The view from Japan

Dave McCombs reports on the Japanese reaction to President Clinton's mea culpa speech.

Published August 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Cum stains? Presidential perjury? Blow jobs in the Oval Office?

Forget morals and appearances -- how will it affect the Nikkei 225? That's what the Japanese want to know.

President Clinton's Monday mea culpa rippled gently across Japan, where the Russian ruble's devaluation and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's naming of a new economic advisory council overwhelmed the president's revelation.

Reports here on Clinton's televised apology emphasized that the president remains popular because the U.S. economy is up. The left-of-center Asahi Shimbun played the story on Page 3 under a headline suggesting that Americans are complaining about excessive coverage of the scandal. The right-leaning 10 million-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun offered similar coverage on its Page 2 spot adjacent to its editorial and above a single-panel cartoon depicting the American public's puzzlement at how to balance the strong U.S. economy against the Clinton sex affair. Mainichi Shimbun, the third largest daily, relegated its Clinton reportage to Page 7.

In a nation where apologies of high officials are relatively frequent and formalized, there was little or no media critique of Clinton's performance in that regard. Reports focused narrowly on how the president's admission of an "inappropriate relationship" with Lewinsky was affecting his popularity.

Coming amid a long season of bad business news for Asia and a U.S. economic turnaround, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair has bounced in and out of the media in recent months. Monday's grand jury testimony and television address by the president commanded only slightly more attention than earlier reports, such as the FBI's confiscation of Lewinsky's allegedly semen-stained dress. Coverage peaked in Japan weeks ago, when the announcement that Clinton had agreed to testify was said to have briefly sent the dollar's value lower against the yen, pushing the story onto front pages and into leading broadcasts.

Cartoonists too looked for ways to the link the latest Clinton-Lewinsky revelations with economic news. Several played Russian President Boris Yeltsin's ruble problem against Clinton's troubles. Asahi Shimbun cartoonist Hiroshi Kojima drew Yeltsin and Clinton together with their pants down over a caption that reads: "The world's two big heads at the end of the century." Chyouji Aoshima of the Fuji Sports Shimbun depicted Clinton offering Yeltsin scandal-spinning advice, while Obuchi drops by to visit recently resigned Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to pick up some tips on how best to answer allegations of a sexual nature. Another sports daily played on the word "furin," Japanese for extramarital affair, to coin the name "Furin-ton." The pun actually works, since the Japanized pronunciation of the president's name is "ku-rin-ton."

Indeed Hashimoto had little trouble deflecting allegations last year of an ongoing affair with a woman he had met in China while foreign minister. The rumor was quickened by sources suggesting that the woman had been identified by U.S. intelligence operatives as a Chinese spy. But the collapse of a major bank, a credit cooperative and the nation's third-largest securities company soon focused the nation's attentions elsewhere.

Still, many Japanese are quick to compare their leaders' alleged liaisons to Clinton's.

"Hashimoto has a mistress, they say, and we once had a prime minister [Sosuke Uno] resign after only three months in office because his mistress exposed their relationship to the press," said Chie Matsushita, a trading assistant for the securities firm Merrill Lynch.

Shigeaki Imafuku, the president of a mid-sized metal processing and transportation firm, echoed the major media's perspective on the scandal: "What the president did is nothing to be proud of, but we're more worried about its impact on the economy here in Japan. I hope that Americans remember to think on a global scale and remember that incidents like these happen everywhere. Most of what we suspect about Clinton's sex life is probably true, but we shouldn't get hung up on the small things. And the leader of a country should definitely not have to quit over such a thing."

Japan's weekly magazines regularly publish sensational stories, including sex allegations, about politicians. But concrete detail is extremely rare in the reports. It is no surprise that coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair has left some Japanese readers unsatisfied as well.

"The newspapers this morning didn't say much," says Chika Ebi, a 30-year-old magazine editor in southern Japan. "That just made me want to know more. I had thought this scandal might blow up into something that could force Clinton to quit. Now it seems like it's all over."

By Dave McCombs

Dave McCombs, the former editor of Tokyo Journal, is a Tokyo freelance journalist who writes about finance, digital media and business folklore for the Asahi Evening News and other publications.

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Bill Clinton