For a country known for its high-tech prowess, Japan has had surprisingly archaic election laws.
Political parties have traditionally been banned from using the internet to aid their campaigns, thanks to a decades-old law that dictated everything from the amount of fliers a candidate could hand out to the exact size of campaign posters allowed, to ensure parity. In place of get-out-the-vote campaigns online, candidates armed themselves with megaphones, attached them to compact vans, and drove around cities and rural towns to trumpet their cause.
A legal change this spring reversed the trend, allowing politicians to tweet and Facebook their way to victory. Now candidates are getting their first taste of what’s been dubbed Internet Elections here, with the two-week campaign period officially underway for the upcoming Upper House Elections.
“There is some degree of excitement, and certain business opportunities for software companies. Whether it will revolutionize campaigning in Japan remains to be seen,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University.
The introduction of cyberspace into politics has pushed campaigns to find creative ways to woo voters.
Last week the ruling Liberal Democratic Party unveiled a new smartphone game application, featuring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopping and somersaulting his way to the sky. In “Abe-Pyon,” the popular Japanese leader’s avatar is seen jumping from one platform to another, with players racking up points while gaining access to information about the LDP’s campaign platform.
Not to be outdone, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan released an application that allowed voters to take virtual photographs with their favorite candidates, and create their own campaign posters on smartphones. The pitch from the DPJ? “Now you can be famous too!”
Since becoming premier in December, Abe has taken to Facebook to give voters a behind-the-scenes look at daily life, while other leaders have been urged to regularly tweet personal messages.
The efforts aimed at courting young, tech-savvy voters come amid increasing apathy over politics in Japan. The country has gone through seven prime ministers in six years, though Abe is expected to outlast his predecessors. Voter turnout in the Lower House election in December, which put Abe back in power, set a post-war record low, with just 59% going to the polls.
“If you look at the numbers, there are only one in six Japanese actively supporting Prime Minister Abe and the LDP,” said Nakano. “It’s not as if people are enthusiastically endorsing him and his agenda.”
Despite the perception that internet usage has added transparency to campaigns here, restrictive rules remain. While candidates are now allowed to email voters, election law bans voters from forwarding that email to others. Those too young to vote are restricted from re-tweeting campaign messages.
Nakano says the rigid rules stem from a fear that false information could be passed on virally, damaging the reputation of candidates in a relatively short campaign period.
Major parties have hired outside agencies to monitor blogs and social networking sites for “flaming” or candidate bashing, around the clock. Deliberate comments to discredit the candidates would promptly be taken down, LDP Public Relations Chief Yuriko Koike said, in a recent interview with broadcaster NHK.
“I worry [internet campaigning] will lead to irresponsible voting,” voter Sumiko Yasuda said. “It’s important to study the issues before [casting a vote] but people may just vote based on information that is conveniently available.”
The prime minister himself has gotten heat for online postings directed at his critics. Last month, he lashed out at former diplomat Hitoshi Tanaka after he criticized the administration’s foreign policy, and its “rightward shift.” Abe took to his Facebook page, saying Tanaka was “not qualified to talk about diplomacy.” Referring to previous disagreements over policies to bring home Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, he added, “If [Tanaka's] judgment was accepted, the five [North Korean] abductees and their children would still be trapped in North Korea.”
“There’s a strong will of eliminating lies and untruthful messages altogether,” Nakano said. “It seems impossible in cyberspace but the state continues to hold a very naïve view that only truthful information should be disseminated within the supervision of the state.”