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Japan’s Twitter-Free Election Campaign

4 minute read
Coco Masters / Tokyo

Campaigning officially kicked off Tuesday in Japan as candidates for the Diet’s upcoming elections took to the streets to canvas for votes. And while the Aug. 30 general election could be revolutionary — with Japan on the cusp of a regime change that could end nearly 54 years of virtually unbroken rule — candidates’ official campaigning methods are far from it. With 12 days to go until national elections, candidates rode in vans, armed with banners, leaflets and loudspeakers for soapbox speeches at train stations and street corners across the nation. But as their names were blared out on the first day of political open season, their campaigns on Twitter and Facebook were silent. One thing that Japanese politicians aren’t armed with is the Internet.

The stakes over the next two weeks are high. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a long defender of the pre-internet election law that more or less limits campaign materials to postcards, posters and leaflets, is in fierce competition with the major opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Both parties want to attract young voters, who are increasingly seen as crucial in winning this month’s polls. Recent polls show the DPJ ahead of the LDP by a margin of about 15 points: 34.6% to 20%, according to Tokyo Shimbun; 32.6% to 16.5%, according to Kyodo News.

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Reaching out to new voters without the Web will be a challenge. Politicians’ personal web sites, which have risen in number over the past few months as campaigns have become more Internet savvy, can be accessed — but not updated — during the campaign period. Opposition pols and campaign advisers argue that the 1950 Public Offices Election Law should be updated to allow for internet-friendly campaigning. “People can’t ask questions when they most want to ask them, and we can’t communicate when we most want to do so,” says Kan Suzuki, a DPJ member of the upper house who, off campaigning season, has a weekly Internet program. “The law should be changed.” The opposition has tried to fight the bill unsuccessfully four times, and the DPJ has included the law’s revision in its latest party manifesto.

Instead, faced with one of the most heated elections in modern Japan’s history, candidates from both parties are forced to get creative. In Hyogo prefecture, Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, a 73-year-old member of the New Komeito Party (the LDP’s ruling coalition partner), decided to forgo his usual hairstyle — an old-school side-part — for no part. He also widened his stride, which his staff said would make him appear younger, according to local daily Kobe Shimbun. Other politicians have become more technologically savvy with QR codes on leaflets, so that younger voters can access their candidates’ homepages — however static they might be — by mobile phone.

LDP bigwigs, facing fresh competition from the DPJ, have also been making appearances back on their home turf. “Big shots are going back to their constituencies for the first time in years — to make a cleaner impression,” says Daigo Sato, of dot-jp, a non-profit that places students in Diet internships. Fumio Kyuma, former defense minister and LDP representative of Nagasaki-prefecture, has recently made the rounds in order to secure a 10th term now that he’s up against 28-year-old female DPJ candidate Eriko Fukuda. Fukuda not only represents the DPJ in age (on average, DPJ members are younger than LDP members), she also literally embodies opposition to LDP oversight. Fukuda is one of many Japanese infected with hepatitis C by tainted blood products that were distributed between the 1970s and early 1990s, a case for which the ruling coalition accepted responsibility.

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That kind of grassroots campaigning might be a candidates’ best shot during this election. For now, a change in the law is not on the docket. Hitoshi Miura, a Tokyo-based political PR strategist, says it might even change after the election. “Sure it’s a problem now,” he says, “but they will forget about because it’s not a serious matter for them after the election.” That, not only with regard to the campaign process, is something the electorate might want to bear in mind over the next 12 days.

With reporting by Yuki Oda

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