What’s in a word

The recent incident concerning the sale of national land to Moritomo Gakuen has shed light on how sontaku, a singular method of communication, permeates Japanese society.


At 6:00 p.m. on March 23, just as night began to fall, a full house of more than 220 people were jammed into the FCCJ dining room to await the arrival of the guest speaker. A phalanx of 26 TV cameras lined the back wall; some were there to broadcast the event live. At last, Yasunori Kagoike, controversial head of Osaka’s Moritomo Gakuen, made his appearance before the foreign press, his first media event following his sworn testimony in the Diet that morning. Smiling, he was bathed in camera flashes as he took his seat at the head table.

The Moritomo Gakuen scandal is being called the greatest crisis for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since the forming of his second cabinet in 2012. The school is under fire on a number of fronts. Pupils at its kindergarten undergo revisionist “patriotic education,” including the recitation of the now defunct Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890. And it was about to open a new elementary school with PM Abe’s wife Akie as the honorary principal, to be built on national land that was sold to the school at a suspiciously low price. It was the latter issue their purchase of the plot of land at a drastic discount far below the assessed value of the property that directed suspicion towards Abe and his wife. It led Abe to vow in the Diet that he would resign and give up his seat if either he or his wife were found to have been involved in any wrong doing related to the school.

One of the more conspicuous points that came out during the 100 minute long press conference concerned a fax from Mrs. Abe’s female aide to Kagoike in November 2015, noting that an inquiry had been made to the relevant section in the Ministry of Finance concerning Moritomo Gakuen’s request for the land deal. The ministry had responded that they could not grant the request. Yet not much later, the school was able to acquire the land at the highly favorable price almost as if a gust of “divine wind” had passed over the institute.

Naturally reporters’ questions at the press conference focused on the involvement of the Abes in the land deal, but when queried as to whether PM Abe gave the school favorable treatment, Kagoike made an interesting reply. While stating that he didn’t think there was any direct influence by PM Abe, Kagoike remarked “Sontaku wo shita” (There was sontaku).

THIS TERM POSED NUMEROUS difficulties for the interpreter handling the event, who translated it as “reading between the lines.” That wasn’t enough for Kagoike’s attorney and another interpreter, who added that in English the term can be interpreted to mean “conjecture,” “surmise” or numerous other words. The foreign media added their own interpretations: Tokyo Bureau Chief Motoko Rich defined it as “powers at work behind the scenes” in the New York Times, while Leo Lewis of the Financial Times devoted a whole column to it, describing it as a “pre emptive, placatory following of an order that has not been given,” and pointing to it as a cop out used to avoid responsibility even in the corporate world, most recently in the Toshiba crisis.

But there’s nothing new about sontaku in the political arena, and we can find a useful case study on the suspect term in events from over 40 years ago.

In October, 1974, the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju ran an investigative report by freelance journalist Takashi Tachibana about the then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s questionable political fundraising activities. Also appearing in the issue was an article by freelance journalist Takaya Kodama titled “Sabishiki Etsuzankai no Jo’o” (The lonely queen of the Etsuzankai).

The Etsuzankai was the organization that managed Tanaka’s huge political fund; its controller was Aki Sato, Tanaka’s female secretary. The article reported on Sato’s upbringing and her personal relationship with Tanaka, as well as her tremendous influence on Japanese politics.

Before the magazine went on sale, LDP Diet member Tokusaburo Kosaka, who held the position of Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office, paid a visit to the publisher’s head office. After meeting with the president, Kosaka departed through the magazine’s editorial office, leaving his business card on the desk of the editorin chief, Kengo Tanaka, who happened to be absent. On the card, he had written the following message: “Please treat Ms. S. favorably” “Ms. S,” of course, being the PM’s right hand woman, Aki Sato.

Shukan Shincho, a weekly magazine published by a competitor, later ran an article about the politician’s visit and the business card, resulting in an opposition party member questioning Kosaka at the Diet about whether the move was an attempt to discourage Bungei Shunju from publishing the article. Kosaka replied, “[with the president of Bungei Shunju] I discussed social trends, the problem of mistrust in politics and various other matters . . . but there is no truth whatsoever that I implied anything threatening.” In other words, Kosaka had demanded sontaku.

IN THIS CASE, THE sontaku was ineffective. The magazine came out, and the articles by Tachibana and Kodama were important factors in PM Tanaka’s resignation two months later, meaning that Bungei Shunju refused to accept the LDP’s attempt at pressure.

A year later, a more successful example took place between the LDP and the Toho film studio. After Takaya Kodama, author of the Bungei Shunju article about Aki Sato, passed away at the age of 38 from lung cancer in May, 1975, the film company planned to produce a film about the reporter, presumably focusing on his investigative activities about Tanaka. The director and script writer for the film had already been named when the president of Toho halted the shooting, stating that “This kind of project is not appropriate when former PM Tanaka is down on his luck.”

Toho Studio Vice President Sanezumi Fujimoto submitted his resignation in protest at the aborting of the project, and pressure from the LDP was seen as an extenuating factor. Just prior to the aborting of the film, Fujimoto said that an influential member of the LDP had telephoned him, saying, “I’d like to ask about the situation” [regarding the film], in what could be seen as a clear attempt to use sontaku. Toho studios denied that the cancellation had anything to do with political pressure, but following Tanaka’s resignation, there were rumors that the former PM, leader of the LDP’s largest faction, would harness his immense political influence and attempt to make a comeback. Drawing attention to his troubles, even in a film, would not be seen as helping his campaign.

Immediately after this, in the weekly magazine Asahi Journal, freelancer Takashi Tachibana looked into the Toho incident in an article titled “A perfect crime named political pressure.” In it, he explained just how sontaku works. “Political pressure from the LDP,” he wrote, “after having undergone trial and error for many years, is exercised through exquisite and subtle techniques. Only on rare occasions are plain truths allowed to come to the surface. Political pressure is not applied in a blunt manner but through inquiries phrased using such euphemistic expressions as ‘What is going on with regard to this?’ or ‘What is your intention?’”

The Financial Times devoted a whole column to it, describing it as a “pre-emptive, placatory following of an order that has not been given,” and pointing to it as a cop out

He explained how sontaku is an attempt to avoid any evidence of the “crime. ” He wrote: “Even if the matter is exposed to the public, the side that did the coercing can stick to the story by saying that ‘We absolutely deny having exerted any form of pressure,’ and the side which was the target of the pressure can stick to saying, ‘We absolutely deny having been pressured. Our company’s action was just based on an internal decision.’” Since nothing has been spelled out in detail, this is, in a sense, true. Wrote Tachibana: “This is what makes it a type of perfect crime.”

OF COURSE, THE USE of sontaku is by no means limited to Japanese politicians in the LDP. In the records of Diet proceedings since 1890, the word “sontaku” comes up nearly 290 times, of which about 65 percent occurred during the post WWII Occupation between 1945 and the early 1950s. In fact, a major source of the sontaku intentions that were most feared by politicians and bureaucrats at this time was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers General Douglas MacArthur, who made excellent use of it.

Occupationera Japan was under the absolute control of the general, who was involved in major reforms of the political, economic and educational systems. But for facesaving purposes (tatemae) he tended to operate Japan’s ostensibly independent government through remote control. Actually, in the records of the Diet proceedings of those times, one can find plenty of evidence of politicians’ sontaku conjectures on how they should read MacArthur’s intent on such matters ranging from the right of public servants to take part in political activities to reorganization of the electric utility industry. It’s not wrong to say that MacArthur clearly was an expert at the use of sontaku.

But Japan’s politicians were clearly eager to get back in the driver’s seat. In July 1953, after the San Francisco peace treaty came into effect, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida gave the following reply during a Diet session in response to a question on diplomatic guidelines: “Since Japan has become independent, its diplomacy will no longer be swayed according to conjectures over America’s intentions.” Readers can decide for themselves if this was actually true.

There is no doubt, however, that sontaku was back in the hands of domestic politicians. Though the backgrounds and conditions of political trust during the eras of MacArthur, Tanaka and Abe are completely different, there was one factor they share in common: despite the differences in degree, all three men exerted forceful leadership. When their power was wielded forcefully, politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen felt the hot breath on their necks, read their intentions, and proceeded with taking action before having to be ordered to do so.

Eiichiro Tokumoto, a former Reuters correspondent, is an author and investigative journalist.