Business / Tech

19-year-old CEO creates app to bring Japan’s voters and politicians together

by Kantaro Komiya

Contributing Writer

A 19-year-old Keio University student is aspiring to bridge the gap between politicians and citizens, especially young people, with an online platform app called PoliPoli that uses innovative technologies to facilitate communications between them.

Kazuma Ito, CEO of PoliPoli Inc., believes most voters seldom get an opportunity for direct contact with politicians except during elections, and the distance between them has not narrowed despite online political campaigning being legalized in 2013 and the voting age being lowered from 20 to 18 in 2016.

Seiji (politics) may seem very square, yet that’s not the actual case,” Ito said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. It’s about real people with real concerns, such as improving narrow roads or addressing the problem of child abuse, he explained.

“I don’t necessarily care about the day-to-day political currents, but the system of politics must be changed,” Ito said of why he launched his startup in February. “Business is all about solving social issues.”

After casting a ballot for the first time last October in the Lower House election, Ito and his first-year classmates at Keio University launched a prototype of PoliPoli for a mayoral election in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, the following month.

The app showed the profiles and platforms of the five candidates — all newcomers who were running as independents — and featured bulletin boards where voters could ask them questions directly. It was downloaded by around 1,000 users, Ito recalled.

With the tag line “We entertain politics,” PoliPoli has attracted substantial attention in both the political and venture investment worlds.

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is expected to challenge Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s September presidential election, and Yuichiro Tamaki, co-leader of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, have already appeared on PoliPoli.

Ito intends to upgrade the app by introducing tokens (incentives given as rewards) to people who post comments that draw support from other participants, rate those of others and fill in questionnaires. Politicians who join the platform and earn “likes” from the app’s users can also get tokens.

Contentious political issues often trigger flaming or trolling in online discussion boards. Ito hopes to ward off such situations by introducing “Polin tokens” that won’t be awarded to those who post slanderous or abusive comments.

PoliPoli plans to start distributing the Polin tokens in September in preparation for the unified local and Upper House elections next year.

The startup eventually aims to enable citizen users to donate the tokens to politicians they endorse. Once politicians collect enough Polins from supporters, they will be able to purchase data about voters collected by PoliPoli, which can be used in formulating their policy plans and campaign strategies.

After demand for Polins grows sufficiently and liquidity increases, Ito’s company plans to enable holders to exchange the tokens at virtual currency bourses and use them for financial transactions.

The concept is called the “token economy,” where users are incentivized to earn the rewards by contributing to the community since the value of the tokens might grow in the future, just like corporate stocks, along with the expansion of the economy.

“Everyone around us suggested politics wouldn’t be an easy and profitable business,” Ito said. But he found huge potential for innovation in the political field, after learning that the existing market of political donations in Japan is worth some ¥200 billion annually.

Incentivization is the core function of PoliPoli’s token economy structure, and Ito may have learned its merits during his childhood in a Nagoya suburb.

His parents rewarded him with collectible card packs if he studied hard, a practice that helped him get into prestigious Tokai High School.

At the school “filled with a free, edgy, we-can-do-anything vibe” and many geniuses, Ito pursued interests other than studying, such as dancing, that seemed “cool.” Hooked on the hip-hop culture, he even made two short trips to New York to study dance.

Ito’s sense of coolness then spilled over into haiku. “I imagined it would be so cool if young people composed haiku on the streets of Harajuku in Tokyo,” he said.

For Ito, both hip-hop and haiku are countercultures, with the latter born by minimizing the verses of tanka, and such inclinations may underlie his current status as a social entrepreneur.

He found that opportunities for haiku composers to post their works were limited — almost none on the internet — and that frustration led him to give himself a two-month crash course in coding after entering Keio University and developing the mobile app Haiku Tefutefu, a social media platform where composers could post their haiku. It was downloaded by thousands of devotees.

“Such a service used to incur exorbitant costs to produce, but now an 18-year-old can create this level of communication among people,” Ito said. “It’s really the age of empowered individuals.”

He later worked for a Fukuoka-based venture capital business and there began to get a handle on Japan’s startup scene. The one field that seemed to him to have no “cool” services was politics.

Ito believes that the ecosystem of investors and startups in Japan is too small. The number of entrepreneurs is “two digits smaller” than it should be, he said. In particular, Ito is calling on his fellow students to challenge the status quo because they bear relatively little risk.

“Once I start, I shouldn’t drop the ball. I’ll do it seriously,” Ito said of his ambition to introduce a brand-new political system in Japan. “The field of politics involves substantial risks . . . but taking the risks brings me some intriguing sights I have never seen.”