Since Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolved the Lower House last month and announced Aug. 18 would be the official start of campaigning for the Aug. 30 general election, hundreds of undeclared candidates have been making the rounds to attract voters.

But both before Aug. 18 and afterward, they will be subject to a raft of detailed campaign regulations. And all it takes is one slip, whether by a candidate or an aide, to jeopardize what could otherwise be a successful campaign.

Are candidates bound by legal campaign limits?

Yes. The official start of Lower House campaigns must be at least 12 days before election day. Determined by the Cabinet, this period is almost always 12 days long. Candidates cannot engage in formal campaigning before the kickoff date. (Upper House elections and gubernatorial races allow for 17 days of campaigning.)

In 1977, the Supreme Court defined election campaign activities as the necessary and effective actions needed for a candidate to be elected. During the official campaign period, people can declare their candidacy, specify which election is being campaigned for and solicit votes.

They face many restrictions as well.

What activities are restricted during the campaign period?

The Public Offices Election Law prohibits candidates from canvassing door to door. This supposedly prevents vote-buying or bribery.

But according to “Jiyu Ni Dekiru Senkyo Katsudo” (“Unrestricted Election Activities”), published by Kamogawa Co., “individual meetings” are not illegal. The book states that various cases would not fall under “door-to-door canvassing” if a home visit is ostensibly for noncampaign purposes. A candidate may also ask for votes from people encountered on the street, or in a store or other public venue.

What can candidates do as far as campaigning?

Soapbox speeches with loudspeakers are permitted between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. if the candidate displays a special flag distributed by the Election Administration Commission.

Even without microphones, candidates can still give speeches. They are often found outside train stations or other areas with high pedestrian traffic. Candidates engage in “tsuji-dachi” (standing on street corners), picking strategic locations to hail passersby early in the morning or early evening during peak commute times.

A candidate may ply the streets of an electoral district between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. in clearly identified campaign cars blaring speeches and loaded with waving supporters.

Naturally, politicians also turn out at local events like festivals where they can press the flesh to build name recognition.

What about the time before the official campaign kickoff?

By law, candidates are prohibited from engaging in campaigning except for the designated time before the election, but they have the right to freedom of political activities. The Public Offices Election Law separates election campaigning from political activities, saying the goal of the former is to get elected while the latter is a promotion of a general political objective or policy .

Most political activities before campaigning starts are unrestricted.

Posters to announce lectures or speeches bearing the potential candidate’s image can be put up as long as they don’t identify the person as a candidate for a specific election.

But these posters must be taken down six months before the end of the legislator’s term, which currently for the Lower House is Sept. 10, so those bearing individual photos should have been removed by now.

Then why are there still posters around with the faces of candidates?

The six-months rule applies to individuals but not to political parties. So if the candidate is expected to run on a party ticket, that person can still have posters up advertising a party-sponsored gathering.

These posters, however, must bear at least two faces — usually one is a future candidate of the district along with a popular figure in the party, such as its leader.

A close look will reveal that the future candidates are identified as “speakers” and information such as the dates of lectures will be included.

Once campaigning starts, candidates can put up individual posters on the official public notice boards.

Can candidates update their Web sites once the official campaign kicks off?

No. The law prohibits candidates in Lower House single-seat districts from distributing any sort of “writing and illustrations” aside from two types of fliers with a maximum of 70,000 leaflets, and 35,000 postcards. Updating a Web site or blog is banned.

Hiroshi Miura, who runs Ask Co., a political PR consultancy in Tokyo, slammed this system as “out of date” and a “mistake.” Since 1998, the Democratic Party of Japan has submitted a revision of the Public Offices Election Law four times to the Diet to allow Internet campaigning. The party also included a clause in its 2009 policy platform to ban this restriction.

Although there have been some inside the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc who have voiced deep concern over the possibility of anonymous slandering of candidates via the Internet, it is Miura’s guess that in two or three years online campaigning will be legal.

Permitting campaigning over the Net “would enable candidates without money to be able to run a fair campaign,” Miura said. The Internet “would cut costs for the candidates.”

On average, how much does it cost to wage a campaign?

Election strategist Miura said the cost ranges from anywhere between several million to tens of millions of yen. A lot of the money is used for the campaign office and its staff. The amount depends on how far in advance the candidate opens the office, its location and the number of people staffing it.

But Miura stressed that compared with other countries, political campaigns in Japan are not that expensive, and many candidates are being “creative” in cutting costs, like renting space in a convenience store that has gone out of business.

What do “uguisu-jo” do?

The term, a combination of “uguisu” (bush warbler) and “jo” (young woman), denotes official female members of a candidate’s campaign. Their job is to ride along in the campaign car with the candidate and drum up voter support.

While most campaign supporters work for free because the law strictly forbids bribery, the office staff, uguisu-jo and sign-language interpreters are permitted to receive daily wages. The office staff get up to ¥10,000 while specialists like the uguisu-jo and interpreters get up to ¥15,000.

If monetary payment is banned, what about food and drinks?

Candidates are not allowed in principle to even provide food or drinks for most of their staff or anybody else. They are allowed to buy boxed lunches for up to ¥1,000 per person or up to ¥3,000 per day for 15 members of the campaign staff. Tea and snacks are exempt.

“Election campaign basics should not entail hiring people,” political consultant Miura said. “People should come together to support the candidate as volunteers to make sure the person gets elected.”

Are all of these restrictions really necessary?

Political campaigning in Japan is definitely different from the U.S., where there are very few restrictions. Miura pointed out that in the United States and Europe, the basic rule is freedom, with some restrictions, whereas in Japan regulations come first.

He added it is difficult to say which is better because Japan’s rules are meant to ensure a fair campaign for all candidates.

“The fundamental idea of the Japanese government is equal opportunity,” Miura said. Japan lays strict regulations on campaigning because “it is believed to be unfair if (the campaign) depends on how well-funded the candidate is.”

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.