Could Japanese politics finally be getting interesting or are things just getting out of hand?

With campaigning for Sunday’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election under way and the Upper House election slated for July, parties are vying desperately for voters’ attention with an array of television commercials ranging from the comically heroic to the patently outlandish.

In a Liberal Party ad running since June 2, leader Ichiro Ozawa is seen grappling a giant robot named “the Old System” before smashing through it, leaving behind a fireball for good measure, on his way to create a “New Japan.” New Conservative Party leader Chikage Ogi, in an ad due to air soon, relives her days as an actress with the female stage troupe Takarazuka and dons doctor’s robes in a “Hoshupital” (a play on words with the party’s Japanese name, Hoshuto).

“I’ll make Japanese politics healthy,” she soothingly tells a sick patient.

While the parties say the ads contain important, albeit simple messages, some observers say Japanese politics are turning into a farce and the ads are as vacuous as the dust cloud Ozawa leaves behind after he is finished manhandling the robot.

“Japanese society has quickly become Americanized,” complained political analyst Shigezo Hayasaka. “And this (Prime Minister Junichiro) ‘Koizumi Syndrome’ is the populist product of an age in which television reigns supreme.

“I doubt whether these political commercials are effective. They can be written off as merely opportunistic, populist and shallow appeals. Japanese politics have come to the dangerous point where they are, like the American presidential race, led around by the nose by the almighty TV.” Political analyst Minoru Morita said: “From here on, I think it’s only going to get more vulgar and more comic. The public will be delighted and party spin doctors will relish it. But I’ll continue to criticize this phenomenon.”

The problem, some said, is that the ads don’t differentiate between the parties. It’s easier to say you’ll tear down the old system or revive a sick patient, they point out, than actually propose how to do it. “The way you make commercials is to find out what the difference is between the products or brands,” said Masami Okamura, senior vice president of the Japanese branch of international ad agency DDB. “Then you have to pick out one particular statement and convey that message in a very specified way. . . . I don’t think these ads will work to change anyone’s mind about which party to support.”

Social Democratic Party spokesman Hiroshi Imai criticized the NCP’s hospital ad, saying, “Even if they say they’re going to take care of the government, you have no idea how they’ll proceed.”

Imai, whose party plans to release a straight-talking ad before the Upper House campaign, is similarly unimpressed with the advertisement for New Komeito, another ruling coalition partner of Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party.

In the New Komeito ad that has aired since June 9, leader Takenori Kanzaki, dressed in a suit, bursts into various nefarious scenes in old Japan — like that of a small-time judge in a restaurant’s inner chamber accepting bribes — at which point a chorus booms out, “Sou wa ikanzaki!,” a combination of “ikan,” which means “You can’t do that!” and the leader’s name, Kanzaki. “It doesn’t mean much,” Imai argued.

But the parties insist that simplicity is best.

“We don’t have to use difficult means to convey our message,” Liberal Party spokesman Takaaki Shimomura said.

“In an easy-to-understand way, the public can see Mr. Ozawa struggling to fight for reform and for a new Japan. If that message gets across, we think that’s what’s important.”

Japanese Communist Party spokesman Kazushi Tamura, whose party ended a six-year hiatus during which it produced no costly commercials, said the JCP’s recent slightly comical ad has helped voters get past the party’s stiff image.

In it, JCP Presidium Chairman Kazuo Shii acts out a pun in which he vows to renew his determination to change the government, saying, “mi ga hikishimaru,” while tightening his belt (the verb “hikishimeru”) so much his waist appears to cave in.

“If we use humor in our ads, it makes us seem like normal people,” Tamura explained. “There was a time when people thought we were like the Chinese communists and they were hesitant to support us. If this ad helps the public know us for who we really are, then it has been a tremendous help.”

Whatever the message, Yasunori Sone, political science professor at Keio University, approves of the eye-catching campaigns, saying the most important thing for Japan is to increase voter participation. “Japanese politics should absorb the public’s attention. That’s the first thing to do. Quality is second.”

While comic ads may be criticized for being shallow, hard-hitting ads can get parties in trouble.

The Democratic Party of Japan had a run-in with networks Nippon TV and TV Asahi over an ad it produced that hit out at wasteful public works projects.

The party had to change the wording of a conversation in the ad, which began running March 26, so it didn’t appear to imply the government has ulterior motives in funding such large-scale construction projects. The content of the party’s newest ad, to air soon, also underwent negotiations with all the networks but has been approved as is.

“Criticism is fine,” Nippon TV spokesman Keisuke Yanaga said.

“If there’s proof and there’s some background, reasonable criticism is fine,” he noted, adding the station is careful with potentially slanderous statements because it bears responsibility for whatever is broadcast.

Yanaga added that, while all other parties submitted written proposals for the station’s approval before going into production, the DPJ did not.

As for the LDP spots, which began airing May 20, Keio University’s Sone said they may leave voters scratching their heads wondering who to vote for.

The ads feature Koizumi speaking directly into the camera, asking voters to join his effort, in one case, to reform the LDP itself.

“They are supporting Koizumi because Koizumi attacked the LDP,” Sone said, adding, however, that Koizumi’s efforts to change the LDP could be sidetracked by factional leaders who will gain more power if the party wins the election.

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