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Why have prime ministers’ speeches changed over time?
From Eisaku Sato to Shinzo Abe

Emi Sauzier-Uchida
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

According to my analysis, the postwar prime ministers of Japan have changed the way they define the relationship between the state and its people in their policy speech. We can observe how the changes of political and social structures have led the national leaders to alter their attitude and approach toward the people.

Patron-Client model

The patriarchal “patron-client” or “father-child” type of relationship can be most commonly observed during the early postwar period. For example, in his general policy speech in 1964, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato stated, “The central role of the government is to grasp a correct understanding of what the people expect of the new Cabinet and deliver it with affection and understanding.” In 1987, PM Noboru Takeshita talked about his determination, saying, “As the head of government, I will take responsibility for making decisions and carrying them out in the interest of the people.” In these statements, the leaders depicted the people as being passive dependents who are not expected to take any action. The state would ascertain the people's feelings and take any necessary actions, just as a father watches over his children.

Business-Consumer model

PM Junichiro Koizumi compared the relationship between the state and its people to that of a company and its customers. In 2005 he said, “The driving force behind reform is each and every one of the people, and whether the reforms succeed or not depends on the strong will of the people and the resolute action of politicians.” Just as customers support companies through consumption, in this speech voters were depicted as a force backing the Koizumi administration’s reforms by voting. In a debate between party leaders in 2009, Yukio Hatoyama, who became the prime minister soon after, considered the government to be a provider of services that people desired, saying, “Naturally what is important is how we as the government provide services to the people.” Business-consumer-type leaders try to listen to the people, who are expected to voice their wants and needs.

Searching for a new model

So—judging from his speeches, what type is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? He has asserted that, “Now is the time to push forward with revisions to the Constitution, while establishing procedures for national referendums and further deepening public discussion,” and that “Only we can build a strong Japan, only ourselves. Let us move forward together to achieve this.” The people are not depicted as being passive and protected, nor as consumers who ask the government for services. They are depicted as being citizens who discuss the goals set by the state and act on their own initiative. Politicians today must always be sensitive to the preferences of the people and how the mass media will respond. The image of citizens described by Abe may have been strategically chosen as rhetoric that would tug on people’s heartstrings.

Changes in political and social structures

These different styles of speech are not only attributable to the character of the individual politicians. They are also influenced by changes to political and social structures. Under the party system born in 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ran well-organized election campaigns by gathering votes from supporting organizations, such as agricultural cooperatives. But after a period of rapid economic growth, the number of independent voters increased, mainly in urban areas. Particularly after the LDP broke up and the non-LDP Hosokawa administration was organized in 1993, the number of independent voters reached 50 percent, and all political parties were forced to change their campaign strategies, which until that time had depended almost entirely on organized votes. Independent voters in urban areas show a strong tendency to vote based on their own judgment, without being bound by ties to organizations or their local community. Many independent voters in their 20s to 40s in large cities have high-level academic credentials, which means party leaders have to pay particular attention to image strategy in order to obtain their support.

Side-effects of the strength of numbers

On the other hand, little room was given for nationwide discussion before the Abe cabinet adopted a bill for the protection of specially designated secrets and decided to allow the exercise of the right to collective defense. When the previous government, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, conducted discussion-type opinion polls, held public hearings, and sought public comments on energy policy, the majority expressed a preference to not rely on nuclear power. But the current administration has not gone along with that opinion. In the current Diet (parliament), dominated as it is by a single party, all the others being weak, the ruling party can ensure its bills pass through the legislature by sheer force of numbers. In this situation, it is doubtful whether the ruling party is aware of the value of listening to a diversity of opinion, holding itself accountable to the nation or making earnest efforts to persuade the public.

The independent citizens referred to in Prime Minister Abe’s speech are also expected to act toward reaching the goals of his administration, including revision of the Constitution and the construction of an assertive Japan. But they are not provided with opportunities to engage in mature discussion, including expressing dissent. On May 20 of this year, Abe remarked, “I am sure that all the explanations about the bills we submit are correct, because I am Prime Minister.” Does this not suggest that he believes that the decisions of those in power are always “correct”?

A prime minister’s words mirror the relationship between political power and the people. At the same time, they sometimes prompt the audience to recognize their social roles and responsibilities and take action accordingly. Many voters are no longer satisfied with being treated like children and leaving all decisions to the state. They want a full array of services and demand opportunities to express their opinions in the interest of society. Politicians who notice changes in the people’s self-awareness and attitudes toward society as described above, and who are quick to respond to these changes, are likely to eventually capture the hearts of the people.

Emi Sauzier-Uchida
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Emi Sauzier-Uchida graduated from the Waseda University School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I in 1994. At the University of Essex in the U.K., she obtained an M.A. in Applied Linguistics in 1996, and a PhD in 2001. In 2002, she was appointed assistant professor at Waseda University's School of Political Science and Economics, and professor in 2010. In the same year, she obtained an MSc in Modern Japanese Studies from Oxford University. She served as a visiting researcher at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.
Her recent publications include “The Rise of Consumer-Oriented Politics in Japan? Exploring Party-Citizen Relationship through Discourse Analysis” (Japanese Journal of Political Science, 15(2), pp. 231–259, 2014) and a textbook, “World Views: English for Political Science and Economics” (Waseda Publishing, 2010, co-authored).