An online stunt by a student activist who poked fun at the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over its decision to call for a snap election has highlighted the advantage young people have in using social media to push their own political agenda.
On Nov. 21, a Twitter account using the handle @why_kaisan (kaisan is Japanese for dissolution of the Diet) was launched by someone who claimed to be an elementary school student named Nakamura. The Twitter account pointed followers to a new website at why-kaisan.com, which lampooned in child-speak everything from Abe’s economic policies to the controversial state secrecy law.
“Your so-called Abenomics policy — wasn’t it supposed to increase the nation’s money? My allowance isn’t getting any bigger,” it read. “Why an election now? Is that a secret as well?”
The site asked why an election should be held when it was projected to cost as much as ¥70 billion — and the fruits of “Abenonics” had yet to be seen.
A counter at the top of the website suggested that millions had already visited the site, but this number became increasingly random.
The language used on the website implied it had been written by a 10-year-old child, featuring badly written hiragana. Analysts later discovered that someone had used a simple software application to churn out bad handwriting. What’s more, the website featured several kanji that 4th graders are not taught in school. Visitors also noticed that clicks on the site sent tweets to randomly selected accounts held by various politicians.
Analysts discovered that the site was being run on Amazon’s cloud service using the latest technology. Evidence pointed to the involvement of a nonprofit organization called Bokurano Ippo ga Nippon wo Kaeru (Our First Steps to Change Japan) that is run by university students, but the NPO denied taking part.
Before long, however, 20-year-old Yamato Aoki admitted to setting up the website. Looking back at Aoki’s Twitter timeline, analysts were able to conclude that the website was made by his friend, Satoru Cho (aka Tehu).
Observers suspected the Democratic Party of Japan of being the mastermind behind the campaign, basing their suspicions on the involvement of a Twitter handle named @Minshukun that helped promote the site in its initial stages. Minshu-kun is the name of the DPJ’s official mascot. However, the DPJ denied any involvement, leading some to suspect that the Twitter handle was run by some DPJ members in a private capacity.
Abe weighed in on the stunt on Nov. 25, saying in a Facebook post that Aoki’s feigning of child-like innocence was “despicable.”
“I hope his deed is not part of some organized attempt to manipulate public opinion against me ahead of the election,” the post said.
News outlets picked up the criticism, although noted that the statement was more than likely to have come from the prime minister’s staff.
In criticizing Aoki, Abe cited a 2channel summary site titled Hoshu Sokuhou (Breaking News for Conservatives), which is renowned for publishing nationalistic rhetoric. LDP supporters weren’t particularly bothered by this, but critics suggested that Abe tended to rely on websites that were nationalist in slant.
The furor spread beyond social media and it wasn’t long before several high-profile personalities joined the fray, suggesting that Aoki and Cho were symbols of the country’s growing activism among youth. Cho was hailed a programming genius who made a popular iPhone app that calculated users ideal weights when he was just 14. Aoki, meanwhile, organized a debating event between 100 high school students and politicians in 2012 when he was 18. The high-profile nature of the case helped supporters of Aoki and Cho make it look as if they were being persecuted for no good reason. This, however, enraged Abe’s supporters further.
In January, Aoki and Cho launched a political party called Zero that was aimed at politically aware young people aged under 25. Such highly motivated young people are called ishiki takai kei (excessively high self-esteem).
The truth, however, is much more straightforward. Aoki and Cho both entered Keio University through the so-called Admissions Office exam. Based on a U.S. system, this enables students to get into colleges based on criteria such as pre-written essays, interviews and external activities. Students can get into universities without going through the rigmarole of passing standard entrance exams.
Aoki was also a poster boy of a preparatory school that specialized in getting kids into Keio or Waseda universities via such an exam. The furor sparked by this case drew attention to the inherent flaws in the Admissions Office system. Wealthy parents can put their children into popular universities by simply donating to an nonprofit organization or pledging to pay high tuition fees.
Not surprisingly, the founder of the Admissions Office prep school, a 21-year-old student, quickly distanced himself from Aoki.
And thus the original aim of setting up the website — to question the Abe administration on why it needed to call a snap election — was soon overwhelmed by other factors: the prime minister’s ties to social media, the fairness of university entrance exams and the growing influence of youth. Whether the government likes it or not, the country’s youth are increasingly becoming more influential in national politics — so much so that we need to be sure that they’re telling the truth to begin with.
Akky Akimoto is a Japanese blogger for Asiajin and Cybozu. His Twitter @akky has about 120,000 followers.