Thanks to Japan’s fairness guidelines, NHK offers free air time to all political parties participating in national and regional elections, a service that earlier this month resulted in the leader of the Party to Protect Citizens From NHK, which advocates the elimination of NHK’s mandatory viewing fees, appearing on the broadcaster and calling for its destruction.

Otherwise, the official campaign for the House of Councilors election has been pretty boring, since those fairness guidelines restrict the press from covering any candidate or party more than any other candidate or party during the designated period. It’s one reason why they conduct so many voter surveys: It’s an ostensibly equitable form of newsgathering. Although results differed in terms of how much better one party was doing compared to another, they all pointed to two outcomes: The ruling Liberal Democratic Party would, again, win a sizable majority and voter turnout would be low, maybe lower than ever.

These two projections are closely related in that, traditionally, lower turnout benefits the LDP. They also feed on each other, further dampening public interest with the feeling that voting is pointless if the outcome is already so certain. This aspect was taken up by literary critic Minako Saito in her July 10 column in Tokyo Shimbun. Saito wasn’t convinced the LDP would win by such a huge margin and she believed that there was still room for surprises. Citing surveys that found around half of respondents undecided, she suggested that the electorate’s determination was still “fluid.”

Moreover, in an ANN telephone survey that was conducted on July 13 and 14, 63 percent of 1,025 respondents said they either had already voted or definitely would vote, while a further 22 percent said they intended to vote. So maybe low turnout wasn’t a sure thing, either? Limited as to what they could cover, the mainstream media had been looking at efforts to increase turnout, especially among young people. Much of this coverage has only been interesting in a trivial sort of way. Outdoor apparel maker Patagonia Inc., known for its progressive social agenda, said it would close all stores in Japan on election day so that its 470 or so employees can vote. The ramen chain Ippudo launched a pun-fueled campaign to get patrons to the polls by offering a refill of noodles or an egg if they showed proof they had voted. Meanwhile, Hiruneko Books offered free vegetables to anyone who either voted on election day or had submitted an absentee ballot beforehand.

Such isolated attempts have had little effect. More substantial is the work of self-styled “comedian-journalist” Nana Takamatsu and her organization, Shokasonjuku, which implements outreach programs in regions that are notorious for low voter turnout. A July 13 article in the Asahi Shimbun described one program that took place at a high school in Aomori Prefecture. The comedian Black Samurai asked 25 students if they were planning to vote, and only two raised their hands. He then told them if only older people voted, then the resulting government would only support policies that favor older people.

This last point is the focus of Takamatsu’s activism, as exemplified by a video aimed at young people. Basically a Japanese version of a viral ad that appeared last year prior to the American midterm elections to prod youngsters to go to the polls, the Shokasonjuku video features various older Japanese folks cynically telling young people not to vote so as to benefit older people’s interests, the implication being that young people can’t complain that nothing ever changes if they don’t bother to advance their own interests through voting.

Takamatsu’s message, however, doesn’t take into account the received wisdom that most Japanese voters, including young people, value stability or, at least, claim to when they talk to pollsters. 

In her column, Saito pointed to Reiwa Shinsengumi, a new progressive party formed by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto, as posing an alternative to the usual electoral politics. Yamamoto is fielding 10 candidates whom Saito describes as “on-site experts,” meaning they have had real-life involvement with the election’s most topical issues. Two candidates have physical disabilities, another is a once homeless single mother and one is Toru Hasuike, the brother of a former North Korean abductee. There is also a former convenience store franchise owner, a transvestite professor and an ex-currency dealer. Most interesting is Yoshimasa Nohara, a member of the religious group Soka Gakkai who is running against the leader of Komeito, the ruling coalition partner connected to Soka Gakkai. Many Soka Gakkai members are disillusioned with the party because of its alliance with the LDP, whose security policies seem to be at odds with the religion’s peace doctrine.

Saito says that Yamamoto’s strategy, which also involves possibly sacrificing his own Upper House seat, challenges the idea that things can’t change in Japanese politics. The New York-based documentary filmmaker, Kazuhiro Soda, said as much in an essay for the online Magazine 9: Reiwa Shinsengumi’s disadvantage is that, as a new party with no elected members, it has less access to TV, still the main source of information for voters in Japan, even if TV news hardly covered any party due to the fairness rules. And yet, since launching Reiwa Shinsengumi in April, Yamamoto had collected more than ¥250 million in contributions as of July 5, thus proving that there is an appetite for the kind of politics he is pushing.

Sunday’s results will show if Reiwa Shinsengumi is merely a good story or a bet the electorate wants to make, but it’s worth noting that one of the main reasons given by young people for not voting is that they don’t understand politics. Keeping political mechanisms obscure benefits the powers that be, and thus it is beholden on opposition forces to make the process transparent to those who feel disenfranchised. That seems to be one of Yamamoto’s aims, and if he succeeds, then more power to him — literally.

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