abe has provided strong leadership at home, supported globalization and free-trade abroad and generally helped to raise Japan’s standing internationally.
In a world where leadership is becoming ever more debased, I think it would be a terrible pity for Japan to lose such an excellent leader over a scandal that is nothing more than “fake news” or “augmented reality.”
Photo by Matej Kastelic