In the June 15 book review section of the Asahi Shimbun, University of Tokyo professor Shigeki Uno discussed several new books about changing political sensibilities in Japan. He writes that the traditional ideological conflict has always been between hoshu (conservatism) and kakushin (reformism), whose respective adherents tend to fight over things like constitutional reform and national security. Today’s young people see the face-off differently. To them, kakushin basically means “change,” but they don’t think about the direction of that change. Instead, they focus on its impact on “vested interests.”
Consequently, their view of existing political parties differs from that of their elders, who consider the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) as being reformist and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) conservative. People under 30, however, see the JCP as being conservative and the somewhat reactionary Ishin no Kai reformist. Policy positions are not as relevant as the perceived capacity to shake up the system.
This tendency hasn’t been lost on the LDP, which is definitely trying to take advantage of it ahead of next month’s Upper House election. At the end of April, the LDP released a video featuring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe communing with a teenage BMX rider and hip-hop artists, insisting he wants to “create the future” with them. The party also commissioned artist Yoshitaka Amano of “Final Fantasy” fame to design a poster for it based on a manga-like “Seven Samurai” motif.
The aim of the LDP campaign is to infiltrate the opposition’s stronghold, social media, with the hashtag #自民党2019 (LDP2019). The person charged with this mission is former state minister for administrative reforms, Akira Amari, who, according to weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, is using his connection with publishing house Kodansha, which published a policy overview by Amari last fall. Bunshun thinks Kodansha is beholden to Amari because his supporters bought a lot of copies of the book and Kodansha wants the government to push for stricter anti-piracy legislation.
The result was a photo spread for Kodansha’s fashion magazine ViVi featuring female models wearing T-shirts with the LDP logo as well as slogans referring to positions that supposedly appeal to young people, such as equal rights, animal welfare and cultural diversity. The piece sparked a backlash from people who wondered if it was ethical to run it. The chief editor of the print version of ViVi — the spread only appeared online — was apparently against the idea, and Bunshun revealed that Kodansha was upset when it discovered the LDP was offering the depicted T-shirt as a “present” to readers, since that could be seen as a violation of political campaign laws. The publisher thought the purpose of the piece was simply to encourage greater voter turnout.
Even some LDP supporters frowned, telling Bunshun that it was all the idea of Amari and his pet advertising agency, Starbase, which also produced the Amano poster and the video. The agency assured Bunshun that they had worked closely with Kodansha on the project.
In addition to the video, Abe has been doing his fair share of promoting the youth angle. On May 10 he went out for pizza with the aging boy band Tokio, and on May 22 invited two actors appearing in a current hit film to the prime minister’s residence. One of the actors, Mitsuki Takahata, posted photos on her Instagram account, complete with a comment from Abe. The Tokio rendezvous got publicized on Abe’s social media accounts, quickly receiving 70,000 likes on Instagram and 280,000 on Twitter, according to the online magazine Litera on May 24.
The posts intrigued Mainichi Shimbun since they contained images of Tokio, whose management company, Johhny & Associates, Inc., is famous for prohibiting photos of its charges on the internet. The company didn’t answer the newspaper’s request for a comment. Litera surmised that, despite the violation of its photo embargo, the agency saw the advantage in having its artists dine with the prime minister. Johhny & Associates, Inc. isn’t the only show business entity the LDP is courting. Such companies see Abe as a celebrity rather than as a politician with an agenda. These show biz summits are covered voraciously by daytime news shows, which could not care less about policy or even propriety ahead of a national election.
But one media outlet that has called foul is the tabloid Nikkan Gendai. On April 20, Abe appeared at an Osaka theater run by Yoshimoto Kogyo, Japan’s biggest talent agency for comedians. Abe was there as a kind of guest performer, ostensibly to promote the G20 summit in Osaka, and spoke a few scripted comic lines that, according to Gendai, elicited a subdued reaction. Nevertheless, it got lots of play in the media, benefiting both the LDP and Yoshimoto The latter expressed its thanks by dispatching a few comedians, including veteran funnyman and former Diet lawmaker Kiyoshi Nishikawa, to the prime minister’s residence on June 6, where they performed some typically crude skits.
According to Gendai, the LDP and the relevant talent agencies had been planning these opportunities beforehand with the idea that both sides would benefit. Gendai called the gambit “cheap theatrics,” and even one of Yoshimoto’s talent, Daisuke Muramoto of the duo Woman Rush Hour, tweeted that if he had been present at any of the meetings he would have found a way to make fun of the prime minister, implying that a comedian’s job is to challenge authority rather than suck up to it.
It’s not clear if young people are flattered or being fooled by the LDP, and maybe it doesn’t matter. The Asahi Shimbun suggested that young men who came of age during the Democratic Party of Japan’s disastrous stint as ruling party from 2009 to 2012 support the current administration, but only because they think Abe won’t make things worse, which would mean they aren’t really very different from their parents.