Campaigning in Japan

A few months ago I took a vacation in Japan – it was an excellent trip. Earlier in the year when I was planning the trip a friend joked that if I was really lucky, the Japanese government would collapse and there would be a snap election for me to observe – given how often this has happened in recent years it didn’t seem like that much of an outside possibility.

As it turns out, Shinzō Abe’s LDP government has been rock solid this year – their ultra-nationalistic foreign policy, and use of quantitate easing (their economics package has been nick-named “Abenomics”) has been very popular.

However, we did manage to time the trip to be just before an election for the House of Councillors (the upper house of bicameral parliament). These elections are normally a bit of a non-event, and with the LDP polling at around 70% there simply wasn’t a contest – still, we did get to see quite a bit of how the Japanese campaign.

Election campaigns in Japan are very different to what we’re used to in New Zealand.

Their election campaigns are very highly regulated – they operate under a system that would make the Electoral Finance Act look positively liberating. Their Public Offices Election Law  basically bans all activity that might be deemed to be campaigning, unless it is expressly allowed – and there is not much allowed.

Traditional Japanese election campaigns have had two techniques at their disposal.

The first is the use of posters, which take the place of what we’d call hoardings or coreflutes in New Zealand. The actual billboards are erected by the officials (I couldn’t tell if it was organised by the local government, or elections department) with each party allocated an equally sized square to put their poster in. Very recently it seems this rule has been relaxed somewhat – as we saw other (non-square!) posters taped to walls and fences in some places.

A public election billboard.
A public election billboard.
A poster for the DJP taped to a wall in Fukuoka.
A poster for the DJP taped to a wall in Fukuoka.

The second traditional campaign technique used by the Japanese are the use of campaign vans with megaphones on the roof. The candidates and their helpers drive around the streets blasting campaign messages through the speak systems. It was quite a strange experience!

With a campaign van from the centre-left DPJ party.
With a campaign van from the centre-left DPJ party.

There are also TV commercials, but we didn’t spend a lot of time watching Japanese TV and didn’t see any. Until recently – that has been it! No fliers, no direct mail, no large billboards, no door knocking and no phone calls.

Very recently the law has been changed to allow the use of social media in campaigning – before the law was changed the candidates didn’t even have Facebook pages or Twitter accounts!  The upper house election we witnessed was the first that used social media. The Japan Times has a very good article about the use of social media (in English).

Overall it was a strange experience. With the exception of their recent inclusion of social media their rules create a huge barrier between the voters and the candidates. It makes the population almost entirely reliant on the media for information about politicians and their policies, and their plummeting voter turnout levels (the last upper-house election had a 40% turnout rate) unsurprising.

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