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Amid Reiwa excitement, critics call out Abe gov't for appropriating new era name

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks about the new era name "Reiwa" at a news conference at his office on April 1, 2019. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- It has now been 11 days since Japan's next era name "Reiwa" was unveiled, and the ensuing hubbub has come down a notch. However, along with the general excitement, there have also emerged voices critical of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for putting himself at the center of the Reiwa revelation, and accusations that the prime minister's office used the upcoming Imperial succession for political reasons or as a calculated marketing stunt.

The Reiwa announcement was made late in the morning on April 1 by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. However, this was followed in the afternoon by a speech and news conference on the new era name by Prime Minister Abe that was live-streamed on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. In his presentation, Abe stressed that Reiwa was the first ever Japanese era name to be drawn from a Japanese source. He followed up his press conference with appearances on a string of evening news programs, from public broadcaster NHK to Asahi TV, giving the day's reporting a uniform quality.

"It has to be said that the Abe administration used the era name announcement to buoy its own popularity," says Satoshi Shirai, a political scientist at Kyoto Seika University. Certainly, the series of public statistics scandals that had been plaguing the government seemed to fade into the background, and a Kyodo News poll conducted after the Reiwa unveiling showed voter support for the Abe Cabinet had risen almost10 points from the previous month.

However, Abe's April 1 press conference left Shirai feeling deeply uneasy, particularly the moment when the prime minister was asked what kind of country he wanted to create in the next era, and Abe replied, "A society in which 100 million people actively participate."

"Until now, new eras were meant to be a brand-new start. They were defined by the Japanese people, and when they were over, people would look back and say, 'That was a such-and-such kind of time," comments Shirai. "But this time, the Abe administration has tied the new era name to its own 'society in which 100 million people actively participate' slogan. That didn't happen when the (current) Heisei era name was announced.

"It's all right to say what kind of era you'd like to see in an abstract way," he continues. "But it is arrogant for the administration to bind the next era to its own specific policy goals. It has been made clear that Abe not only treats the state, but also the next era name, as if they belong to him personally."

Sociologist and Tokyo Institute of Technology associate professor Ryosuke Nishida observes, "The prime minister's office made skilled use of Instagram's functions and other tools to boost the people's expectations for the next era, putting them in an 'at last it's here' mood. It was a clever piece of political theater."

The prime minister's office posted notices on Facebook and Twitter that the revealing of the new era name "will be live-streamed on April 1," and, "The announcement will be made at about 11:30 a.m." The PM's office also used Instagram's countdown function to show how much time was left before the announcement event.

In addition to capitalizing on the social media networks' functionality, Nishida noted that during his April 1 speech, Prime Minister Abe wove a reference to J-pop group SMAP's 2003 hit song "Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana" (The One and Only Flower in the World) into his explanation of Reiwa's sourcing in the Manyoshu, Japan's oldest extant waka poetry anthology. The Manyoshu and SMAP -- perhaps the Heisei era's biggest musical act, but no longer together -- should have nothing to do with one another. However, the mention sparked a surge in surprised and thankful Twitter posts, including, "The prime minister's words are making big waves," and "The government is inscribing SMAP in history."

The government "is very much aware of creating an internet buzz," says Nishida, adding that this can translate into a boost in public support. "The administration uses marketing techniques to get a feel for how the Japanese people will react to things, and makes statements based on that analysis."

The Reiwa announcement is not the Abe administration's first venture into events with a heavy dose of marketing know-how. There was "Abe Mario," when the prime minister appeared as the beloved video game character at the 2016 Rio Olympics closing ceremony. And when in 2013 the government bestowed the People's Honor Award on baseball greats Shigeo Nagashima and Hideki Matsui at a first-pitch ceremony, Abe played the role of home plate umpire. There were netizens both for and against these staged appearances, but either way they became hot topics of online conversation.

"Every administration tries to lift its status by putting on performances they hope will trigger a positive response from the people. Political showmanship should not be condemned entirely," says Nishida. "What's important is for the public to be aware that these bits of theater are constructed by the administration. If they don't understand that, then the political tension between citizens and government will be lost, and public supervision of the administration will grow lax. And then the people in power can pull the people this way and that, according to their own aims."

(Japanese original by Yoshiaki Ebata, General Digital News Center)

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