Fearing the Obama Effect
Caryl, Christian, Kashiwagi, Akiko, Newsweek International
Byline: Christian Caryl and Akiko Kashiwagi
Japan blocks most online campaigning--but insurgents are starting to push the rules.
In the summer of 2007 toshiaki kanda, a freelance video journalist, decided to run for the upper house of the Japanese Parliament as an independent--no easy feat in a country where machine politics still rule. But as a techie, Kanda was hoping that he could improve his prospects by harnessing the power of the Internet.
He bet wrong. No sooner had Kanda declared his candidacy than he collided with an election law that banned him from using his Web site to update voters on his campaign. Instead, he had to waste countless hours putting up posters around Tokyo--"the ultimate nonsense," he says wryly. A loophole in the law did allow him to post podcasts daily--but those didn't exactly reach the masses. On election day, he won only a handful of votes
Surprising as it sounds, Kanda's frustrations are fairly typical. The Internet may be transforming political campaigns in other countries, as candidates use it to mobilize supporters and harvest donations. In the United States, Barack Obama has proved a master of the new art and has raised record sums on the Web. Yet campaigning on the Internet still proves virtually impossible in Japan, because the country's political establishment fears the medium's formidable potential for change.
The problem has nothing to do with hardware. Japan is one of the world's most wired countries; 60 percent of its citizens have high-speed broadband and e-commerce is thriving. More blogs are written in Japanese than any other language. Politicians do use the Web for some things--listing schedules or recounting what they had for lunch or, in Prime Minister Taro Aso's case, turgid accounts of the history of his constituency.
Try to use the Internet in an actual campaign, however, and you run into serious obstacles. The first hitch is Japan's 58-year-old election law. (Originally intended for printed matter, the law has been extended to cover virtual material as well.) Once an official campaign has started, candidates are barred from updating their home pages, launching or amending blogs--podcasts are allowed because the law applies only to text or images--posting political statements or sending text messages to mobile phones. Additional regulations prohibit donors from using credit cards online to support candidates, effectively preventing online fundraising.
Then there are the informal restric-tions. Some 80 percent of Japan's broadband infrastructure is owned and operated by a single company, NTT, which has been criticized for using its dominance of fiber-optic networks to undermine competitors who want to offer alternative content. The formerly government-owned company was privatized in 1985, but its managers still retain close ties with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the bureaucracy. (Retired bureaucrats routinely end up with lucrative jobs in the industries they once supervised.) Meanwhile, the all-powerful Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications doesn't just plot the national telecommunications strategy, but also regulates networks--making it a player and a referee, a combination of functions usually separated in other countries. The result is a system critics worry tends to favor the status quo.
As Kim Jung Hoon, a Keio University professor who is lobbying for liberalization of the Japanese Web, puts it, Japan "is ruled by a very stable and old political system. …