Raw Japan

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Dodging reporters?

July 9, 2009

When a prime minister is in trouble, especially before an important general election, it is never wise to upset reporters.

But that seems to be exactly what unpopular Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso did when he departed for a G8 summit in the central Italian city of L’Aquila this week.

When I was heading to the airport to board a charter flight for the Japanese delegation and accompanying media on Monday, I got a last-minute call from a foreign ministry official who told me Aso’s office had decided not to hold a special briefing during the summit to discuss domestic issues.

Japanese prime ministers usually hold a briefing, called naiseikon in Japanese, when they travel overseas, granting access to only a small group of accompanying reporters. 

Sometimes prime ministers cannot hold one if the trip is very short, but it is rare to cancel the briefing during a summit of leaders from the Group of Eight (G8) industrial nations.
Speculation is swirling over whether the struggling prime minister will soon call an election, which has to be held by October, or be ousted by his party before the poll.

Many media outlets had reported that Aso, whose support rates have fallen close to 20 percent amid doubts about his leadership capabilities, may call an election or at least give a hint about the election timing during such a briefing in Italy.

News that there would be no special briefing spread quickly and some newspapers took it as a sign that Aso would delay a decision on the election timing.

The official line was that Aso’s schedule was too tight. But the decision came after some lawmakers within Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party and its smaller coalition partner suggested that holding an election soon would not be wise, as the ruling bloc faces a tough battle in the Tokyo assembly election this Sunday.

So just when reporters have the most serious questions to ask, it seems that Aso is dodging them.

But maybe it’s a wise move for Aso, who told reporters at a naiseikon last year that he should be careful speaking to the press overseas, as some of his predecessors had made gaffes because they felt relaxed away from home.

And maybe not all reporters are upset. One reporter from a major Japanese newspaper told me that while cancelling the briefing did send a political signal, it did not bother him much because it won’t change the situation for the lame-duck government. And with one less assignment in Italy, he said he could enjoy some beer instead.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

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