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Tech-savvy candidates hope to reach young voters via online campaigns

by Ayako Mie

Fourth In A Series

For Kan Suzuki, a tech-savvy Upper House member, the Internet is a powerful campaign tool that he can use to help him win a third term at a time when his party is facing so much adversity.

Support for the former Keio University assistant professor has been dwindling as the embattled Democratic Party of Japan struggles to remake itself after being ousted from power in the Lower House election last year.

Despite the drubbing, Suzuki sees a silver lining in the advent of Internet campaigning, which will let voters launch Web drives for candidates. Suzuki, in fact, is one of the nation’s online political pioneers, having launched his own Web-casting station, Suzuki Kan TV (dubbed Suzukan TV) in 2001.

“I think the (first) Internet election will be a smash hit. Together with my own campaign, my friends and networks are launching online campaigns to build support for me,” said Suzuki, whose friends include Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of Rakuten Inc., Japan’s leading e-commerce firm. Mikitani joined hands with prominent Japanese businesspeople, scholars and athletes to set up a support group for Suzuki.

The Upper House election will be a test of whether the Internet can boost turnout, especially among the young, and invigorate political debate among the nation’s disenchanted voters.

Voter turnout was less than 40 percent among people in their 20s in the previous two Lower House elections and almost 80 percent among those in their 60s and 70s. This has made it difficult for young voters to be heard.

The April revision to the 1950 Public Offices Election Law allows the political parties and candidates, as well as voters, to harness the power of the Internet during a poll for the first time.

They can now update blogs and post comments to seek support via Twitter, Facebook or other social-networking services. But the use of email in soliciting votes is limited to political parties and candidates.

Politicians and voters hope use of the Internet will create much-needed transparency in national elections and politics, in which a great deal of value is placed on face-to-face campaigning or political lineage rather than issues and agendas.

But candidates are fumbling for the best way to take advantage of the change during the 17-day election campaign period. Internet tactics might not work unless they’ve already got a solid communications network in place. The technology only helps disseminate information more effectively.

The new rules also forced political parties to turn themselves into tech-savvy machines and to adopt the latest Web strategies.

The Liberal Democratic Party, historically known for sending candidates to stump in speaker trucks that blare their names throughout neighborhoods, is making an aggressive effort to get in tune with Internet users.

The party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has some 149,000 Twitter followers and 373,000 Facebook subscribers, distributed iPad minis to all of its 78 candidates to encourage them to use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

To woo game addicts, the party introduced a smartphone app called Abe Pyon, which roughly translates as Jumping Abe. The idea is to make the Abe character jump higher in the sky to earn tokens to climb the party ladder.

The DPJ also unveiled aggressive online strategies to solicit public opinion via Line, another popular smartphone texting program.

The party has taken its campaigning into the virtual world at Ameba Pigg, with avatars of party leader Banri Kaieda and secretary-general Goshi Hosono. A team analyzes online comments for trends, saying these voices will be reflected in its platform.

The Internet has changed the way candidates seek voter support. While stump speeches are limited to between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., candidates can target voters anytime online.

Suzuki of the DPJ opened an Internet broadcasting studio called Suzu Sta, or Suzuki Station, in Shinjuku Ward, a day after the Public Election Offices Law was revised. He runs a talk show to discuss current events with experts from various fields during the campaign or to recap his pledges.

“The Internet will highlight who you are more than which party you are with if you know how to utilize it,” said Suzuki, whose program attracts at least several hundred people a day.

Jun Ogura of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) broadcast his first campaign speech live via Ustream in front of the National Diet building. The former TV announcer for Nippon Television Network has a media team headed by his son, Shinnosuke, who owns a media company. A crew follows him around to live-broadcast his election events so voters who do not have a chance to talk to him can better understand who he is.

“This is going to be the first step for ‘digital democracy,’ and I want to create an environment where voters can see me wherever I am, if they go on the Internet,” said Ogura, who teaches courses on news and information at Chiba-based Edogawa University. “If elected, I will live-broadcast what’s going on in the Diet in order to seek more transparency in politics.”

Like the DPJ, Nippon Ishin is soliciting public comments to form voter-oriented poll pledges.

Even though one purpose of allowing Internet use was to level the playing field among candidates, parties and voters are paying handsome fees to media professionals and advertising companies to launch apps or come up with slick online strategies. But candidates still need a solid election machine in the real world.

Yosuke Ito, an LDP proportional-representation candidate, came up with a clever idea. Without a proper campaign office or vehicles, the member of the music duo Tokyo Pudding said he had decided to hold a gathering with voters so they could upload pictures with him instead of putting up posters.

“I took pictures with 100 people in two hours yesterday. If they have 100 Facebook friends, 10,000 people will see my picture. This is my election poster,” Ito told The Japan Times via Twitter on Friday. “My niconico live streaming had more than 2,000 people. This would not be possible for a little-known candidate like me without the power of the Internet.”

Japan is a late comer in the game of online election campaigning.

U.S. President Barack Obama was a successful adopter of online campaigning to seek grass-roots support. He had about 200 digital campaigners and his tweet “Four more years” set a record that year with 810,000 re-tweets. His campaign team also raked in $500 million from 4.5 million people.

Yet, the Internet is also a source of slanderous comments. In South Korea, which revised its law in 2012 to allow social media use in election campaigns, three people were arrested for baseless and slanderous comments on Twitter intended to benefit presidential candidate Park Geun-hye, who is now president.

In Japan, the law allows such comments to be deleted two days after the poster fails to respond when notified. Even though politicians say the Internet gives them the chance to rebut slander, there is still the risk such comments can go viral and cause harm.

“I do not respond to those slanderous comments, as it just creates another slanderous discussion,” said Miki Watanabe, an LDP proportional representation candidate. His firm, pub chain Watami Co., is routinely accused on Twitter of exploiting workers.

Despite initial hopes that the Internet would raise interest in politics, candidates and experts predict voter turnout will not be so affected this time.

“What will really push up voter turnout is allowing voters to cast ballots online,” said Kazuya Ogawa, CEO of Grand Design & Company, a social media consultant to firms and political parties. “At the same time, politicians will be tested if they really listened to the voters after the election and their voices are reflected in their political agendas.”