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Observing Japan

Writing under the “nom de blog” Japan Observer, Chicago-born Tobias Harris dissects Japan’s ever-eventful political scene on his Web site www.observingjapan.com. The 25-year-old Harris recently completed an internship year as a foreign-policy adviser to Democratic Party of Japan Diet member Keiichiro Asao, giving him an inside perspective that has helped make his blog a must-read for followers of Japanese politics. Currently back in the United States, Harris intends to continue feeding his readers with erudite commentary on the latest events this side of the Pacific.

What prompted you to begin blogging?

I started Observing Japan the day I returned to Japan last October (2006). I’d arrived to begin work as a political secretary, and it seemed like a good way to record my observations. My timing was fortuitous: I began the blog two weeks into the Abe era, after the North Korean nuclear test set off another crisis in Northeast Asia. Apart from a slow period in the first half of January, it’s been pretty much nonstop.

At the beginning I didn’t give much thought to an audience. I decided to keep the blog more for myself. If others found my observations worthwhile, so much the better.

That changed as my readership began to increase and I began to receive e-mails and comments from readers. I learned that there’s real demand for information and analysis about what’s going on in Japanese politics and began to try to meet that demand.

Did your employer know about the blog?

It’s quite possible that he knew about it, but he never said anything to me. When I started the blog, I was using my real name, but I decided to switch to a nom de plume more to disassociate myself from my sensei (the politician) than from fears of repercussions. I wanted it to be clear that the views expressed on the blog are my own, and ironically using a nom de plume seemed to be an easier way to do that than to write as myself, explicitly attached to a politician. Moreover, I’m trying not to write a partisan blog — I didn’t want to be just a DPJ cheerleader. The hope is that my professional experiences can enhance my analysis, without tainting it irredeemably.

Is Japan lagging behind other nations in the new forms of political participation?

It’s lagging because of legal proscriptions, and therefore there’s no impact on campaigns and election results. An example of this is how one DPJ candidate in the July Upper House election opened a campaign office in (online virtual world) Second Life but had to close it as soon as the official campaign period began.

Would it have made that much difference to the campaign? Hard to say, but the problem is that election law proscribes experimentation with new, cheaper and possibly more effective methods of interacting with voters and organizing supporters, invariably serving to protect incumbents. So while some political figures maintain blogs — some of them quite good — the role of the Internet, blogs included, in Japanese politics seems extremely limited. At a time when the U.S. is exploring new forms of political participation, for better or for worse, via YouTube, Facebook, blogs and so on, political activity here remains rooted in older methods: flyers, public speeches and phone calls.

What are the key differences between blogging and the traditional mass media?

I rely on newspapers for information. Blogs are good for supplementing editorial pages. Instead of opening your morning newspaper and reading the opinions that the paper’s editor felt you should read, you can now read thousands, millions of opinions, some of them good, some of them bad, many of them quite ugly. The burden is on the reader to think and judge for himself, not the writer to present opinions “correctly.” I don’t see how that is different from reading an op-ed.

There are a number of clever people around the world who can now contribute their analysis to discussions occurring far away from them. That’s an extraordinary thing, and on the whole it contributes to our ability to understand what is going on in the world.

Political blogging is nothing more than editorializing (and fact-checking the mainstream media). Bloggers are dependent on journalists for information. Blogging is a great thing, but is it a substitute for “old media?” Absolutely not.

How well do you know your readership?

I use various tracking services, and based on IP addresses I can guess the provenance of my visitors, but other than that I don’t really know. Some have contacted me, quite unexpectedly. I’ve met some fascinating people through the blog.

Why do you think your blog has been so successful?

In many ways my colleagues and I are making up for the lack of coverage of Japanese politics in non-Japanese media outlets. There are only a handful of English-language papers worth reading for their Japan coverage, and so there’s a niche for us to provide ideas and analysis about what’s actually happening in Japanese politics.

Should there be a written code of ethics for bloggers?

Absolutely not. Or if there is, it should be two words: caveat emptor (buyer beware). A reader should approach with a healthy skepticism any writer presenting an opinion, whether an op-ed columnist or a blogger.