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Japanese prime minister Noda’s strategy: Talk less to the press

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TOKYO — When Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda walks the hallways of his office, about 50 news reporters follow close behind. They pelt him with questions, hoping he’ll stop and talk. Most times, Noda never breaks his stride.

Noda speaks in rare news conferences and in occasional interviews with the foreign press. But he has abandoned the daily or twice-daily media sessions that his predecessors held, concluding, aides say, that they do far more harm than good.

That brushoff has antagonized members of the powerful domestic press, who recently filed a petition with Noda’s office asking him to be more accessible. But it also hints at Noda’s low-profile strategy as he tries to break Japan’s cycle of short-lived leadership and mend a fractured ruling party. He’d prefer to work behind the scenes rather than explain the daily battles.

“Does it really make sense for a prime minister to make himself available every day? No other major world leaders are doing this,” said one senior official at the prime minister’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a strategy he called “sensitive.”

Editorials in Japan’s largest dailies have described Noda, two months into his tenure, as a “safe driver,” fearful of talking because he’s afraid to make mistakes. They say he doesn’t explain the details of his thinking, leaving the public without sufficient information on the country’s major issues.

But Noda’s aides say they have simply gotten savvier. Noda wants to speak only when he has something to say.

The strategy has changed the tenor of Japan’s current debate on whether to join a broad Asia-Pacific trade pact that could threaten the farming industry. Noda, in recent weeks, has hardly spoken about the deal. He is scheduled to give a single news conference Thursday — after the Japanese government has made its decision.

Noda’s distance from the media doubles as a rebuke to Japan’s system, in which press clubs — groups of reporters from the major newspapers and television stations — operate within government ministry offices, sometimes trading cozy relationships for exclusive access.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a gifted speaker, introduced the daily media sessions 10 years ago, using them to his advantage with favorable nightly sound bites. But for each of Japan’s next six prime ministers, those media sessions turned into forums for mistakes, not eloquence. In January, when Standard & Poor’s lowered Japan’s credit rating, Prime Minister Naoto Kan acknowledged that he was “clueless” about the move.

After Japan’s March 11 triple disaster, Kan also distanced himself from the media — the imperative of emergency mode, he said. But when Noda took office Sept. 2, the mode became permanent.

A little more than two weeks later, the Yomiuri newspaper reported that Noda was using “extreme caution” when speaking with reporters. Over a 16-day period, the paper said, reporters asked Noda questions on 32 occasions. “Noda refrained from answering questions on 24 of them,” it wrote.

In a country with the world’s highest newspaper penetration — Japan has the world’s five largest papers — traditional media still hold sway over public thinking. But that’s just part of the reason Japanese journalists are irked by Noda’s press strategy.

“In Japan, we think there should be a thin distance between the leader and the people,” said Eiichi Iwata, a political editor at TBS television. “In order to have approval from the citizens, the prime minister has to aggressively convey what he is trying to do.”

Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.

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