Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Trust and sincerity matter in crisis communications
NUMATA Sadaaki / Chairman, The English-Speaking Union of Japan

May 24, 2018
The catastrophe of the earthquake, the tsunami and the crippled nuclear power plant on 11 March 2011 posed an unprecedented challenge of crisis communications to Japan’s leadership. It left in its wake the important lesson that speedy responses with clear and proactive messages are essential to gain public trust both at home and abroad.

Since last year, the Abe administration has been dogged with festering accusations of cronyism about the cut-price sale of government land to a private elementary school (the Moritomo case) and the licensing of a new veterinary school (the Kake case), and the charge of insensitivity regarding sexual harassment by a top Finance Ministry official. Though they are hardly life-and-death issues in themselves, they have morphed into a serious challenge that threatens to erode the public trust in government.

These episodes highlight a combination of factors that relate to the four main stakeholders, i.e., the public, the government, the Diet and the media.

As for the public, it is important for them to feel that they can trust the government comprising the prime minister, his cabinet and the bureaucracy. However, they have become weary of daily doses of reports on the details of alleged cover-ups and falsification of documents, and the polls suggest that the approval rate for the Abe Cabinet, which was as high as around 60% in 2013, has been lingering around 40% in recent months.

One cannot help feeling that greater transparency on the part of the government early in the game could have prevented the issues from becoming aggravated. However, the government’s communication style is largely a legacy of the era of confrontational Diet interpellations reflecting the ideological differences between the LDP and the opposition, in which the “less said the better” mind-set prevailed. Its responses have tended to be defensive, opaque and evasive. As there emerge bits and pieces of testimony contradicting the government’s explanation, the government finds it hard to bring the matter to closure. 

On the other hand, when Finance Minister Aso took an aggressive posture on the sexual harassment case, it failed to appeal to the public because it lacked an effective counter-narrative and appeared haughty.

The bureaucracy, once known to wield its power as a part of the Iron Triangle with LDP and big business, has lost some lustre amid the controversy. With the emphasis on “politicians’ leadership” and concentration of power in the Cabinet Office, the ministries’ autonomy has been curtailed. Against this background there emerged the term “sontaku”, meaning the tendency on the part of officials to act in fulfillment of what they presume tacitly to be the preference or command of their political masters such as the Prime Minister.

The function of the National Diet is critical scrutiny of government actions. Many hours of Diet interpellations have been spent on deliberating the so-called scandals mentioned above. However, the opposition, fragmented into more than six parties in a volatile process of realignment, has not been able to put up an effective united front to push the Abe government further into a corner. The public has become increasingly critical of what they perceive to be their delaying tactic, including boycotting deliberations for a couple of weeks, on important legislations such as work style reform.

Compared to the US or Britain, the mainstream media in Japan has had a less confrontational, if not cozy, relationship with the government leadership. In recent years, however, media outlets outside the system, including the weekly magazines that resemble tabloids in Britain, have increased their clout through their aggressive brand of investigative journalism and the use of social media. This has made it necessary for the politicians and government to be more alert to the chances of being caught off-guard.

At the same time, this juxtaposition of mainstream and tabloid-like media has resulted in a flood of reporting, some times scurrilous, of so-called scandals. This could distract the attention of the public away from important issues such as North Korea, China or Japan-US economic and alliance relationships. Further, these reports could negatively affect the image of Japan abroad.

The Trump presidency has consistently taken a highly confrontational stance toward the mainstream US media, so much so that playing hardball with the media seems to be an essential part of governing. I do not think that this communication style works in Japan. When I was appointed Foreign Ministry Spokesman 20 years ago, a senior diplomat whom I deeply respected gave me this advice: “Never mislead, because the most important thing is to maintain a relationship of trust with the journalists.” In the Japanese context, I still believe, naïve as it may seem, that trust and sincerity do matter, especially in crisis communications.

Sadaaki Numata is former ambassador to Canada and Pakistan and former Spokesman of the Foreign Ministry.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

沼田貞昭 / 日本英語交流連盟会長

2018年 5月 24日











一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Trust and sincerity matter in crisis communications