A good summary of how the 2019 House of Councilors election has played out online comes via Kazuki Takahashi, the creator of the cartoon “Yu-Gi-Oh!” During his promotion of a new art book, he shared an illustration on his Instagram page that was meant to encourage young people to vote. However, it came with a message from the artist that was critical of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and detailed his worries for Japan’s future.
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Some commenters backed Takahashi’s views, while others criticized him. Many just left a “flame” emoji. And while users on Twitter generally reacted positively to it, those on 2chan digitally rolled their eyes at a celebrity expressing their views before making “Yu-Gi-Oh!”-related jokes. Takahashi soon apologized for getting political with his characters, sharing a lovely photo of a sunset.
This month’s House of Councilors election seems to have attracted more attention online than previous polls. Compared to how politics has conquered social networks and online spaces in the English-speaking world, Japan’s corner of the internet has remained pretty chill (and let’s see what turnout is like before attributing any real-world impact). Still, political discussion seemed to go up among netizens, whether it was spirited get-out-the-vote cheers or conspiracy theory-laden analysis.
One of the biggest developments has come from how many celebrities talked about the election.
Actor Kanna Hashimoto encouraged people to vote and Yu Shirota zeroed in on the issue of the consumption tax hike. As the more famous types spoke up, they were met with predictable pushback from those who don’t care to hear from the privileged. In addition to the furor surrounding Takahashi’s art, model and TV personality Loveli said she had lost followers on Instagram after getting political.
While celebs were slammed, online outlets and content creators seemed to strike gold with their election-related content. The most notable came from Nana Takamatsu, who offered up a Japanese version of an American political ad that featured older people imploring the young not to vote. It racked up views and inspired think pieces.
BuzzFeed Japan leaned into the election with articles tackling topics such as loudspeaker-equipped trucks and get-out-the-vote campaigns, while other sites cut to the point and shared lists outlining what each party stands for (independent netizens did the same for specific issues such as same-sex marriage).
True to form, Twitter created a hashtag, but it also caught some criticism from popular YouTuber Seyarogai Ojisan. The internet personality shared a video that claimed Twitter had shadowbanned him, although he had no clue why. Commenters speculated that it was due to the political nature of his output, which the platform didn’t want popping up too much ahead of the election. That might be a stretch, but these days everyone seems a little on edge.
The election has also generated a lot of distrust toward mainstream media. One 11-second-long clip that spread via Twitter claimed to show an official in the city of Akune saying that early ballots were being “controlled” by the election committee, with a handful of netizens taking this to mean Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been manipulating things.
A clip of a man being dragged away by police while screaming “Abe resign” during one of the prime minister’s speeches also went viral, with many wondering why the protester couldn’t do that, comparing it to an instance when U.S. President Donald Trump supporters crashed a speech by his predecessor, Barack Obama, only for the former president to defuse the situation while still acknowledging their freedom to speak their minds. This, coupled with the usual rush of posts claiming certain parties weren’t getting enough media attention, therefore revealed a secret bias.
What really defines this election, however, is how young it feels. The parties and the media have been targeting younger voters: the Reiwa Shinsengumi party is using eye-catching posters that channel “Avengers: Endgame,” while Abe — on a roll since his beaver knocker Instagram post — celebrates LDP candidates.
Even the traditional elements of Japanese democracy, such as candidates appearing on NHK to appeal to the masses, have felt a bit more like viral bait or a gold mine of memes. And then, Steven Seagal showed up for some reason?
Candidates have learned that going all in on the internet can attract a younger demographic, while online publications have seen the click bonanza that political content has created abroad and want to replicate it here. As of now pundits are predicting a pitiful turnout, however, so it may not be the time to permanently park those noisy election vans just yet.