Fundraising at click of a button

Can Web sites boost U.S.-style individual political donations?


Fundraising is a big part of an elected official’s life, especially in a country where individuals are not accustomed to offering donations to politicians or political parties.

So when Barack Obama reportedly collected $640 million during the U.S. presidential campaign last year, mostly from individual donations via the Internet, many politicians in Japan probably sighed with envy.

In 2007, 67,650 political bodies submitted political funding reports to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry and election offices in each prefecture. The earnings from those bodies totaled about ¥287.9 billion, of which ¥44.3 billion was donated by individuals. There are no records showing how much of that came through the Internet.

Now, however, the launch last month of the Love Japan political donations Web site by Internet giant Rakuten Co. has given lawmakers hope for a new channel of funds from individuals.

An advocate of Internet donations, Upper House member Kan Suzuki of the Democratic Party of Japan is optimistic about Love Japan.

“It’s a big step toward reinforcing the infrastructure of democracy in Japan,” he said.

Launched on July 27, Love Japan allows registered lawmakers to post their policies on the Web site and report on their activities, even with video footage.

It also has a button that visitors can click to donate funds using a credit card.

Hirotoshi Kato, a public relations official for Rakuten, said the company launched the Web site to make a social contribution.

Politicians can register their information for free on the Web site. When people make donations through Love Japan, lawmakers’ political bodies pay 5.25 percent of the donation and a ¥105 commission. Of the 5.25 percent, 3.1 percent goes to the credit card company and the rest to Rakuten.

“In Japan, political apathy has been growing, especially among young people,” Kato said.

The company aimed at building infrastructure whereby politicians and individuals can easily interact via the Internet by posting information and accepting donations, he said.

The presidents of major parties, including Prime Minister Taro Aso, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party, and DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama are registered at Love Japan and accept donations as well.

As of Monday, 255 national-level politicians had registered on Rakuten’s site, with 116 accepting donations. As of Wednesday, individuals had made 240 donations. Rakuten did not disclose the total amount.

At the moment, donations, which must be at least ¥1,000, can only be made using Rakuten’s credit card. The company said it is planning to allow other credit cards in the future.

Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University and an expert on political funds, reckons allowing donations over the Internet is a good way to improve the transparency.

By way of example, Iwai pointed to the ¥22 million in donations falsely reported by DPJ President Hatoyama from people who turned out to be either deceased or deny making a contribution.

One of the problems is the difficulty of tracing small donations. The Political Funds Control Law does not require politicians to report the names of those who donate less than ¥50,000.

“Over the Internet, a record will be made of all donations, no matter how small, so it is clear who made the donation,” said Iwai.

While welcoming Rakuten’s move, politicians and observers are skeptical that the Internet will magically increase the amount of overall donations.

In fact, dozens of politicians have been stressing the need to popularize Internet donations and have actually set up their own systems, but without success.

For instance, LDP Upper House member Hiroshige Seko started accepting donations via his Web site after he was first elected in 1998.

But after several months he had only collected about ¥30,000. Seko used an electronic payment system provided by a U.S. credit card company that was hard for his server to manage, and also had to deal with foreign-exchange problems.

And because political fundraising scandals involving corporate donations, currently banned under the law, keep breaking, politicians have been stressing the importance of increasing individual donations.

Although infrastructure for Internet donations has been improving, the more important point for politicians is to work harder to win over voters.

Iwai pointed out that it is still not customary in Japan for individuals to donate to politicians, unlike in the U.S.

Therefore, “politicians have to regain the public’s trust,” and then voters might think of donating to them, said Iwai.