How the Japanese PM's stand-up routine evolved

TOKYO: Possibly the smartest thing that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did after assuming office last month was to refuse to revive the practice of holding daily stand-up interviews with the press.

Such interviews were often associated with Mr Abe's illustrious predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, who was in office from April 2001 to September 2006.

Mr Koizumi used to let reporters ply him with questions twice a day, for about 10 minutes in the morning and again in the evening.

The stand-up interviews -- so called because both the premier and reporters remained standing -- were known as "burasagari" (literally, hanging from). Only in Japan did reporters have such frequent access to their country's top newsmaker.

The practice of burasagari has rather interesting roots.

Prior to 2002, when the prime minister operated out of an ageing pre-war building that was bursting with history at its seams, Japanese reporters were given the run of the premises.

Those days, they often trailed the prime minister as he moved about the building, in order to get quotes for the day's top stories.

Because the swarm of reporters who stood on both sides of the prime minister appeared to be hanging from his arms as he moved, the interviews came to be known as "burasagari".

The word has since become standard in the Japanese media lexicon, much like "doorstop interview" in the West in reference to the short stand-up interviews with VIPs as they entered or left a building.

After the prime minister moved into spanking new offices in 2002, the press was severely restricted in movement, sparking complaints that they no longer had unfettered access to the prime minister.

Always generous and no doubt eager to manipulate the press to his own advantage, Mr Koizumi agreed to have burasagari twice a day.

From the newsmaker's viewpoint, however, burasagari was not the most efficient way of getting his comments across.

If he was lucky, Mr Koizumi got a few seconds of air time in the evening TV news after talking to reporters for 10 minutes. More often than not, he did not appear at all.

The twice-a-day burasagari practice continued after Mr Koizumi stepped down in September 2006 and Japan went through a period of annual changes of prime ministers -- they included Mr Shinzo Abe, who quit in September 2007 -- until the time of Mr Yukio Hatoyama (September 2009 to June 2010).

By then, it had become abundantly clear that too much time was being spent preparing a prime minister for the burasagari, not just to make sure that he said the right thing to the press but often to make sure that he did not say something stupid.

To make matters worse, whenever reporters ran out of questions for the prime minister, they did not flinch at asking him for a comment on the day's major sporting event or some such non-political happening.

Mr Hatoyama's successor Naoto Kan, who is known for his short temper, decided to limit burasagari to once a day.

After the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami disaster, when Mr Kan was accused of hindering rescue operations, he decided to scrap the stand-up interview altogether so as to keep reporters well at bay.

When Mr Yoshihiko Noda became prime minister in September 2011, he saw no reason to continue the practice.

Even though Mr Noda turned out to be very deft at fielding and answering questions in normal press conferences, he was, unlike Mr Koizumi, never out to please the media by doling out catchy sound bites.

Back to Mr Abe, who is far from being an eloquent speaker or even a coherent one.

At press conferences, Mr Abe is quite often the picture of diffidence, mumbling his words and at times looking rather lost.

For him to have allowed burasagari twice a day would have been only to court disaster sooner or later, as had happened when he was prime minister previously.

Moreover, things are arguably more complex these days, especially as his Liberal Democratic Party had been in the opposition for over three years and therefore not totally au fait with the issues of the day.

These currently range from the pros and cons of relying on nuclear energy in the face of an unresolved nuclear power disaster, to the nitty gritty of whether or not to pursue the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership trade liberalisation talks.

Instead, Mr Abe has decided to use an official Facebook page to connect with the Japanese people, despite the fact that Facebook users do not represent the entire spectrum of voters in Japan, especially the middle-aged and elderly.

But it has not deterred Mr Abe, who also maintains a personal page that he started while in the opposition.

His first post at his official page read: "In my personal page, I will continue to talk about my working style and other personal topics. In my official page, I will try to explain government policies in simple language."

But the posts in the past few days were rather shy on government policy.

Instead, they carried photographs showing the premier shaking hands with elderly residents in quake-hit northern Japan, visiting a supercomputer lab and even one of him with his eyes closed while he was being prepared by a make-up artist for a television appearance.

Facebook is basically a one-way street with little risk of verbal gaffes, so long as Mr Abe's posts are doubly and triply checked by his minders, and also allows him to avoid saying anything controversial.

With several hundred to a few thousand comments per post, there is little chance of Mr Abe replying directly to any of the writers.

As experts have pointed out, such is the nature of Facebook and the Internet, that those who comment on Mr Abe's posts are highly likely to be people who share his views in the first place.

Which means it is all too easy to misread public sentiment, a point Mr Abe should bear in mind.

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