[BOOK REVIEW] "PUBLIC OPINION AND POPULAR SENTIMENTS" / by SATO Takumi, Shinchosha 2008, Yen1400+tax

Shibata Yukinori (Jesuit Social Center) 

The mass media likes public opinion polls. In special ways the approval rate of the Prime Minister's Cabinet has sometimes even the power of making Prime Ministers to quit. According to the last public opinion poll, while I am writing this, at the end of February, the support rate for the Aso Cabinet is between 11% (Mainichi Newspaper) and 13% (Asahi Newspaper). This is the third lowest recorded. In other words, the Cabinet is about to collapse.
But in fact, looking at the support rates of the last few Cabinets, one finds out that they are high at the beginning and in many cases fall down to very low levels, in a matter of a few months. Politicians are awfully more disposable than TV comedians and idol singers. Isn't it that way, because Prime Ministers are selected according to public support? What is precisely "Public Opinion"?
This book provides an answer. The author, 48 year-old as myself, is a professor at Kyoto University graduate school. His specialty is the history of mass media and pop culture. In 2003, then Prime Minister Koizumi, answering a question from the opposition in the National Diet with regard to sending Self Defense Forces to Iraq, said: "Historical facts prove that to take political action following public opinion is sometimes a mistake." When the opposition remarked that 70% and even 80% of public opinion was against sending the Japanese Self Defense, Koizumi's answer was that it was necessary, even if it had to break down opposition from public opinion. Such answers prompted Professor Sato to do research on public opinion. Koizumi used double standard with regard to the "Privatization of the Postal Services," mentioning that public opinion was in favor of the move. The issue in question is, what do we mean by "public opinion"?.
It is shocking to observe that the USA is a more Religious State than people usually think. There atheists count for about 8% and over 40% go to Church every week. While 70% of Americans believe in afterlife, only 35% of French people do it. About 28% of English people believe in the devil, but 65% of Americans do it. Among industrial countries Americans, by far, are religious.
The fact that Americans are religious is a good thing, but it is surprising to hear that about 40% of American people believe literally in the creation of heaven and earth.
At present the Chinese characters in use in Japan to write "public opinion" and "popular sentiments" are the same. Nevertheless, there are two different ways to read them: "YORON" and "SERON". According to the author, formerly both words had a totally different meaning that was expressed with different Characters. While "Public Opinion" (Yoron) is a responsible opinion based on rational discussion, "Popular Sentiments" (Seron) are mass sentiments that are not based on discussion. Consequently, "Yoron" indicates the errors of "Seron" that should be amended.
On the other hand, after the Second World War, the government restricted the number of Characters to be used in daily life and the Characters to express the word "Yoron" could not be used any more. As a result, both "Yoron" and "Seron" came to be expressed by the same Characters, thus their meaning became mixed up. Unluckily at present, "Popular Sentiments" overwhelmed the meaning of "Public Opinion" and, in fact, the real meaning of "Public Opinion Poll" came to be a popularity vote. The author concludes that, this fact has resulted in a lack of responsibility of the people towards Japanese society.
The Ministry of Justice claims that public opinion in Japan (80%) gives approval to capital punishment and this is a solid motive to continue it. Of course, "political policies following public opinion lead also to mistakes." The UN Committee for Human Rights has indicated that, "the Japanese government has a duty to change the wrong public opinion towards approving of capital punishment by raising a true public interest in opposing it."
A few days ago there was a especial TV program on death penalty. A young person walking on the street was interviewed: "Do you know how executions take place?" The youth answered, "No, I don't know and I don't want to know." Certainly, there is nothing pleasant about executions. But, in spite of not being pleasant and of not having interest on knowing the facts, nobody should kill others under death penalty. Important things, no matter how unpleasant they could be, oblige us to know them. This is civic responsibility.
Complaining alone will never change social situations. It is about time for us to say farewell to irresponsible moods. We must fight through by responsible opinions. Following the catch phrase of this book, "the need in Japan now is more for opinions than feelings, more for public opinion (yoron) than popular sentiments (Seron)."

(Shibata Yukinori, Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)
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