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Why Shinzo Abe changed his chairs

Posted January. 23, 2018 07:58,   

Updated January. 23, 2018 08:11


The person in charge of PR of the Japanese Prime Minister’s office repeated the same answers for three weeks. When asked in April last year as to why the office had changed the chair that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe uses for interviews, the office failed to provide a plausible answer, after merely saying, “Many officials are involved in courtesy visits and interviews. We will look into the matter.”

Certain things will bother you no matter how trivial they might be. For this journalist, the chairs that the Japanese prime minister sits on for interviews has been a steady source of annoyance. Before Abe, the successive prime ministers of Japan had all sat in the same chair for meetings with special envoys and government officials from other countries. Even Mr. Abe used to sit in his pink chair for the first four years since he took office.

It was during his December meeting in 2016 with Ashton Carter, the then U.S. Secretary of Defense, when Prime Minister Abe showed up sitting in a huge black chair. Last April, his chair got even bigger with an extra cushion now adorned with golden flower prints.

Some might think that only Korean officials, including Chairman Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party and Foreign Affairs Prime Minister Kang Kyung-wha, were subjected to this “humiliation diplomacy” of Prime Minister Abe, but that is not the case. The chairs of his choice were as much showier when he met with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Adm. Harry Harris of the U.S. Pacific Command. Mr. Abe always sat in his glamorous chair when meeting with foreign officials except the heads of state. But its presence was rare when he met with Japanese officials, probably out of caution against scrutiny of his voters.

Why did they change the chair? Someone must have given that order and done so with a good reason, but neither the prime minister’s office nor the Foreign Minister of Japan provided a suitable explanation. Logical explanations seemed unobtainable, and signs of embarrassment were palpable. “Rumor has it that it wasn’t a working-level official, but one of the prime minister’s closest aide who made that call,” said one Japanese journalist.

The replacing of chairs is also incongruent with “omotenashi,” a term referring to Japanese culture of hospitality. This journalist showed the pictures of Mr. Abe sitting in his chair to some friends, which was followed by a chorus of disapprovals. “There was a time when the patterns and the thickness of tatami, a Japanese floor mat, were associated with power,” opined one of the friends. For others, the photos provoked personal embarrassment.

Providing preferential treatment by preparing different chairs is nowhere near the norm in international meetings. Nor is it a suitable topic for an angry debate. After all, it is up to the host to decide who is sitting where when the head of the host country meets with foreign visitors. In fact, Korea is one of the few, if not only, countries to see this as a sensitive issue.

Personally, this journalist felt that Abe’s loud chairs symbolized his blind pursuit of “my way” where there is no consideration for others. As once mentioned by Kono Ryohei, a former member of Japan’s House of Representative, perhaps it is the case where the specter of Abe’s personality issue is rearing its head after his prolonged rule. After the replacement of chairs was made, Abe’s corruption scandal over an ultra-nationalist school came out. Is he signaling his ambition to pursue “power diplomacy” with scant logic and courtesy to keep abreast with the launch of the Trump administration?

Finding himself in a fix over the matter of “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army, South Korean President Moon Jae-in must be deeply disappointed with Prime Minister Abe’s intransigence. Japan’s hint at a possible refusal to compete in the Winter Olympics must be disturbing news for President Moon, considering the importance that a successful hosting bears to him.

Under the Park Geun-hye administration, South Korea demanded emotional measures should be taken for the settlement of comfort women issues, and Japan retorted that it would never consider such measures, “not even one bit,” and given the history, the latest responses from Japan are mild by comparison. This journalist wonders how President Moon Jae-in will forge a “future-oriented cooperative relationship” with Abe. The Moon administration has yet to find an expert who will spearhead the diplomatic effort towards Japan with an accurate understanding of reality and a sophisticated strategy. Naturally, this remains a grave concern.

Won-Jae Jang peacechaos@donga.com