Media watch: Opinions about state funeral show the limitations of public surveys

NTV asks why a state funeral

Polling and public surveys suck up a lot of media oxygen, especially with regards to political issues. Earlier this year, the justice ministry questioned the public on the separate married names matter. Over the years the portion of respondents in such surveys who said they think married couples should have the right to choose whether they want to maintain separate names had been increasing, but for this most recent survey that portion went down. Then some commentators noticed that the methodology used in the questioning had changed and wondered if that had anything to do with it.

It’s a topic we plan to go into in more detail in the near future, but it has prompted us to look at surveys more carefully. At the moment, the press wants to know whether people feel they should pay for the upcoming state funeral for former prime minister Shinzo Abe, a decision that was not made by all representatives of the public, meaning the Diet, but rather by the Cabinet, whose members all belong to the ruling coalition that Abe headed for many years. Consequently, surveys of people’s opinions would seem to be called for, but the results weren’t entirely instructive.

Usually, the go-to media outlet for public opinion is Kyodo, which carried out a nationwide telephone survey on August 10 and 11 to ask about the state funeral and other things. The portion of those surveyed who were “not convinced” that a state funeral was necessary stood at 56 percent, while those who professed to “understand” the need for a state funeral amounted to 42.5 percent of the respondents. If the wording seems roundabout, that’s because Kyodo was looking to find out if the government’s stated reason for the state funeral had gotten through. The organ of the Japanese Communist Party, Akahata, published a list of results of surveys conducted by various other media, which, for the most part, were similar to Kyodo’s in that more people seemed to be against a state funeral than for it: Jiji Press: 47.3% against, 30.5% for; JNN: 45% against, 42% for; Nagasaki Shimbun (via Line app): 75% against; NHK: 50% “did not appreciate” the funeral, while 36% did; Nikkei: 47% against, 43% for. (For the record, NHK’s latest results are different from those of an earlier survey, which showed majority support for the funeral; and the survey done by Yomiuri, which tends to tack rightward, showed a slight majority in favor of the funeral.)

The disparity in results could be explained by the way the questions were posed. In fact, no media outlet simply asks if the respondent is for or against something. Usually they couch their questions in various shades of “support”: definitely support, slightly support, etc. Also, the public is not asked how they feel personally about the funeral. As it stands, many don’t know how it will affect them. Will they have to put out “mourning flags”? Will they be asked to observe a moment of silence? This may seem more relevant to institutions, such as public schools, companies, and local government offices, but some people may be inconvenienced. Will it affect their work situation? Will legal gambling activities be suspended on Sept. 27, the day of the state funeral? None of these matters have been discussed yet and will, like the funeral itself, be determined by fiat, apparently. Akahata, in accordance with the JCP’s opposition to the funeral, essentially sees the above surveys as proving that the public is against it, but exactly why people are against it isn’t clear. Is it the expense, the principle of the thing, Abe himself? Maybe a relevant question would be: Do you care?

The public can, of course, convey their opposition directly by attending demonstrations against the funeral, and quite a few are scheduled in coming weeks. There is also a lawsuit filed by 231 people, including scholars, to cancel the state funeral since it was not approved by the Diet and is thus deemed unconstitutional—Article 85 states that any time the government spends national money (now announced as ¥250 million, but that doesn’t include outlays for security) it must be approved by the legislature. These measures, in fact, may make more of an impression than surveys do, but as one economics writer told Jiji Press, the government really has to explain more concisely why they are using public money to mourn Abe, and they haven’t done so yet in a concerted manner. The fact that he was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister isn’t enough.

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