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Let’s Talk about Politics: Is Initiating Political Conversations a ‘No-Go’ in Japan?


Discussing politics with your friends while attending the University of Tokyo May Festival? Probably not. | Photo by author

Different experiences show that it is not within the range of a newspaper article to make generalized conclusions about the willingness of Japanese citizens to talk about politics. In fact, it would require a whole set of academic sociological research. However, this article shall reflect my experiences as a foreigner from a country where politics is discussed on a almost daily basis.

Being someone with a strong interest in politics, who likes to initiate conversations about politics and to ask questions, I have come across awkward situations with Japanese nationals when trying to initiate a conversation about politics.

For example, one time when I was strolling around Shibuya, I was asked by a stranger what interest regarding Japan made me come here. Considering his surprised reaction to my answer, followed by apathy and disinterest, I assume that he must have expected an answer like ‘culture’ or ‘anime’. And you can guess what my answer was: ‘Politics’.

In fact, this has not been the first time that bringing up politics has brought my Japanese conversation partner in distress. When I guided a Japanese tourist (around my age) around in Switzerland, I received a similar reaction when I inquired about what he tohught of some of the LDP’s policies.

Learning more about Japanese culture, I eventually realized that asking these kind of questions might seem insensitive or sometimes even disrespectful to make the other ‘reveal’ one’s own political position (if it is not apathy). However, this was a new perspective to learn, since in Switzerland, discussing politics is part of mature and intellectual conversations as well as casual conversations, aimed at sharing information and views. Difference in views are accepted and do only in extreme cases affect the relationship between individuals.

In Japan however, talking about politics seems to necessarily include one’s personal affiliation with a party. In an interview I conducted I was told that politics is discussed when it affects the daily life. However, it is only discussed about with people one either knows well or who have similar political positions to oneself. If one knows that the other person has other values, one does not talk, as for example Yoshiko* says ‘I am afraid of conflict because I may make the other person angry or offend him/her’.

In fact, most of my friends I met before coming to the University of Tokyo seemed reluctant about engaging in political conversations, dodging questions and changing topics. Maybe because they did not know me as well or because just in general, they were not interested in politics that did not affect them? At the University of Tokyo however, I have encountered people with strong opinions about certain policies of the government, mainly regarding Article 9 and nuclear policies. Hence, the appetite for such conversation might vary depending on the setting and context.

When I asked my circle friends including students from other Universities, I was told that ‘politics is not being talked about in daily conversations, since it might lead to conflict or offend the other person, or even harm one’s relationship with the person’. The only place where politics is discussed is mainly in a classroom setting or within the family. But where does that come from?

The close tie between private life and one’s political stance might come from the traditional kouenkai system. Kouenkai are local support groups affiliated with a respective politician. In the past, politicians who wanted to be elected into the national parliament fostered group activities within their own constituent support group to gain popularity and assure that they are being voted for. As a result, a close group affiliation and personal relation to a party, the rest of the supporter group members and the respective politician was build. As a result, there is a personal and emotional affiliation with a certain party or politician. Therefore, coming out as a member of the rival’s supporter group member might turn out to be harmful for the relationship between these individual – since there is a direct emotional association with the other’s political position. Or at least, that used to be the case. Now the kouenkai system is not existent as such any more after electoral reforms in the 90s. However, the practices and group affiliation might have prevailed .

In conclusion it can therefore be said that it is not the lack of free speech or its suppression in Japan which makes individuals reluctant to discuss politics. Rather, taking politics as a personal matter might be a legacy of the kouenkai system. The ‘anxiety’ about conflicting opinions might also be part of the will for harmony maintenance. It would be otherwise too unfortunate if a personal relationship is affected due to different political views. by author.


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