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Politicians tap Twitter to tweak profiles

Inspired by Obama's Net reach, Diet ranks test the online waters

by Antoni Slodkowski

At 6:44 p.m. on July 15, Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Seiji Osaka posed a question on his Twitter profile: “I think bringing the voting age down to 18 years old is OK. What do you think about it?”

Within 10 days, 198 users posted their opinions, and one even summarized the debate — 76.8 percent who expressed views supported lowering the voting age and 23.2 percent were against it.

Twitter — a micro-blogging service where users share short posts and connect with readers, or “followers,” through their profiles — is rapidly gaining popularity among politicians ahead of the Aug. 30 Lower House election.

Twitter’s interactive, direct communication among users is what makes it totally different from the usual blogs many politicians have resorted to.

The emerging social-networking service, created by Jack Dorsey, a board member of California-based podcasting firm Odeo in 2006, became extremely popular with young people engaged in political activities for Barack Obama during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.

In Japan, where young people are increasingly disinterested in politics, lawmakers are now turning to Twitter to reach voters directly, hoping to reverse the worrisome trend.

On a busy day, politicians post up to 200 messages. Each consists of no more than 140 characters and in some cases is viewed by more than 5,000 readers.

“There’s nothing bad in showing voters that I also take the bullet trains, read weeklies about pro wrestling and that politics is actually done by an ordinary human being,” said Liberal Democratic Party Lower House member Gaku Hashimoto, who goes by the Twitter name “ga9_h.” He currently has more that 4,700 followers.

Hashimoto added that many people feel distant from politicians, and Twitter is helping to reduce that gap.

Daisuke Tsuda, a Twitter expert and cofounder of Movements for the Internet Active Users, a Net user rights lobby, agreed.

“Japanese tend to vote for political parties, not for particular lawmakers, because they don’t know them. In this respect, Twitter is an excellent tool because it makes it possible for voters to become familiar with their representatives,” Tsuda said.

If people follow politicians’ Twitter posts, they can learn not only about their policies but also their daily habits and such things as what food they like, said Tsuda, who boasts more than 10,000 followers on Twitter.

The Web site, which is thought to have 23 million active users worldwide and about 100,000 in Japan, is beginning to spread gradually among politicians.

At the moment, there are three members of the Lower House, including Hashimoto and Osaka, and two Upper House lawmakers tweeting on a regular basis.

“Until two weeks ago only Mr. Hashimoto and I had used Twitter, but after I was interviewed by Reuters, BBC, Yomiuri TV and a couple of Internet journals about how I use the Web site, other politicians started considering it a useful political tool,” Osaka said.

Use of the site, however, is still very limited in Japan.

Last week, Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Cabinet noted politicians’ activities on Twitter must come to a halt once the official campaign for the Lower House election kicks off Aug. 18, because the Public Offices Election Law bans online campaigning.

That the issue was raised in a Cabinet meeting means many in the world of politics are still cautious about cyber-campaigning. But the split between those for and against online political activities doesn’t go along the usual ruling coalition versus the opposition camp lines. It appears to be more of a generational divide.

“The DPJ already submitted a draft to revise the Public Offices Election Law after previous elections (to allow online campaigning), but it wasn’t even discussed in the Diet,” Osaka said.

“If we win this election, I would like my party to implement that reform, because I want to be able to use the Internet more freely during campaigns.”

In a related move Monday, DPJ member Kenzo Fujisue posted on his Twitter profile a photo of a page from the party’s platform that stated it will lift the ban on online campaigning. Thanks to Twitter-savvy politicians, the information went out online before the DPJ actually unveiled it to the media at a news conference, proving Twitter can reach out to voters directly.

Hashimoto of the ruling LDP is frustrated with the lack of understanding within his own party, which opinion polls indicate may lose its nearly five-decade hold on power to the surging DPJ.

“I think older Diet members in my party are blocking it because in Japan, young people, for whom this issue matters, don’t vote anyway,” he said, adding that changing the law wouldn’t necessarily draw more votes for the LDP because most of its supporters are elderly.

This situation was reflected in the 2007 Upper House election, when only 34 percent of voters in their 20s went to the polls, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

This figure can be compared with 49 percent of voters aged 18 to 24 who voted in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

Political observers point out that Obama won the presidential race in part by reaching out to supporters via Twitter, and he still remains one of the best-connected people on the Web site.

The president enjoys seventh place in Twitter’s popularity ranking, with 1.84 million readers following his profile.

As a whole, American politicians appear to be more aware of the power of the Internet, with the number of active Twitter users on Capitol Hill exceeding 70.

“In Japan, voter turnout of young people is much lower compared with those in their 60s or older. On top of that, there are fewer people in our generation. That’s why politicians can ignore our demands,” said Yuki Okubo, a University of Tokyo student and area manager at dot-JP, the biggest Japanese nonprofit organization arranging political internships for students to raise their interest in politics.

Twitter expert Tsuda said the Web site should be used as a tool to encourage people to vote.

“During the recent Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, I mentioned it on my profile and got many responses, such as ‘Thanks for reminding me!’ and ‘Oh, I forgot about it, I’m going right now (to vote).’

“Twitter is an easy tool to get people going, to motivate them to do something,” Tsuda said.

While many people agree Twitter has potential as a future political tool, the site is not popular enough just yet in Japan.

“I started using Twitter, and I can see why it played such a big role in America. But the Web site is still not widely used by Japanese students,” University of Tokyo student Okubo said. “So it won’t play any major role in the forthcoming election. My friends at the university tend to use (community networking site) mixi or just mobile phone e-mails.”

Active mixi users add up to more than 10 million, 100 times more than Twitter, according to Tsuda.

There are also voices criticizing Twitter users for overly simplifying complicated political issues into 140-character-long comments, but active users beg to differ.

“Twitter is not a solution to everything,” DPJ’s Osaka stressed. “The key is to use various means to reach out to the public. If I want to write something longer and more serious, I would use my blog or official Web site. Twitter and mixi profiles serve other purposes.”

The LDP’s Hashimoto said, “In Japan, there is a long tradition of haiku, in which a very deep message is conveyed through far fewer words than even short Twitter posts.”