Diplomacy in Japan is always a source of fascination to the foreigner. One the one hand, you have half a dozen different ways of saying the same thing, depending on how polite or grovelling you want to be; the ubiquitous cushioning-the-blow approach to negotiations that apologetically suggests the whole thing ‘might be a little difficult’ rather than just saying ‘no’; and a wonderful service industry whose foot soldiers will always go out of their way to ensure that the customer is well treated, whether they work in the Hilton Hotel or at McDonald’s. And then, on the other, you have the politicians and representatives of major organizations – you know, the ones whose actual job it is to be diplomatic – making inappropriate comments or embroiled in other sorts of scandals as if it were going out of fashion, and apparently believing that the people or countries they alienate simply need to lighten up a bit.
Oversensitive or not, you’d have thought that the top brass in Tokyo would have learned to be more careful by now. In a country where replacing the prime minister every year is almost routine, a series of gaffes by the current incumbent, Taro Aso, have helped shatter the Liberal Democratic Party’s popularity so spectacularly that its half-century stranglehold on the Japanese government now looks set to be broken by Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan. The Aso Cabinet got off to an inauspicious start last autumn when Nariaki Nakayama, the newly-appointed Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, was forced to resign after just four days having referred to the Japan Teacher’s Union as ‘a cancer’ and unwisely suggesting that his country was ‘ethnically homogenous’. Since then, however, the main man himself has taken things to a new level, with highlights of Aso’s brief reign including accusing doctors of lacking common sense, criticising parents, and wiping out a key sector of the LDP’s support in one fell swoop by questioning why he should have to pay taxes for the ‘feeble’ elderly when all they do is ‘eat, drink, and make no effort’. None of this has really come as a shock, however, given that Aso’s previous bid for the premiership was marred by allegations that he had questioned the legitimacy of a rival candidate, Hiromu Nonaka, on the account of his buraku – a social minority group descending from persons with ‘impure’ occupations in Japan’s feudal era – heritage. Ironically, the man who beat Aso to the top job in 2001, Junichiro Koizumi, went on to become the first and, as yet, only of Japan’s 14 prime ministers since 1987 to survive in the role for more than three years.
All this political turmoil provided a rather fitting backdrop to the extraordinary scenes at Banpaku the other week, when Gamba Osaka chairman Kikuo Kanamori was forced onto his own soapbox in an attempt to placate angry supporters on two separate occasions in just five days. On the first such instance, a dismal 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Shimizu S-Pulse, the chairman’s day had appeared to be going so well, with a speech (albeit recorded, and clearly in an awful lot of takes) about plans for a new stadium being happily applauded by most supporters before the game. However, sceptical observers would opine that he had managed to speak for ten minutes without really saying anything, and when the overall tide turned viciously against the Gamba management following a fourth home defeat on the bounce, Kanamori’s demeanour was anything but stately. Approaching the 1,000 or so angry fans that had waited behind for an hour after the game, the first words he uttered through his little microphone were ‘shut up’, before subsequently suggesting (once the predictable reaction had died down) that the paying public that had sung tirelessly for 90 minutes in spite of the dross on the pitch might want to be a bit more supportive themselves.
A fifth home reverse, this time in the Nabisco Cup against Yokohama F Marinos, was enough to trigger an encore performance, and though weekday commitments reduced the number of protesters to around 300, it was not until almost midnight before the stand was finally emptied. In retrospect, Kanamori deserves credit for facing the fans in the first place, and indeed for his steadfast loyalty to team manager Akira Nishino when others might have pulled the trigger immediately. Having played by the rules of Japan’s hierarchical society for 60 years, it must be difficult for him – and for prime ministers and others in similar positions – to deal with criticism from the masses when those around him will always defer to ‘Mr. Chairman’. However, just as in politics, every football club depends on good relations with its public, and sadly, even if he did back down and show greater cordiality later, Kanamori’s initial prickly stance merely reaffirmed supporters’ suspicions that their chairman doesn’t quite get it. Had the run of losses continued this weekend against bottom club Oita Trinita, one can only wonder just how long into the night the backlash may have continued.