The pointlessness of election campaigns in Japan is dramatically exemplified by the sound trucks screaming the names of their respective candidates over and over. The stupidity of election campaigns in Japan is audaciously exemplified by something that happened in my own neighborhood last week prior to the Tokyo assembly vote. One candidate, whose name happened to be same as that of the ward in which I live, kept screeching, “You write your address all the time, so just write it again when you go to vote.”

It’s easy to blame the parties for their lack of imagination and the electorate for putting up with it, but it’s difficult to blame either when campaign rules and etiquette make it difficult to share meaningful opinions in the media.

Last week, veteran TV personality Kyosen Ohashi announced via satellite from Los Angeles that he would be a candidate on the Democratic Party of Japan ticket in the upcoming Upper House election. It was odd enough that Ohashi threw his hat into the ring, as it were, from the other side of the Pacific; still odder that he announced he didn’t plan to be physically in Japan for the campaign, but would, again, “appeal to voters” via satellite.

The reason Ohashi gave for not showing up is that he will be busy “working” in Canada during the campaign. I know that Ohashi owns a souvenir shop in British Columbia, but I find it difficult to believe he can’t find someone to man the cash register in the middle of July.

Most likely, he just doesn’t want to campaign, which is understandable, what with the sound trucks and those white gloves. When comedian Yukio Aoshima ran for governor of Tokyo, he spent the designated campaign period in Europe and still won. The difference here, of course, is that Ohashi, as demonstrated by his use of satellite technology (Aoshima didn’t even phone), wants to continue injecting ideas into the campaign. He just doesn’t want to participate in it.

He admitted, in fact, that his candidacy is a form of protest. Ohashi has never hid his contempt for the LDP and is not swayed one bit by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s pledges to reform Japanese politics. More significantly, he is appalled that populist sentiment for Koizumi “allows no criticism” of the prime minister, saying that such populism smacks of fascism.

Ohashi knows that once the campaign starts, broadcast standards will prevent him from commenting on the election in the media, which, for someone who lives and breathes TV, must be unbearable. Last June, in an interview on NHK during the Lower House election campaign, he digressed into comments about a “certain political party.” The interviewer abruptly cut him off and apologized to viewers. Obviously, the only way Ohashi can talk about the election is to become a candidate himself, even if he is only allowed to do so within the scope of approved campaign activities.

Ohashi understands the system, but other TV personality candidates may not. On June 12, women’s studies professor Yoko Tajima announced that she was running for an Upper House seat on the Social Democratic Party ticket. Tajima, however, had already taped several programs set to be aired in coming weeks, thus embarrassing the producers of those shows who would, in effect, be violating broadcast standards, which stipulate that they cannot use people “likely to become” political candidates. Once she announced her candidacy, Tajima was supposed to avoid any TV appearances (save as the subject of news reports) until after the election.

Tajima is a regular on the Asahi TV talk show “TV Tackle,” and, naively, according to Shukan Shincho, she did not tell the producers of her intention to run. Consequently, they had no time to postpone the installment slated for June 18. Tajima was forced to apologize. The SDP claimed it wasn’t aware of the “rule,” which is unlikely, but, in any case, its girl managed to slip under the radar. Tajima was also slated to appear on NHK’s June 25 tribute special about Billie Jean King, but NHK shelved that show and aired a tribute to Andy Warhol instead.

These “standards” are not enforceable by law. They are simply gentlemen’s agreements among broadcasters who want to dispel any appearance of favoritism whatsoever. The idea behind the standards is that all candidates must start from zero in terms of PR power, which is, of course, an impossibility. Aoshima was elected without even campaigning. Parties ask celebrities to run on their tickets not because those celebrities have interesting ideas, but because they already have name value, which, as the sound-truck strategy demonstrates, is all that matters.

In such a political environment, someone bold and clever enough to mock these gentlemen’s agreements would probably succeed. Last week as I changed channels during prime time, I kept coming across former idol singer Hiromi Go, who managed to make an appearance on at least one network variety show every night. Go is about to release a new album, and, ostensibly, he was staging a publicity blitz by showing up on as many programs as humanly possible. The timing was too good, though, and I am still waiting for him to announce his own candidacy. He’d probably be a shoo-in.

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