Politicians wrestle with social media as Japan allows Internet campaigning for first time
TOKYO - Taro Yamamoto, Japanese movie star turned political candidate, is live-streaming his campaign speeches and urging crowds to tweet his photo. The tech-savvy approach is a major departure from the old-style campaigning that has long dominated here.
An upper house election this Sunday marks the first time Internet campaigning is legal in Japan. That has political parties and candidates, many still novices at social media, scrambling to figure out how to use it to woo voters. Some boast only a few hundred Twitter followers; their Facebook posts are often just photos of the noodles they ordered for lunch.
Yamamoto, with more than 200,000 followers, is an exception. "Please take lots of photos of me and tweet them," the anti-nuclear activist told supporters this week.
Typically, candidates rush around shopping malls, train stations and apartment complexes, shaking hands with as many people as they can. They wave madly from fast-moving vans that blare their names over and over through loudspeakers. There's little time for substance, what a candidate proposes to do.
Advocates of Internet campaigning hope that, over time, it will help voters learn what candidates stand for and make more informed decisions.
Japanese election law strictly limits the printing of leaflets and other campaign material so wealthier candidates don't have an advantage. Previously those rules were interpreted to mean a ban on Internet campaigning. A law that kicked in earlier this year lifted the ban, with some exceptions. Only parties and candidates can use email ? not supporters, to avoid floods of spam.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated politics since World War II and built the old-style campaign methods, is busy on social media. The upcoming election is expected to be a landslide for the party and its coalition partner.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has amassed more than 374,000 followers on Facebook, some 151,000 on Twitter, and nearly 2 million on Line, an instant-messaging network popular in Asia. In the past week, he has posted photos of himself stumping for candidates and flocks of supporters waving Japanese flags.
The ruling party has set up an Internet campaign-strategy team, which has created a smartphone game in which users swing their phone to make a cartoon Abe jump and cartwheel, much like Super Mario, to climb the political ranks from novice lawmaker to prime minister.
Isao Takagaki, a lawyer and author of a recent book on Internet campaigning, believes social media is unlikely to affect the results or voter turnout in this election. Most voters are elderly, exactly the kind of people who tend to be least interested in the Internet, he said.
"It's going to take another 10 years," Takagaki said.
It doesn't help that most candidates' social media efforts amount to little more than schedules and diaries of what they did. "They all look the same," said Katsuyoshi Ueno, who works at a science research organization.
Nearly three-fourths of respondents in a recent poll by Japan's Kyodo news service said they didn't expect to use the Internet to decide whom to vote for in Sunday's election. That rose to 85 per cent for those in their 60s and 70s, though about half of those in their 20s said they would.
Yoshimasa Kimura, a designer who volunteers for Yamamoto's campaign, says the Internet has helped recruit people to hang up more than 14,000 posters and has drawn a new crowd, such as technology experts who showed little or no interest in politics before.
"Through the Net, you can count on so many supporters whom you've never met," Kimura said. "And it's all based on simple trust. Society isn't so bad after all."
Twitter played an important role in galvanizing anti-nuclear protests after the March 2011 tsunami swamped the Fukushima nuclear plant. Social media helped draw young people and women, usually not associated with street protests in Japan. Yamamoto, the actor-politician, was active in the movement, which in turn strengthened his social media presence.
FastMedia Inc., the developer of Yappli, a Web service that creates and manages smartphone-software applications, tailored it so customers could build a campaign app. The app allows users to flip through pages of platform documents, tap on photos of candidates to learn more about them and watch YouTube video ? all on a smartphone.
Only two clients signed on, an opposition candidate and the Communist Party.
"Well, it didn't do much for our business," FastMedia's Yasubumi Ihara said with a laugh. "It's still for those ahead of the crowd."
Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at www.twitter.com/yurikageyama