Dear Alice,

Thank you as always for your interesting column. I have a question about those temporary bulletin boards that crop up from time to time, the ones with the blank squares with numbers in the center. One appeared recently near my home, soon followed by the noise pollution of another election, by which I understood that they have something to do with campaigning. But I wasn't sure if the faces in the posters that were eventually posted were candidates or winners, and whether the numbers have any significance. Can you please tell us what the heck these boards are and how they fit into the political process?

John R., Hyogo Prefecture

Dear John,

You timed your question perfectly: On Nov. 11, Prime Minster Yoshihiko Noda dissolved the Lower House and set off the furious 30-day political battle that culminated in the national vote on Dec. 12, swiftly followed by his resignation. Citizens in Tokyo also voted for a new governor, because Shintaro Ishihara resigned that post to run — successfully as it turns out — for national office. All of which means the sights and sounds of election campaigning are fresh in the mind of any reader who lives in Japan.

Those boards are called senkyo postā keijiba (election poster posting places) and are set up with public funds to provide a standard, regulated place in which all candidates can post their campaign posters together. I've rarely seen anyone stop to actually look at the posters, which carry little information beyond the candidate's photo, name and party affiliation. If the whole arrangement seems like a throwback to an earlier era, that's because it is.

The use of printed materials in election campaigning has been severely restricted since 1925, when Japanese lawmakers enacted various reforms to control campaign spending. The idea was to remove the advantage wealthy candidates would have over those without money by giving every candidate the same opportunities. One of the famous reforms at that time was a complete prohibition of door-to-door canvassing (kobetsu hōmon), because restricting campaigning to public places was thought to reduce the opportunity to buy votes.

"In most developed countries, candidates are free to campaign in any way they like as long as it isn't explicitly prohibited," an official with the election division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications explained when I went by to discuss your question. "But in Japan, it's the other way around: candidates can't do anything unless it's specifically allowed."

The official showed me a copy of the current law that regulates election activities, which was enacted in 1950 and is as thick as a telephone directory. Its official title is the Kōshokusenkyo-hō (Public Offices Election Act), but it contains so many prohibitions that some people refer to it as the "bekarazu-hō," which I'll translate a little loosely as the "no can do" law.

Unfortunately for those of us with tender ears, one campaign activity that is allowed is the use of bull horns when stumping on street corners, which is called gaitō enzetsu. Another campaign practice that frays nerves is when candidates drive around in vehicles using loudspeakers to broadcast their names and ask for support. This is called renko, and is also completely legal, although amplification is allowed only between eight in the morning and eight at night.

As an aside, all that name-calling seemed a little less galling when I learned that, unlike in many other countries where candidates' names are provided on the ballots and voters only have to check their choices, the electorate in Japan has to write in the names of the candidates for whom they are voting. This is why candidates go to such lengths to try to get voters to remember their names.

But getting back to your question, responsibility for erecting and dismantling the temporary posting places falls to local governments (shichōson), who contract the work out to private companies. If two elections are happening simultaneously, as was the case in Tokyo this year, posting places will have separate boards for the national and local elections.

The posting places are provided by the government, and candidates receive subsidies toward the cost of their posters, but the actual posting has to be done by the candidates or their supporters. That's easier said than done, when you consider the sheer number of posting places: Each voting district has between five and 10 temporary posting places, with the actual number determined by a formula that takes into account the area of the district as well as the number of registered voters. In the relatively small jurisdiction of Inage Ward in the city of Chiba, for example, which has 23 voting districts and about 126,000 registered voters, a total of 175 temporary posting places were erected this year. In Tokyo, which has over 10 million registered voters, there were more than 14,000 different posting places.

You asked about the numbers on the board, which are place assignments. On the morning of the official start of the campaign period, candidates gather to draw lots for their place on the board, with higher positions and places near the edge considered more desirable. A well organized campaign will have supporters waiting near the posting places, and will communicate their campaign's assigned number by telephone or email, in order to get posters rigged up quickly in as many locations as possible.

"It's a lot of work to get the posters up, and they seem to be of limited usefulness in this day and age," one campaign manager told me, off the record. "And we know sound trucks are unpopular because of the noise. If our candidates get elected, perhaps we can get the law updated to address new technologies including the Internet, but until then, we have little choice but to make full use of the few campaign tools that are legally available to us."