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Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Language of Politics


The big news in Tokyo this week, indeed, across the whole of Japan, was the sound defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party in the local Tokyo assembly elections. The LDP was reduced to 38 seats out of 127, compared to the Democratic Party of Japan’s increase to 54 seats.

This has had an impact on the central government, in that the very unpopular Prime Minister, Taro Aso, has finally decided to quit trying to hold on to power, and will comply with the growing calls for a new election.

LDP poster, close up.

At base is the issue of authority, 権力. A Japanese person once said to me, 日本人はなんでも権力 (Nihonjin wa nandemo kenryoku), or “For the Japanese, authority is everything.”

Vying for authority, i.e., politics, is known as 政治 (seiji), the first character meaning “govern” and the second “rule” or, interestingly, “heal." A person who practices politics, or politician, is known as a 政治家 (seijika), the “ka” (pronounced “ie” when it appears alone) literally meaning “house.” (However, this use of “house” for “person” is well-established and seen in other terms such as 音楽家 (ongakka, musician).

Being a country based on 民主主義 (minshushugi, or democracy), authority is determined by 選挙 (senkyo, election). The first character means “to choose” and the second “to take action.” A vote is a 投票 (toh-hyo), the first character meaning “throw” and the second meaning “slip of paper.”

House of representatives, or parliament, is 国会 (kokkai) literally meaning “national meeting,” and the actual building the 国会議事堂 (kokkai giji doh) or literally “national meeting proceedings house.” A seat in parliament is known as a 議席 (giseki).

Political campaigning is huge, and very in your face, in Japan, taking place at the very visible AND AUDIBLE local level. 選挙運動はめちゃくちゃうるさい (Senkyo undo wa mecha kucha urusai), or “Political campaigning is off-the-wall noisy.”

But it’s all worth it in the end if you need something done. Behind the scenes, Japanese politics is all about 口利き (kuchi-kiki), literally “a mouth that really works.” 口利き政治 (kuchikiki seiji) means “the politics of influence peddling,” "of interceding on behalf of a bidder,” “of acting as an intermediary,” or “of providing one’s good offices.” 利くよ! (kiku yo!) “It really works!”

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