Man speaks before an audience with narrative intelligence
Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe is currently in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Abe has been in power for five years now. That feat alone is remarkable in a country famous for its “revolving door” leadership. Even more extraordinary, however, was Abe’s ability to consistently score above 50% in the popularity polls, year in and year out. But recently, Abe’s aura of invincibility has taken a major hit. His popularity levels have plummeted to the mid-30s. The reason? A lack of narrative intelligence.

What I find ironic is that the supposed “scandal” driving his popularity down is such a non-event.

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The Non-Scandal Scandal Hounding Prime Minister Abe

To get a sense of perspective, it’s a good idea to compare Abe’s recent polling woes with those of his G7 counterparts. When German chancellor Angel Merkel took a unilateral decision to admit one million asylum seekers in 2015, her poll numbers crashed. Meanwhile, in 2016, David Cameron had to resign the premiership after the referendum he had called for resulted in Britain having to leave the EU—not the outcome he had been expecting or wanting.

In both cases, leaders were punished for decisions that would have a real, direct impact on the lives, communities, economic prospects, and possibly even the security of their citizens.

Meanwhile, what’s causing Abe’s numbers to crumble? Rumors that he waved through the approval of a veterinary medicine department at a provincial university that an old friend of his is running.

If this deserves to be called a scandal, then it is a completely victim-free scandal. No money changed hands. Nothing illegal took place. The worst case is that proper procedures may not have been followed, though even that remains to be proved.

The whole thing is a storm in a tea cup.

Conjuring Devils vs. Narrative Intelligence

The situation with Abe makes me think of some excellent advice I got from my old and respected business partner, the legendary venture capitalist Alan Patricof. One of his favorite sayings was, “Don’t create devils inside.”

What he meant is that we all have a tendency to conjure up problems (or “devils”) where there aren’t any. He also mentioned that the ability to distinguish between small, insignificant problems and big, serious problems is very important. The business of the media is to stir up “devils,” both small and big, to drive the news cycle.

The Japanese media, in particular, loves to criticize power so relentlessly that none of our prime ministers can stay in office long enough to implement any sort of coherent policy agenda. I once asked Soichiro Tawara, the most influential TV broadcaster in Japan, an on-the-record question: “What is the role of journalists?” His answer was: “The role of journalists is to criticize power. I criticize Japan’s prime ministers every year on TV. The result? They all ended up stepping down on an almost yearly basis. Frankly, I thought that the office of PM was much stronger than that.”

In the case of Abe and his friend’s university, the media harped on about a minor issue so long and loudly that the “devil” grew from small to big and began to “haunt” the public consciousness. Part of the fault there lies with the media. And part of the fault lies with Abe’s own government for a poor response. Abe’s officials failed to take control of the narrative, reach out, and engage with the people. By doing too little, his side created a void where the rumor, suspicion, and prejudice served up by the media could proliferate unhindered.

In short, Abe’s team lacked narrative intelligence in the battle of perception.

Abe has provided strong leadership at home, supported globalization and free-trade abroad, and generally helped to raise Japan’s standing internationally. In a world where leadership is becoming ever more debased, I think it would be a terrible pity for Japan to lose such an excellent leader over fake news.