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W&L Professor’s New Book Examines the Power of Silence in Japanese Politics

Eloquence will get you only so far in Japanese politics. Instead, it’s the unspoken understanding of the ethical duties and responsibilities of men — to each other, to their families and to their communities — that proves one’s worthiness for leadership.

Politics professor Robin LeBlanc explores this masculine dynamic in her new book, The Art of The Gut: Manhood, Power, and Ethics in Japanese Politics. ” ‘Art of the gut’ comes from the Japanese term hara gei,” says LeBlanc. “It is used to describe what it means to know your way through a social encounter without having to make anything explicit.”

In practice, the term applies to backroom dealing and decision-making among Japanese men. Male politicians use the term “to describe the cementing of relationships,” says LeBlanc, “and often really important relationships.” Power comes from understanding what the relationship requires, without detailed explanation.

LeBlanc decided to study men’s political power after finishing her first book about Japanese politics, 1999’s Bicycle Citizens: The Political World of the Japanese Housewife. “I was frustrated by the fact that my male-dominated discipline didn’t teach or notice that they had male scholars or that the political men they studied had gender,” says LeBlanc. “They thought gender meant women.”

LeBlanc originally planned to study how Japan’s local assemblies structured the manner in which candidates-both male and female-could become politically engaged. At the time, referendum movements were challenging the status quo across Japan, so local assemblies were prime targets for consideration.

While she was in the field, however, she noticed how her sources repeatedly mentioned the effectiveness of one man, a community leader she calls Baba-san. “The people I was working with in my field convinced me that you really have to look seriously at this individual, particularly in this rural town called Takeno. He really matters. If he weren’t here, we would be different,” says LeBlanc.

The problem? Political scientists examine trends and patterns, not individual agents. But Baba-san was different. “It really just got to the point where I couldn’t ignore what they were saying, and I just saw [that] this person makes a difference,” says LeBlanc. “He became a political force.” Baba-san was also interesting to LeBlanc because he was a mid-level local politician. “We never look at people in the middle,” she says. We focus instead on the power elite or marginal groups.

LeBlanc also followed Takada-san, a second-generation politician running for the local ward assembly in Tokyo. “He’s a very, very typical case. He was running for his father’s seat,” says LeBlanc. Though statistics aren’t available for local politicians, 40 percent of elected national officials in Japan are second generation.

LeBlanc’s observations about the two men reveal how their unspoken adherence to Japan’s masculine code helped, and occasionally hindered, their ability to wield and maintain power. Baba-san, for example, refused to engage verbally with another political operative who’d proposed a candidate swap during a key backroom meeting. His silence cemented his choice. In another case, Takada-san felt duty-bound to acquiesce to a constituent’s funding request-one that was financially unsound-based on an unspoken, gut-level sympathy for the man’s role as breadwinner.

With the book, LeBlanc hopes to encourage political scientists to look at men, particularly men in power. “Men’s studies right now doesn’t focus on politics,” she says. “It’s natural, so we don’t see it.” With The Art of the Gut, she is also exploring a new mode of political-science writing, moving beyond the traditional, trend-based approach to a more narrative, even artistic, form of analysis that can include first-hand observations and individual agency.

LeBlanc’s book is available at the University Bookstore and Amazon.com.

— by Amy Balfour ’89, ’93L