Prime Minister Hosokawa
puts a 'g' in statecraft

Image-up media manipulation

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 19 September 1993, page 9

"The Hosokawa Morihiro that TV created" announces the title of an article by Gakushuin University professor Fujitake Akira in the October issue of Shokun!, Bungei Shunju's "opinion" monthly. One subhead promises "A thorough analysis of press-conference images." Another claims that "what planted the image of 'freshness' (shinsen) and 'determination' (yaruki) in the people of Japan was the 'wholesome' (kanzen-na) camera work of producers."

Fujitake discusses four elements that he finds significant in the making of Hosokawa's political image. The first element is the way Hosokawa enters the pressroom. Previous prime ministers used the hall connecting the PM's residence to the press room. But Hosokawa exits the PM's residence through its main entrance and walks to the press room through the front garden. While media commentators have said that Hosokawa puts on this performance because he is conscious of cameras, Fujitake thinks that he has adopted the "photo opportunity" techniques perfected by former U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

The second element in Hosokawa's TV image is the way he stands up throughout a one-hour press conference. Other observers have said that he does this to stress his youth. Fujitake, though, argues that he is using the lower camera angles to create an impression of strength, control, and importance.

The third element is the way Hosokawa designates who will ask him questions, by pointing at a reporter with a ballpoint pen. Such body language is not simply meant to impart a "fresh image" (as the national dailies would have us believe), but, according to Fujitake, takes advantage of the lower camera angle to "naturally" underscore Hosokawa's higher position. This effect is enhanced by the way the cameras track Hosokawa's stare. Viewers are given the illusion that they are seeing what he sees. Newscasters apply this psychology when turning their heads, thus directing the viewers' eyes toward, say, a monitor screen behind or in front of their desks.

The fourth and final element involves the idea that, by conducting his press conferences on his feet, Hosokawa generates a sense of psychological distance between himself and the reporters in the press room. The viewers are shown that Hosokawa is in charge of the conference, in that he does not answer questions at random, but allows questions only from reporters he permits to address him.

Fujitake thus agrees with an unnamed U.S. expert who has said that a TV-age politician needs, along with political ability, a talent for self-presentation: in other words, both "statecraft" and "stagecraft".

Writing back in the early '60s, when the effects of "boob tube" culture were being hotly debated in North America, much as they are today, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), the Canadian guru of mass communications, called TV the most recent extension of the human central nervous system. He described its effects on "the totality of our lives, personal and social and political," as "a gestalt of data gathered almost at random," which exerts "a unifying synesthetic force on the sense-life" of its viewers. The simple message in McLuhan's sometimes difficult verbal medium appears to be that, if we surrender to the tube, it will turn us into a homogeneous tangle of thoughtless image receptors.

Also in is his most famous book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan expressed dismay that Theodore White, in The Making of the President: 1960, considered only the content of the debates between presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, and their deportment as debaters--but failed to ask "why TV would inevitably be a disaster for a sharp intense image like Nixon's, and a boon for the blurry, shaggy texture of Kennedy."

Why, indeed. One will always wonder how different history might have been had Kennedy lost the election. Determinists will argue that it wouldn't have mattered who was in office, that the course of events, including the Vietnam War, would have been decided by an American "system" that is more willful than any of its human actors.

Whether or not personality makes a difference in Japan remains to be seen. For as Fujitake concludes, Hosokawa has proven his stagecraft, but has yet to clarify his statecraft.

Also meriting close watch, though, is whether TV's greater courting of younger, more image-conscious politicians will reverse the cynicism reflected in lower voter turnouts. Otherwise, it will be even more difficult than now to call Japan a "democracy"--despite, or perhaps because of, its growing TV "Diet" (to take off on one sports sheet's claim that Japan's TV networks have become its parliament).