Japan PM Shinzo Abe under fire for short fuse

Abenomics, the nickname for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies, is not the only word associated with the Japanese leader these days.

His mini tantrums on live television and his eyebrow-raising reactions on Facebook to criticisms of his policies have lately earned him another moniker: “buchigire” or losing one’s cool.

“Buchigire” is a portmanteau word that combines “buttsuri” (the effect produced by the snapping of a tightly-pulled string) and “kireru” (to snap).

Mr Abe believes that Abenomics is achieving results and gets visibly upset with people who think otherwise.  And it doesn’t take much to rile him before he loses his composure.

During the election night live hookup on Dec 14, a newscaster seated in a television studio fired a question at Mr Abe, who was at the Prime Minister’s Office, asking if Abenomics had run out of steam.  

The premier’s face immediately went sullen. 

He unplugged the earphone from his ear and, pretending not to have heard the newscaster’s question, proceeded to rattle off his usual spiel on Abenomics.

After he finished, he put on the earphone again and gruffly told the newscaster that “criticism like yours doesn’t help”.

When the newscaster denied criticising the premier and tried to put another question to him, Mr Abe removed the earphone once more, mumbling something about the line being “noisy”.

A video of the incident appeared on YouTube, prompting netizens to blast the prime minister for “unbecoming” behaviour.

One netizen using the handle Utsuboman wrote on Twitter: “He does not listen to people’s opinions. He does not brook criticism. He’s short-tempered and lacks confidence in himself. Are we to put Japan’s future in the hands of a person like this?”

Mr Abe has pulled his earphone trick at least once before.

In November, a college student masquerading as a smart 10-year- old boy set up a website to draw attention to the inadequacies of Mr Abe’s policies.

When the website was brought to Mr Abe’s attention, he was livid and wrote on his Facebook page: “Pretending to be a child who will not be easily criticised is most underhanded behaviour.”

Asked afterwards during a live television hookup why he personally blasted the student on Facebook, Mr Abe removed his earphone and launched into his pet arguments about social media.

It is not that Mr Abe hates to appear on television.

On the contrary, unlike previous prime ministers, he prefers to go on television to explain his policies directly to the people, not trusting the media to do so.

The only problem is that he’s not very good at it.

According to political analyst Takashi Mikuriya, professor emeritus at Tokyo University who had previously interviewed the prime minister, Mr Abe has difficulty explaining his policies to the media and appears to suffer from some kind of persecution complex.

In late November, during a live appearance on a news programme at another television station, he was peeved when the station showed interviews with Japanese consumers who said they did not feel the benefits of Abenomics.

“Their voices do not reflect the real situation. This must be a mistake,” he complained on the spot, much to the discomfort of his minders.

During his first term as prime minister, shortly after he took over from Mr Junichiro Koizumi in September 2006, Mr Abe confessed in an interview that he was nowhere as good as talking as his predecessor.

Indeed, Mr Koizumi was a master at parrying prickly questions from the press.

Knowing full well the power of the visual media, Mr Koizumi never lost his cool while on camera and often could be counted on to provide a juicy “sound bite” that reporters could take home to their editors.

But Mr Abe does not – or is unable to – conceal his irritation even during deliberations in parliament where he frequently responds emotionally to questions from opposition politicians and once even denounced as “a lie” a newspaper report that quoted one of his close aides.

There have been precedents for his short fuse.

Mr Abe’s small-mindedness has dogged him in the past too.

In June 2013, he blew his top after retired diplomat Hitoshi Tanaka gave an interview in which he said Mr Abe’s diplomatic posture had convinced foreigners that Japan was swinging dramatically to the right.

In a post on his Facebook page, the prime minister accused Mr Tanaka, who became a highly sought-after commentator on diplomatic issues after his retirement, of being “unfit” to talk about diplomacy.

One tabloid was prompted by his tirade to ask: “Is this fellow all right?”

In January, crucial deliberations are coming up in parliament to amend legislation to boost the capability of Japan’s de facto military.

The issue, which involves a radical reinterpretation of the Constitution, is one of the top items on Mr Abe’s political agenda and over which the media are likely to ply him with tough questions if they can.

It will make for another interesting round of Abe watching. 

It will be an interesting to see if Mr Abe resorts to the old earphone trick again.

wengkin@sph.com.sg