Saturday, December 01, 2012

Eleven Party Leaders: By This My Hand Revealed

If the current public opinion polls hold up, and the Democratic Party of Japan suffers losses commensurate with its betrayal of the high hopes the voters had had for the party when they voted it into power in 2009, leaving the Liberal Democratic Party and the Japan Restoration Association as the top vote winners, then we are all in big trouble.

How do we know this?


The leaders of the eleven parties held a joint press conference yesterday at the National Press Club. The hosts had the party leaders write down, with felt-tip pens on giant stiff paper flip cards, the main theme(s) of their campaigns.

For those not familiar with this business of writing down slogans or mottoes, the request would probably seem a tad odd. The practice is quite common, however. A major sports figure can hardly get out of a one-on-one, sit down interview without being handed a white square of stiff paper and a felt tip pen.

Given the place of this little ritual in public life, the variation in the performance of the eleven was stunning. The majority of the leaders proved incapable of writing down a few legible characters in a white rectangle.

In so doing, the eleven revealed more about their personalities through their hands than they could ever hope to conceal with their speech.

The most beautiful and flowing calligraphy belongs, unsurprisingly, to octogenarian author and JRA leader Ishihara Shintaro. Of the eleven he was also the only one who chose to write in traditional columns, right to left -- the others all writing in magazine style, in lines, left to right.

Out of either vanity or habit or both, Ishihara finished by putting his signature on the card.

(Fished from out of the snark tank: "So this is one of your signed works, is it?" and "Do you have to leave your signature on everything?")

Ishihara’s calligraphy was not the most vain. That honor belongs to convicted felon (his case is on appeal) Suzuki Muneo of Nippon Daichi. His curlicues and hooks bring only one adjective to mind: affected.

Masuzoe Yoichi (the former Mr. Katayama Satsuki) of Japan Renaissance has pleasant enough calligraphy, if a bit uneven. Too bad that his party is just a figment of his imagination.

After the trio of self-important gentlemen, standards start sliding fast.

Shozaburo Jimi of the People's New Party wins the creativity prize for writing in two different calligraphic styles. He unfortunately also wins the stuffy pretension prize for his selection of the massive rashinban instead of the English loan word kompasu (compass).

New Komeito's Yamaguchi Natsuo's calligraphy is so formulaic and straight-laced it hurts to just look at it. The excessive angularity is matched only by the vapidity of the slogan: "Reconstruct Japan." Uh, Yamaguchi-sensei, what about reform and change?

Fukushima Mizuho of the Social Democratic Party certainly made the best use of the available space. The result unfortunately looks like a handwritten sign on a chair outside a salon listing the hair care services available inside.

Democratic Party of Japan leader and prime minister Noda Yoshihiko's style is that of a diligent student: simple, clear, considered and dull. He gets the structural design award for the neat, one-space offset of the two rhetorical questions "Do we go forward? Or do we turn around and go back?"*

The Communist Party's Ishii Shii Kazuo's calligraphy resembles my own. He has my sympathy. His slogan -- "Offer and Enact" -- encapsulates the hopeless of the Communist dream. The Communists keep offering, but since they never compromise, what they offer never gets enacted.

It is hard to classify Watanabe Yoshimi's calligraphy. Does the weird bowing of the word "fighting" (tatakau) crush the word "reform" (kaikaku) through design -- or did Watatabe just run out of space? Abstractly, is he being coy or is he just incompetent?

Now to the rock bottom.

Kada Yukiko of the Party of the Future uses the first line as a testing ground for various ways of holding the pen. It seems she has spent a life in academia and local government without ever once using a white board. Trying to read the first line, "Politics is the power to build the future" (Seiji wa mirai o tsukuru chikara) is exhausting and annoying. After making the effort and finding one has so little to show for it, one takes a glance at the succeeding to lines, sees all the splotches (How can there be ink splotches? It's a felt-tip pen!) and gives up.

LDP president Abe Shinzo's calligraphy is atrocious. No, that is not right. Nobel Prize winning author Oe Kenzaburo's calligraphy is atrocious**. Abe's calligraphy is...demented. The gigantic, spindly ma followed by the minuscule tsu. The ugly, embarrassing collision of the characters sei and ji, as if the writer had never put the two together before -- which is unfortunate as seiji is "politics."

No one writes this badly. Even if one were trying to, one could not do it.

The irony of course is the slogan itself: Matto na seiji -- "right and proper politics."

For those more expert in the art, a photo collage of the leaders and their work.

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. Fukushima Mizuho is giving us a peace sign with her left hand.

Image courtesy: Jiji Press

* Prime Minister Noda has been merciless in his mockery of the LDP's cringe-worthy campaign slogan, "Lets Take Japan Back!" (Nippon o torimodosu). His speeches are peppered with varying disparagements of "going back," "being taken back" or "heading back."

** I once viewed an exhibition of the personal effects and mementos of Donald Keene, organized by Columbia University on the advent of his retirement. Among the items displayed was a letter from Oe Kenzaburo in his fourth-grader scrawl. The kicker was Oe's plea in the letter, "Please do not show this letter to anyone. My calligraphy is abominable!"


Anonymous said...

I guess non-Japanese have nothing to be embarrassed about when it comes to hand-writing...

Ishii Kazuo --> Shii Kazuo, I believe.

Ryutaro said...

Maybe the altitude of the card relative to the author's head correlates with humility, and the number of hands used to support it indexes commitment. Just try imagining those panels as speech bubbles stretching from the corners of their mouths.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, I do not understand you, MTC. :D

Why are you trolling these folks for their handwriting?

Anonymous said...

If double post, apologies...

Although I have made this blog one of my daily reads, I still do not quite understand the purpose of some of the points you make.

What is the purpose of this post, other than to troll?

MTC said...

Anonymous #1 -

Thank you for the correction. I guess I was thinking about David Ishii, the nisei (sansei?) golfer who used to play on the Japan Tour.

MTC said...

Anonymous #2 and #3 -

I cannot speak as regards other posts (you will have to point the most egregious ones out to me, that I might explain myself or reconsider the content) but this one is based on a simple premise: politicians are predisposed and rewarded for lying with their mouths. They are not rewarded, as plastic artists are, for telling fables with their hands. Asking the leaders to write down their ideas in a manner fit for public consumption forced the 11 out of their comfort zone and into a world of human endeavor where they were not expert, except in the case of Ishihara Shintaro, in the arts of artifice. Even in the case of Ishihara, who takes pride in his calligraphy, his hands and habitudes betrayed him -- he signed the card, just like he has done for thousands for thousands of admirers.

If I am cruel, it is out of a need to confront the readers, to make them aware of the window that these bits of emphemera open straight into the minds of that produced them.

Another anecdote from the Keene exhibition: in the same case as the letter from Oe was a letter from Tanizaki Jun'ichiro. The calligraphy was gorgeous, both light and strong. In the letter, however, Tanizaki confesses that while he might be providing the content, his wife writes the final fair copy.

That admission tells everything one need ever know about Tanizaki's views on the relationship between truth and beauty and the relative value of each.

MTC said...

Anonymous #2 and #3 - (addendum)

Just as my typographical errors tell about my disorganization and haste.

Our Man in Abiko said...

Brilliant, as usual.

Anonymous said...

11:36am and 11:39am seem to think there is something intrinsically wrong with trolling. They are wrong. Trolls can produce things of beauty. Troll away, I say.

Jan Moren said...

You do know, I sincerely hope, that handwriting is no more informative than phrenology, astrology, palm reading, blood type or beating your forehead against a lemon meringue in estimating somebody's personality or abilities*. I very, very much hope this was posted tongue in cheek (in which case you might want to make that a bit clearer).

* Excluding, of course, the obvious direct ability of penmanship or dessert-headbutting as the case may be.