No-Net politics in tech-wise Japan

Ban on Web as election tool hampers campaigns

September 11, 2005|By Bruce Wallace | Bruce Wallace,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO - Were it not for the Internet, Takafumi Horie might not have become the richest, brashest Japanese entrepreneur of his generation.

And were he not so rich and brash, he might never have caught the eye of Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's prime minister, and become a celebrity candidate for Parliament, running as an ally of Koizumi in today's election.

But the T-shirt-wearing, spiky-haired founder of Livedoor, a Japanese Web portal and huge e-commerce site, can't use the Internet or any other digital technology to make his case.

No home pages. No blogs. No spam mailings and certainly no fundraising. It's all essentially against the law in one of the most technology-obsessed nations on Earth.

For Horie, 32, those edicts are like telling President Bush he can't campaign with Karl Rove.

"I need to get to the people in the area, and I keep thinking: If only I had the freedom to use phone mail, photo mail, viral marketing and ring tones to get my message across," Horie lamented last week before an audience in Tokyo.

"But most Diet members don't know how to use the Internet," he said, pointing to lawmakers' discomfort with technology as more evidence that Japan's political class is out of touch.

Using the Internet for political ends is not, strictly speaking, outlawed. It simply falls outside the category of admissible campaigning. The ban on digital politics has its roots in the Public Office Election Law passed in 1950, which anticipated the age of spam by outlawing the "distribution of documents and graphics to unspecified general public."

So door-to-door campaigning is illegal, as are billboards and neon signs. Fliers can be distributed at campaign events only if folded, and to the general public only if inserted into newspapers.

Lanterns with a candidate's name are fine, as long as the name is not a millimeter larger than 85 centimeters by 45 centimeters. Supporters can wear sashes promoting their politician of choice.

Left out of the political prohibitions are Japan's least-genteel electoral vehicles: trucks and vans that cruise through neighborhoods blaring appeals for the candidate through mounted loudspeakers.

The provisions appear quaint in a country where people seem to be in constant communication over digital networks. Whether on the subway or on the sidewalk, Japanese crowds appear collectively to move with their eyes locked onto their cell phones, thumbing keypads to send e-mail or surf the Net.

"The law was made under the assumption that posters are basically the method for campaigning," wrote Tsuyoshi Kimura, a former Bank of Japan executive who now posts a weekly Web log. Throughout the campaign, Kimura has used his blog to deride the absurdity of banning Internet politicking in a country that prides itself on its advanced information technology.

"They say Japan is an IT superpower?" he wrote Aug. 31. "It's a comedy."

Critics say the oversight is intentional. Japanese politics is a tightly controlled affair in which party grandees handpick and bankroll candidates.

The Internet can be a parallel power base, where activists can organize, raise money and communicate with vast numbers of voters.

But Japan's political cyberspace remains small and thinly populated. Unlike other countries, the Japanese public has shown little appetite for using the Internet as a political forum.

JanJan, a Japanese Web site that emulates a popular South Korean Internet newspaper filled with stories and opinion posted by "citizen reporters," has had limited success since going online in 2003.

"Compared with Koreans, Japanese are hesitant to voice their own opinions," wrote Ken Takeuchi, JanJan's editor, in an essay that tried to explain why Japanese cyberspace remained comparatively apolitical.

But Horie noted, "Even when I'm shaking hands, other people are taking my picture with their cell phones and sending them to their friends.

"So I think - indirectly - we are already using the Internet," he said, smiling.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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