With Social Media Ban Lifted, Japanese Politicians Rush Online

By Tabuchi, Hiroko | International Herald Tribune, July 6, 2013 | Go to article overview

With Social Media Ban Lifted, Japanese Politicians Rush Online


Tabuchi, Hiroko, International Herald Tribune


Electoral candidates, allowed to campaign on social media for the first time, rush to try their hand at Facebook and Twitter.

Campaign truck. White cotton gloves. Facebook.

Yoshitada Kounoike, a Japanese parliamentary candidate, has a new tool in his campaign toolbox -- and he is embracing it with gusto.

In recent weeks, Mr. Kounoike has posted Facebook photos of himself merrily devouring ice cream, marveling over his new Roomba and cheering on his grandchildren during field day.

In a running series called "My Lunch," Mr. Kounoike, a veteran lawmaker from the governing party, chronicles meals from his favorite haunts: yakisoba, katsu sandwich, a juicy steak. "I've totally got the hang of it!" Mr. Kounoike, 74, gushed in the sleepy western town of Himeji on Thursday, the first official day of campaigning for the July 21 elections. "Did you know I tweet, too?"

A rewriting of Japan's rigid election laws has brought about a sea change in electioneering customs here, previously limited to sound trucks, pamphlets and good old handshakes on the street. (The white gloves stand for clean government.)

For the first time, candidates for public office are being allowed to use the Internet and social media for campaigning. The elections, for seats in Parliament's upper house, are seen as an important referendum on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic policies, and opinion polls are forecasting major gains for him.

The governing Liberal Democratic Party, previously known more for its stodgy stump speeches than for any tech savvy, has emerged as an unlikely front-runner in the social media game.

Led by Mr. Abe -- who has 145,000 followers on Twitter and 373,000 "likes" on his Facebook page -- the conservative Liberal Democrats have unleashed a social media blitz, training all of their 78 candidates to use iPad minis and urging them to get on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The party's elders have not been spared from the online drive, sending candidates like Mr. Kounoike scrambling to get used to posting Twitter messages and Facebook updates on the go. They have also been enlisted to appear in live broadcasts streamed almost daily from the party's new recording studio at its Tokyo headquarters.

The Liberal Democrats have even released a smartphone game -- named Abe Pyon, or Abe Jump -- that features a cartoon version of Mr. Abe somersaulting his way through the sky. Players unlock facts about the party as Mr. Abe jumps higher, eventually earning a superhero cape.

"We see it as a way to reach a new generation of voters," said Takuya Hirai, who heads the party's 30-member Internet media team and is the brains behind the Abe Pyon game.

Mr. Abe underscored his love of social media in his first official campaign message to the nation, broadcast on Nico Nico Live, a local live-streaming site. "I hope you'll shower our candidates with lots of 'likes,"' he said, alluding to the Facebook feature.

Japanese candidates are coming late to the social media party. Even though Japan has been holding elections for more than a century, and is an early adopter of social media in other spheres of public life, it has lagged behind less developed countries in using the Internet for political campaigning. Candidates in Egypt and Tunisia, which held their first democratic elections only in the last two years, made extensive use of social media.

The change in the law, political experts and lawmakers hope, will inject much-needed transparency into the murky world of Japanese politics by giving voters direct access to lawmakers, and reverse chronically low voter turnout among young Japanese. …

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