Staff writer In a country where nearly 30 million people out of the 120 million population use the Internet, about 400 out of 732 Diet members have their own Web site.

Over the past few years, the Internet has become an efficient means of public communication in Japan.

The Liberal Democratic Party, the main ruling force, urged its Diet members to set up Web sites in time for the general election last June, and currently 176 of the party’s 346 Diet members have their own Internet presence.

These figures may suggest that while Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said he’ll build an “e-Japan,” many of the nation’s political leaders themselves are slower to get with the program.

It is not yet clear how the Internet will affect the nation’s politics, but some say it may drastically change the way voters interact with lawmakers.

Kazuhisa Kawakami, professor of politics at Meiji Gakuin University, said the Net has increased opportunities for people to communicate with lawmakers — and vice versa — when previously only a limited number of people affiliated with industry groups or Diet members’ support organizations had regular contact with them.

Some of the Web sites opened by leading political figures have drawn impressive numbers of visitors.

To date, 141,921 people have accessed the one set up by Naoto Kan, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, while the Web site of former LDP policy chief Taku Yamasaki and that of former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, currently state minister in charge of administrative reforms, have drawn 109,563 and 75,653, respectively.

According to Kan’s office, his Web site has had 4,000 to 5,000 hits a week on average since March.

In November, when public interest in politics surged over former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato’s challenge to Mori, Kan received 1,200 e-mail messages.

But utilization of the new technology is still rare.

Although most lawmakers are aware of the influence of the Internet, they make little use of it to reach out to voters, Kawakami said, adding that many Diet members’ Web sites are seldom updated and only a small number of them regularly offer mailings.

Most politicians still believe the best way to appeal for voter support is to meet people directly, he said.

Shoji Saijo, 54, a DPJ second-term Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member, does not have a Web site. He said he seldom uses the Internet because he is too busy to sit down at a computer.

“Most of my colleagues leave it up to Internet-related firms to set up their Web sites but rarely spend time to update them,” said Saijo, who is seeking re-election in the assembly election scheduled to be held in late June.

Another member of the assembly, Hajime Yabe of the LDP, says he accesses the Internet for about five minutes a day to send e-mail to his supporters and friends. He said the Net is useful when he wants to communicate with company employees and young people who are busy during the day.

But Yabe said public use of the Internet has yet to reach a level where it can serve as an efficient tool to help gather votes.

“The Internet can be helpful if the user is trying to reach out to the general public,” he said. “But I don’t think it is very effective in communicating with residents in a specific area.”

Lower House member Satoshi Shima works in his office near the Diet.

Satoshi Shima, a Lower House member of the DPJ, said the Internet does not directly help politicians gather more votes in an election, since the use of Web sites is restricted during the official campaign period.

The Public Offices Election Law prohibits candidates from updating images on their Web sites after a campaign officially kicks off and until it ends.

In the general election in June, Shima, in a gesture of protest that made use of the law’s loopholes, provided only audio information on his blank Web site during the campaign period.

Shima plans to propose an amendment to the law during the current Diet session to allow the use of the Internet as a campaign tool.

The computer-savvy Shima claims that if one has enough channels of communication with the public, one could shape public opinion from scratch via the Internet.

“I currently have 2,500 e-mail addresses to send my mailings and another 1,500 to regularly send e-mail,” he boasted.

“If you can send a certain message simultaneously to that many people, you can stir up a commotion,” he added.

That may be what happened when the LDP’s Kato used the Internet to seek public support for his rebellion against the Mori administration in November.

Kato explained on his Web site why he believed he should vote for an opposition-submitted no-confidence motion against the Mori Cabinet.

More than 100,000 people reportedly visited Kato’s site during the week he staged the revolt, and some 15,000 sent e-mail voicing support for his move.

Ironically, the eventual failure of Kato’s rebellion may indicate that support gained through such means does not necessarily affect the way things work in Nagata-cho.

Almost all LDP members outside the factions of Kato and his ally, Yamasaki, were unswayed by Mori’s unpopularity in media polls, and they solidly backed the prime minister in a Diet vote on the motion.

Even many of Kato’s own faction members defected under pressure from LDP heavyweights, forcing Kato and Yamasaki to finally back down and not show up for the vote.

Kawakami of Meiji Gakuin University, however, noted that Kato’s approach made lawmakers realize that one can create momentum if the Internet is used efficiently.

“From now on, it will be a must for leaders to make use of the Internet to draw the public to their side,” Kawakami said.

The Internet is also changing politics in other respects.

In the United States last March, Arizona Democrats used the Internet in the party’s presidential primary, allowing voters to cast ballots online from their homes.

Voter turnout sharply increased as a result. Of the roughly 86,000 votes cast in the state’s primary, about 40,000 were cast online.

Although Japanese politicians are considering a new system in which voters go to the polls to cast votes using computers to simplify and speed up the ballot-counting process, they are skeptical of the possibility of introducing online voting.

“There is no way of knowing whether the person casting a vote from home is really the person himself,” said Masajuro Shiokawa, chairman of a nonpartisan study group on computer voting. “It could infringe on people’s voting rights.”

Hiroshi Kumagai, deputy secretary general of the DPJ, started accepting small-lot contributions between 500 yen and 50,000 yen from individuals via his Web page in September — the first such attempt in Japan.

According to a law regulating money used for political activities, individuals can donate up to 1.5 million yen a year to a politician or to a politician’s support group.

Kumagai, who gathered about 420,000 yen from 80 individuals via the Internet last year, pointed out that Net donations took on great importance in the U.S. presidential election last year.

Sen. John McCain, who competed with George W. Bush for nomination as the Republican presidential candidate, raked in more than $1 million within 48 hours via the Internet after his New Hampshire primary victory over Bush last February.

“Small amounts of unfettered individual contributions are changing the traditional power balance supported by the organized fundraising and vote-gathering structure,” Kumagai says on his Web site.

The DPJ’s Shima agreed with Kumagai, saying that taking advantage of the Internet will boost political contributions from individuals instead of interest groups and other organizations with links to the lawmakers they support.

In the near future, more people will judge politicians by the issues they are working on — rather than the groups the lawmakers are affiliated with — and, in a way, “buy” those policies with their contributions, he said.

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