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21.02.2013 г.

The Visual Language of Japanese Political Cartoons - Images of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro

Yulia Mikhailova


More than ten years ago Peter Duus in his Presidential Address to The Journal of Asian Studies suggested that political cartoons may be valuable sources for understanding politics, because they"provide access to ‘everyday' reaction" to political events (Duus, 2001: 229). However, though research on Japanese cartoons of the past is quite extensive both among the Japanese and foreign scholars, with few exceptions (Feldman, 2004; Ibaragi, 2007), specialists on contemporary Japan are slow in following the president's advice.

In Japan, western style political cartoons appearedtogether withthe borrowing of other aspectsof western culture in the Meiji era (1967-1912).During the Movement for Freedom and Popular Rights (1874-89), they were instrumental in poking fun atgovernment, but when Japan stepped on the path of empire building, cartoonists joined hands with authorities promoting goals of the nation-state (Mikhailova, 2009).

First and foremost, political cartoons are appreciatedfor their critical and satirical interpretation of political events and actions of politicians. Though deployed in such a serious sphere as politics, cartoons draw their comic armory fromfarce, jokes, anecdotes, culture and everyday life. In other words, in order to becomprehensible to people, they have to speak "the popular tongue." It is also important to remember that cartoons, together with newspapers and magazines they are published in, have always benefitted from the developments of printing technology-the printing press and rotary machine, while nowadays the increasing number of them appears on the internet.

However, recentlysome cartoonists and critics have expressed apprehensions that the dusk of the editorial cartoon era may have come, because in our age of political correctness, the range of permissible symbols has been vastly constricted. Editors, instead of publishing cartoons bursting with "anger and rage,"prefer less offensive material especially when the local issues are at hand (McClure, 2004: 11; Danjoux, 2007).Though main Japanese newspapers continue to publish cartoons on a regular basis, numerous signs indicate that the popularity of this visual genre is decreasing (Stewart, 2009: 173).

Using the example of contemporary Japanese newspaper single-panel political cartoons, this paper poses the question of what the reasons are lying behind the alleged decline of interest in political cartoons. Is it the issue of political correctness, the diversification of mass media, changes in the political cultureor the visual language of cartoons themselves that inhibit their popularity among people?

It has been suggested that due to the growing influence of television and the general penchant towards entertainment, the rational argumentation in politics is now often ousted by the tendency to aestheticize it, and political leaders, in their search for mass support, actively use technologies of mass show and behave like movie stars. Some regard these occurrences as the downgrading of politics, while others view them positively, arguingthat "political interest and electoral enthusiasm have generally picked up wherever politics has attained a high level of drama, offering spectacular storylines and flamboyant personalities rather than ideological standoffs or partisan bickering" (Corner and Pels, 2003: 2).

The paper analyzes cartoons on the former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro (2001-2006) published in three major Japanese newspapers (Asahi, Yomiuri and Mainichi) at the most dramatic period of his term in office when he took great pains to force the bill on privatization of the postal system through the Diet. The analysis centers on the visual rhetoric of the cartoons. Ninety-seven cartoons on the topic, which appeared in the period from July to September 2005, were collected. Koizumi figured in 65 of them, though not necessarily as the main character. Interviews with four cartoonists of different generations-Nakamura Koichi, TokoroYukiyoshi, Yamada Shin and Uno Kamakari-were also conducted over the telephone and email.

Koizumi Politics and Populism

Koizumi was an extraordinary phenomenon in recent Japanese politics. Being the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, and, hence, the Prime Minister of Japan, he set the goal of restructuring Japanese economy along the neo-liberal lines and considered the privatization of the postal system as the vital step in this process. To achieve his goal, Koizumi had to struggle not only with the oppositional Democratic Party but also with the Liberal Democratic Partyhe belonged to. Having few political supporters, Koizumi appealed directly to the people and he managed to get their support.

The discussion of the postal reform itself lies beyond the scope of this article, but for the better understanding of cartoons it is necessary to provide some details on how Koizumi forced his bill through the Diet. On 5 July 2005 the bill passed the vote in the Lower House though 37 LDP members refused to support it. However, on 8 August it was rejected by the Upper House with 22 votes against. Koizumi reacted in an extraordinary way-he dissolved the Lower House and appointed general elections on 11 September2005,turning them into a referendum on the postal privatization by focusing his electoral campaign exclusively on it. Furthermore, he refused to grant party endorsement to those Lower House LDP members who voted against the bill, and sent the so-called "assassins" (competing candidates) to run in their districts. The Japanese people received Koizumi's resolute actions with favor. In the September 11 ballot, they gave the LDP an unprecedented victory-296 out of 480 seats. In October the Diet passed the same postal privatization bill that it rejected only two months before. Mass media labeled Koizumi's masterful political performancethe "Koizumi theatre."

It is widely considered that the main reason for Koizumi's success lies in the image television created for him. His appearance, with a lion's mane of salt and pepper hair, a light grey suit and topaz necktie, was strikingly different from that of all Japanese politicians before him. His theatrical manner of behavior and outstanding ability to talk to ordinary people in a simple language, clearly dividing the "goodies" and the "baddies," were well suited to the specific features of television(Uchiyama,2007:210).His carefully cultivated "I don't play by the rules" stance allowed him to take risks and do things that other prime ministers would not have considered possible, such as giving interviews to the large-circulation sports newspapers, appearing ondiscussion panels, and allowing cameras into his residence. He released a CD with Elvis Presley songs performed by himself, danced the tango with Richard Gere, rode a camel wearing an Arab headdress in a desert in Jordan, tried his hand at archery on a visit to Mongolia and could be seen in the baseball stands, watching Japan's favorite sport and buying a bowl of noodles for himself.All these activities figuredwidely in TV programs and circulated on the Internet. Koizumi has created a media sensation like no Japanese prime minister before him. He was an adept manipulator of his personal image, knew well how to perform and was perceived by the public as a charismatic leader. It was through his offbeat charisma that Koizumi managed to reach out to the public.

Some political observers considered Koizumi's style populism, which is compatible with neoliberalism because they both have anti-status quo orientations and provide a powerful ideological justification for neoliberal reforms (Masdan, 2005: 35).

Cartoon Analysis

One of the first cartoons on the topic of the postal reform was Testing the Sword for the Coming Elections (figure 1) by HariSunao published in Asahion 3 July 2005.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Koizumi is portrayed here in an attempt tosmash a straw doll by a sword. He looks like a samurai training in military arts.The words "postal privatization"are written on his shirt and the sword is called the "dissolution sword". The latter is a pun, because in Japanese the words "sword" and "right" (here the right to dissolve the Lower House) sound similar as ken. The straw dollsymbolizesthe LDP members who were against Koizumi's plan on privatization of the postal system.In ancient Japan, straw dolls were used in funeral rites - they were buried in the graves together with the deceased. Here the doll also looks like an exhibit on a display in some museum, which suggests that the party system established in 1955 and dominated by LDP for more than fifty years has becomealready outdated.Another important point of the cartoon is the figure of thesecretary-general of the cabinet,HosodaHakunoske, holding a small sword. Such swords were used in the hara-kiriritual when anassistant helped his master to complete the actof suicide. Thus, the cartoon seems to interpretKoizumi's intentions as noble, but his tactics as dangerous.

The same metaphorof the sword is repeated numerously in many other cartoons of the time, questioning the legitimacyof Koizumi's actions and pointing to the possible damage they may inflict on the Prime Minister.One of them, for example, portrayed Koizumi holdingthe sword, which hits the LDP Diet members, represented this time bythe Diet member's badge, the chrysanthemum. However,the swordstrikes back and hits Koizumi himself.Still in one more cartoon he is depicted as a centaurcutting his enemies with his sword in a deadly rush, butalsokilling himself.

In thecartoon by Nishimura Koichi,titledInsane Swordsmanship of His Lordship (figure 2) and published in Mainichion 9 August, the critique of Koizumi becomes harsher.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Koizumi is representedas a landlord of the Edo period, swinginghis sword and demanding violently "the dissolution of the Lower House."However, the blade of his sword has already been broken, the lord himself looks exhausted by the struggle and is bathed in sweat, while the LDP is split and adangerous vacuum of powerhas emerged-many other bills are lying in heap awaitingtheir consideration.The Diet members look worried.This cartoon obviously regards Koizumi's policy as hazardous and risky for the society.

In the cartoonsabove,Koizumi is represented as a very dynamic person, as a fighter who is struggling against the LDP. However, artists are not sympathetic with his struggle.Usually in Japanthe Prime Minister is supposed to settle disputes between politicalfactions. Koizumi, on the contrary, demonstrated strong individuality and what may be called the personification of power with some calling it "presidentialization."It is these features that made Koizumi so different from other Japanese politicians and might have attracted people to him.At the same time,harmony and consensus are considered to be important valuesofJapanese society. So, the cartoons may be interpreted as giving support to those traditional values, but it is also possible to say that theysimply ridiculed the extravagant mannersof the Prime Minister.

Some other cartoons poked fun at the theatrical character of Koizumi's behaviour. For example, YakuMizururepresented Koizumi as if he is standing in the beam of a spotlight (This Water Is Sweet-Courting the Middle Group, 3 August 2005, Asahi, figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3

He is dressedin a summer kimono decorated with the postal mark and is holding a fan with a sign "privatization" written on it. The Prime Minister is singing a popular song "Firefly, come here, this water is sweet, that water is bitter,"while a box with several fireflies already locked insideis standing nearby. The caption says that Koizumi attempts to persuade "the moderate group" to vote for his idea of postal reform. "The moderate group" may be interpreted as those in the party who were hesitant to support Koizumi, but also as people in general who might have been depositingmoney into the postal savings systemfor years and are now afraid to lose their savings.

Contrary to the Asahi cartoons,which concentrated on Koizumi's fighting spirit showing him as a young, energetic and daring, though precipitateand impulsive politician, the Prime Minister's image created by Yomiuri, where the main artist is Uno Kamakiri, is different.For example, in the cartoon published on 10August, i.e. two weeks after the epochal decision on the dissolution of the Lower House,he is depicted asan infuriated growling lion, lying on three characters meaning the Liberal Democratic Party. He has got his opponents under control, says the cartoon; the formerly strong party is now unsteady and is shaking to and fro. In the untitled cartoon of 17 August drawn by the same artist, Koizumi is depicted contemplating a combination of pieces while bent over the shogi desk (Japanese chess). He looks like an experienced strategist, carefully calculating a political maneuver, wrinkles furrowing his brow (figure 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4

This cartoon appeared at the timewhen Koizumi was sending "assassins" as alternative candidates into electoral districts. So, some chessmen take the shape of the postal mark, while the character"opposition" is written on others. On 31 August, when the electoral campaign was reaching its height, Yomiuri published Uno Kamakiri's cartoon Dangerous Moment-Victory or Defeat (figure 5).

Figure 5
Figure 5

Here Koizumi is holding up the badge of the Diet members, which he is about to cross cut with a chain saw, and gripping the postal emblem in his other hand. He is surrounded bothby his opponents and supporters, all of whom look dismayed. The situation seems to be tense, butthe Prime Minister does not lose his determinationand perseverance.Uno creates the image of Koizumi as a skilful politician, a mastermind of intrigues, but also as a sinister and ominous superhero. However, by accentuating the stateliness and grandeur of Koizumi, the artist seems to turn these qualities upside down, poking fun at him through a number of visual metaphors.

In Mainichi, political cartoons are usually published in a Saturday edition column titled Governing the Country-Helping thePeople. The column originated in 1998 due to the efforts of the Mainichistaff member Yokota Shigi,who draws the majority of the cartoons for this column. The picture published on 13 August 2005 is interesting (figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6

It is based on a once-popular movie aboutthe yakuzacalledBattles without Honour and Humanity (1973).In contrast to previous yakuza movies, which had mainly been tales the yakuza's chivalry, set in pre-war Japan, this oneportrayed a darker and a more cynical mafia world, emphasizing the futility of struggle between yakuza families. It is doubtful, however, that young people of contemporary Japanremember this movie well, although the elder generation might have been thrilled by the suggested allusion.The cartoon is drawn in the form of a movie still depicting the characters.Koizumi plays the role of the main hero: he is pointing at his enemies with a revolver asking the question "Are you for or against?"It is clear that he means his postal reform and the coming elections. The sign on the topsays: "2005.9.11. Coming soon!" The coincidence of the day of elections with the terrorist attack in New York seems to emphasize the aggressive tactics of Koizumi. The pun kuurubizu (cool business) written on the lapel of Koizumi's jacket is amusing. It refers to the campaign initiated that summerby the Environment Ministry. Aiming atdecreasingthe effects of global warming, the ministry prescribed employees of state and private companies to go"no neck-tie, no jacket." Ostensibly, this could have allowedthe reduction of air-conditioning temperature settings. However, for a variety of reasons, many people were against this campaign, so that in the end the government spent more money on advertising than gained in reality.Such allusion is meant to say that the same fate may await Koizumi's reforms.

Another example of Mainichi cartoons is the one called Koizumi Theatre, published on 27 August (figure 7).

Figure 7
Figure 7

It ridicules all the participants of the performance, which took place in Japan in August-September 2005. Everyone plays the role allocated to him or her by Koizumi. The Prime Ministerhimself,with a stern expression on hisface,is pushing a cart with a sign "postal privatisation." Someone called Horiemon assists him. The name refers to Horie Takafumi, the then head of the Live-Door Internet Company, nicknamed Horiemonfor his likeness to the chubby cat Doraemon, a character from a popular kids'manga. Takafumi was one of Koizumi's devout supporters, but was suspected in various business machinations for which he was even imprisoned later. Five women on the top of the picture represent the so-called "assassins," also dubbed "female ninja" or ku-no ichi in Japanese, becausethree strokes of the character "woman" may be seen as a combination of katakanasyllables ku and no and the character ichi(one). These women were all political novices, butneverthelesspersons famous in the country. Two of them wereSatsuki Katayama, a former Miss Tokyo University, later turned Finance Ministry bureaucrat, and Environment Minister Yuriko Koike, who was a one-time news anchorwoman.Their nomination as alternative candidates definitely added popularity to Koizumi's campaign and to its initiator too. In the cartoon the then general secretary of LDP, Takebe Tsutomu, looks puzzled by the role he is supposed to play in the performance-will he become anassassin (shikyaku) or a loser (shikkyaku)? A small difference in the pronunciation of the two words works served as an additional joke trigger. Some other politicians depicted in the cartoon are also wondering if they are invited to participate in the performance or if they will be dismissed. All this turns the cartoon into a burlesque. An interesting feature of the Mainichi cartoons was their publication in the frame of a TV screen, pointing out in this way that they actually ridiculed not only Koizumi, but also the television, which helped creating the show.

In contrast to television, which always presented Koizumi as a popular leader, caring about the people interests, newspaper cartoons were ironic about his way ofdoing politics, accentuating the Prime Minister'simprudence andexcessive obsession with the idea of postal reform, his preoccupations with spectacleand with his own image.However, although the cartoonseagerly ridiculed his style, with the exception of one picture by the veteran cartoonist Yamada Shin, none of the cartoons of the three major newspapers questioned the necessity of the reform itself. Yamada's drawing, published in Asahiwittilyportrayed Koizumi nailed to a huge piece of weight with a sign "national debt of 780 trillion," while the Prime Minister continued singing his favorite song "pri-pri-privatization" (figure 8).

Figure 8
Figure 8

The artist asks if the postal privatization may solve the problem of the huge national debt of Japan, but the answer is poising in the air.

It is true that the theatrical style of Koizumihas raised, although temporarily, the interestof ordinary Japanesetowards the political life. Even more it called attention of other politicians to the importance of making images. TokoroYukiyoshi made a clever remark on this subject in his cartoon in Asahi. On 16 September when Koizumi could celebrate his victory, the prime Minister was depicted flying on a broom in the sky, while the political losers, including Hatoyama, Ozawa and Kan, were collecting rubbish and grumbling: "We have to get rid of the images which became the reason for our defeat" (figure 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9

Visual Language of Cartoons

If we follow the logic that the "personalization" of politics expresses the feature of the contemporary political style and that politicians are increasingly performance oriented, then it is necessary to remember that the persona of a politician has always stayed in the center of the political cartoon. Certainly television is a rival in the sense that it has made the look and idiosyncrasies of politicians more known to people, but, as Seymore-Ure argues, this also works to the advantage of cartoonists who may draw upon the television image of the public person, confident that they share it with the audience (Seymour-Ure, 2001: 348). Although television, especially in the case of Koizumi,usually aims to make a politician attractive, the purpose of political cartoons, by definition, is the opposite-theypoint tothe drawbacks of those who wheel and deal politics, and do this using methods of grotesque, irony and satire.However, television also borrows from cartoons, as evident in the English puppet program Spitting Image or its Russian analogue Puppets, whichboldly ridiculed Yeltsin and Putin during the early months of his first presidential term. This rivalry is mutually beneficial, but artists are compelledto make their graphical language more refined and sophisticated.

The most obvious feature of Japanese cartoons lies in their wide resort to puns-an opportunity provided by the Japanese language itself where the same reading may stand for different characters or one character may have several readings.Also, the graphic elements of the language allow the Japanese cartoonists to "play"with characters, as it was in the case of reading the character onna (woman) as ku-no ichiorwith the mark of the postal system,stylizedeven as the gates to a Shinto shrine, mocking in this way at Koizumi's obsession with the postal reform. Metaphors in cartoonsare usually derived from whatDeSousa andMedhurst (1981) called "major inventional topoi,"such as political commonplaces, personal character traits, situational themes and cultural allusions. They included, for example, the badge of a Diet member in the form of a chrysanthemum;the horse, or the centaur, representing a political leader;the broom, the usual icon for bringing order into politics;birds or fireflies, signifying other politicians or the electorate;the Diet building standing for political life in general. Representations of politicians as competitors in sport events, boxers or sumo wrestlers, or losing political parties as punched tires or sinking ships also often appeared. Though easy to understand, this visual language is not very original and can hardly incite much curiosity. More interesting seems to be those cartoons where political issues were tired to cultural allusions from traditional and contemporary popular culture and references from everyday life. Such was the portrayal ofKoizumi as a samurai, a yakuza boss or a self-acclaimed mastermind,the association of Koizumi's politics with performance in general and with film on mafia, in particular; representations of female candidates mentioned earlier, which were borrowed from anime and manga, or likening Koizumi's activity to the useless campaign on "cool business."

 Other scholars studying cartoons have also come to the conclusion that the attention to popular culture especially increases the readers' interest in political cartoons (Plumb, 2004). Conners (2007), for example, points that the distinction between popular culture and political culture continues to blur. The latter remark may be of particular importance for Japan where the culture of comical pictures called manga is well developed.

Contemporary Japanese cartoonists see two roads for the development of political cartoons in future. One of them consists in bringing to perfection the genre of single-panel cartoons by concentrating onnigaoe or facial caricatures. As the artist TokoroYukiyoshi told the author of this article, it is the genre of nigaoe that may help understand the character of a person holding the power."[1] This tendency may be seen in the works of Uno Kamakiri discussed in this paper. The other possibility lies in creating stories on the topics of politics consisting of many pictures with explanation texts.[2] This is exactly the way where political cartoons may converge with manga.


An unusual for Japan independent from political factions policy and political style of the former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro opened wide opportunities for cartoonists to ridicule him through the means of political cartoon. Reflecting Koizumi's politics, some cartoonists concentrated on poking fun at the Prime Minister for being too rash, impulsive, and impetuous or, it may be said, too energetic in a sense. Otherscaricatured his attempts at conniving and scheming against the LDP, dethroning him as a superhero. The cartoonists were quite perceptive doubting the sincerity of Prime Minister's intentions to bring "good" to the society hinting that he acted only for the benefit of his own image. Such presentation of Koizumi in cartoons preceded the assessment of his policy given later by scholars.

Ironically, in the years prior to Koizumi, cartoonists were equally ironic of the passivity and indecisiveness of Japanese state leaders and their resistance to change (Feldman, 2004: 176-177). Giving an alternative look at the political process, whatever it is, cartoons are destined to be situational. However, the Japanese political cartoons tendto explain and comment on politics, entertaining the public with jokes and gags, but they seldom resort to severe sarcasm or the grotesque, which already means giving an assessment. Though this may be seen as a general detachment from ideology after the end of the Cold War, the infamous case with Mohammed cartoons and its wide discourse in mass media suggests that there should be something specific about Japan.

The Japanese society is widely acclaimed for its preference towards conformity and consensus. However, some researchersalso suggestthat"the Japanese are a people who ask ‘how,' not ‘why.' In the Japanese view, the why is antisocial and often creates embarrassing situations... To speak of truths and principles is frowned upon and little understood; at best, it is tolerated as the whim of ivory-tower intellectuals" (Tamamoto, 1999). Such kind of thinking may have evolved not without the influence of post-war Japanese history, including the ambiguity of attitude towards the Pacific War.

The present versatility of mass media makes it relatively difficult for such an established genre as political cartoon to compete with its new rivals. In these circumstances the artists have to find a more inventiveand innovative visual language that would really appeal to readers. One way of achieving this goal may be to resort tothe broad repertoire of popular culture. However, the cartoonists may not be willing to do so because of an apprehension to lose their genre identity or because of a long existing contempt towardsmanga and popular culture in generalby the Japanese intellectual elite.

[1] Interview with Tokoro Yukiyoshi on 15 October 2010.

[2] Interview with Nishimura Koichi on15 October 2010.


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