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Ban on online campaigns further besieged

More young voters want real-time info, not just blaring sloganeering

by Hiroko Nakata

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Kan Suzuk of the Democratic Party of Japan takes part in an event to promote Internet election campaigning in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo
Kan Suzuki – of the Democratic Party of Japan takes part in an event to promote Internet election
campaigning in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on June 15.
HIROKO NAKATA PHOTO

Recent years have seen Internet election campaigning become widespread overseas. Not so in Japan, where such activities are banned even though 85 million people — more than 60 percent of the population — are online.

Young lawmakers and Web site creators say the main reason is resistance from old-guard politicians worried about losing the advantage to Internet-savvy younger candidates. Others are concerned that online campaigning may let anonymous and slanderous comments overwhelm candidates’ Web sites.

“Certain politicians are already being slandered on Web sites, including Ni-Channeru (Channel Two),” said Kazuhiro Miwa, senior researcher at the National Diet Library who produced a report last year on the pros and cons of Internet campaigning.

Ni-Channeru hosts numerous message boards that have occasionally stirred controversy and become the target of defamation suits.

The site has likewise seen criminals post advance notices of their misdeeds, as well as prospective suicides. Corporate whistle-blowers and people with knowledge about shady activities involving bigwig politicians also spill the beans. However, there is no way for visitors to confirm the credibility of the messages.

Miwa said online slander against politicians will undoubtedly increase if the ban on Internet campaigning is lifted, and measures such as online defamation scrutiny, such as those used in South Korea, may be needed.

Campaigning Japan-style is still a medley of deep bowing, hand-shaking speakers outside stations and in neighborhoods, and roaming vans blaring candidates’ names throughout communities.

The election law, enacted in the pre-wired days of 1950, limits what candidates can do once official campaigning begins. They cannot hand out documents to the public, except leaflets of a limited type and number. They also cannot update Web sites, send e-mail newsletters to voters or take part in Second Life-type virtual-reality forums, because such activities are considered equivalent to “handing out documents to the public.”

In March, the election law was revised to allow limited distribution of written platforms, or manifestos, during campaigning for the first time.

“The election law currently does not reflect young people’s lifestyles,” Yutaka Kobayashi, an Upper House lawmaker from Kanagawa Prefecture, told a recent panel discussion on Internet election campaigning held by the Yes! Project, a nonpartisan group of young entrepreneurs who urge young people to get out and vote.

Kobayashi, head of the ruing Liberal Democratic Party’s working group on Net campaigning, said the party’s advocates of this pursuit have lobbied in recent years to pressure the old-guard to come around.

The Democratic Party of Japan has submitted a bill seeking an end to the ban on online campaigning four times, only to fail in each try.

Despite all this, politicians are in fact becoming more active on the Internet.

DPJ lawmaker Kan Suzuki from Tokyo became on April 25 the first politician to open an office in Second Life.

In early June, he invited 30 people to participate in the three-dimensional virtual site and delivered a 20-minute speech on education and other policies, followed by a 40-minute exchange of opinions with the participants.

“What is good about Second Life is interactive communications with the people on the floor. The content of chatting for 40 minutes on the Internet is equivalent to talking face to face for 80 minutes,” he said, noting that typing in opinions minimizes meaningless phraseology.

The Yahoo Japan portal last year launched the Web site Minna no Seiji (Politics for Everyone), featuring politicians’ profiles and their activities as well as bills passed by the Diet, via the Seiji (Politics) Navi navigation engine by dot-jp, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization running a student internship program with lawmakers.

As many as 460 lawmakers — more than half of the 720 in both Diet chambers — update their activities on the Web site and Internet users write in their comments.

Because of the election law, however, candidates in the July 29 Upper House election have not been able to update the Web site since July 12, when campaigning officially kicked off, nor can they field comments.

The DPJ’s Suzuki had to shut down his Second Life office before that day as well.

“The bad thing is users cannot get the latest information because of the law,” said Daigo Sato, head of dot-jp. “It is the information that voters need most.”

A quick poll from the audience at the panel discussion showed young people are not satisfied with the little information provided in the limited distributed fliers and brief televised speeches broadcast by NHK.

“There is little information in the leaflets. Data on the Internet can give us additional information,” one pollee answered.

“Some candidates aren’t on a party ticket and don’t have enough money to campaign, so the Internet is a fair tool,” another said.

But opponents of Internet campaigning point to the potential for slander and misrepresentation.

“So far, there has been no such trouble on the Yahoo Japan Web site. So one way to help opponents of Internet campaigning accept a lifting of the ban is to run the site for a certain time to build up trust,” Sato of dot-jp said.