People’s Honour Award: A popularity booster?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, or more likely his team of spinners, certainly knows how to milk a public relations event to its fullest.

Honorees in the past received their People’s Honour Award – first created in 1977 for stellar achievements in either sports or entertainment - in a solemn ceremony at the Prime Minister’s Office.

But on May 5, Mr Abe presented Japanese baseball legend Shigeo Nagashima, 77, and just-retired baseball player Hideki Matsui, 38, with their People’s Honour Awards in front of 46,000 baseball fans at the cavernous Tokyo Dome, a covered stadium in central Tokyo.

Minutes later, Mr Abe joined the two recipients in the ceremonial first pitch before the day’s game, with Matsui taking the mound to pitch the ball to Nagashima, who was in the batter’s box, while the prime minister, donning a baseball jersey and grinning widely, was honorary plate umpire.

Little wonder that many Japanese felt from the beginning that the Abe administration was using the People’s Honour Award as a political tool to boost its popularity, an accusation incidentally that was also levelled at previous governments.

When a leader’s popularity has sunk too far, however, the award does not help.

When women’s Olympic gold medallist Naoko Takahashi was given the People’s Honour Award in October 2000, then unpopular prime minister Yoshiro Mori was seen as clutching at straws. He stepped down six months later.

But for Mr Abe, whose ratings are riding high, the award can only do him good.

Political commentator Hirotada Asakawa was quoted by the Sankei Shimbun daily as saying: “It is obvious that Mr Abe is using the award to raise his approval rate so as to win as many seats as possible in the July Upper House elections.”

Giving the veteran Nagashima the award is one way of winning over voters in their 60s and 70s who had watched the batter perform during his heyday.

“Mr Abe’s popularity is already over 70 per cent, but he wants to make sure it doesn’t come down,” said Mr Asakawa.

Winning the Upper House elections would give Mr Abe control over both Houses of parliament, a first step towards revising the country’s so-called Peace Constitution.

Mr Abe’s spinners apparently had another trick up their sleeves.

The Prime Minister’s baseball jersey sported the number 96.

Asked about its significance, he reminded reporters that he was the 96th prime minister in Japanese history.

Asked further if the number had anything to do with his vow to revise Article 96 of the Japanese constitution, regarding voting requirements for amending the document, he laughed and said: “That’s just coincidental. Perhaps it’s my fate.”

Loosening the voting requirements in Article 96 would make it easier to revise the Constitution.

When the awards for the two Japanese baseball icons were announced on April 1 by the Prime Minister’s Office, it caught the Japanese by surprise.

Many postings on Internet forums even suggested that Matsui’s award was perhaps an April Fool’s Day joke by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Everyone probably agrees that Nagashima, who is arguably Japan’s most revered baseball player ever, should have been given the award years ago.

At the same time, many also thought it was a bit too early to similarly honour Matsui, despite the fact that he had chalked up a brilliant career playing in both Japan and the United States.

Indeed, Matsui confessed in his acceptance remarks on Sunday that his achievements were nowhere near those of past baseball greats who had received the same award.

The main problem is that the criteria for picking nominees for the award are vague.

The government maintains that the award is handed out to individuals or groups who are “widely loved by the people” and who have made “remarkable achievements that give bright hope to society”.

In the case of the award to Nagashima and Matsui, the Prime Minister’s spokesman Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was hard pressed to explain the reasons to reporters.

He said Nagashima was an obvious choice as he is “an undisputed national hero” and also that he and Matsui have a “mentor-disciple relationship”. Matsui’s announcement that he was retiring from baseball also created the perfect opportunity to honour the two together, said Mr Suga.

The opaqueness of the selection system fuels criticisms that it is unfair. Past recipients include home-run king Sadaharu Oh, Japanese diva Hibari Misora and women’s wrestling champion Saori Yoshida.

But many equally deserving Japanese have also missed out on the award, including Shizuka Arakawa, the first Asian woman to win an Olympic figure skating gold, and three-time Olympic judo champion Tadahiro Nomura.

Unlike other awards, where recommendations are made in a bottom-up process, it is up to the Prime Minister to identify nominees for the People’s Honour Award when he feels there should be one.

wengkin@sph.com.sg