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Sunday, Nov. 16, 2003


From manifest destiny to voter apathy

The media kept referring to last week's House of Representatives poll as the "manifesto election," because it was the first time Japan's political parties had spelled out their platforms. The inexperience showed. In their printed versions, the manifestos were considered all but incomprehensible, and more than one commentator said that what the parties needed weren't strategists, but editors.

It became the responsibility of the media itself to explain the parties' plans to the electorate. This responsibility reflected back on itself at the exit polls. One of the questions newspapers and TV reporters asked in these polls was whether or not the manifestos influenced the respondent's vote, but they didn't ask if voters actually read the manifestos or understood them.

Asahi TV reporter Soichiro Tahara, during a round-table discussion last Sunday night, commented that he didn't really find that much substantive difference between the manifestos of the two leading parties. So it wasn't entirely clear what the manifestos in the "manifesto election" accomplished, except to clarify the fact that candidates in the past could sidestep issues. In that regard, the manifestos did serve a purpose. It's already been noted that the Liberal Democratic Party will have to fulfill some of the pledges in their manifesto before next year's Upper House election, otherwise they'll look like charlatans.

TV Asahi was blackballed by the LDP the night of the election. The party's top people refused to do on-air interviews with any of the network's reporters or anchors.

They were angry because during the previous week TV Asahi's "News Station" devoted a whopping 22 minutes to the proposed Cabinet of the Democratic Party of Japan, and on the same show spent only two minutes covering the LDP. According to the gentlemen's agreement regarding equal time during the designated campaign period, the LDP felt TV Asahi was not playing fair. Later, during Tahara's round-table discussion, he brought up the matter, and Midori Matsushima, an LDP lawmaker from Tokyo, lashed out at the network, saying that Asahi's decision amounted to an endorsement of the DPJ. "It's obvious that Asahi wants to change the ruling party itself," she fumed.

She's giving the network too much credit. Regardless of Asahi's politics, the DPJ Cabinet happened to be more newsworthy because of the unusual people it would have contained, including Yasuo Tanaka, the colorful governor of Nagano Prefecture and the DPJ's unofficial "panda bear." Panda bears always get more coverage. Just ask Shinzo Abe, the LDP's panda bear.

One of the buzzwords of the election was seshu, or "inheritance." Political dynasties are common in Japan, but this time the media paid extra attention because there were so many seshu candidates.

The attention wasn't always flattering, or beneficial. The main losers, in fact, were the candidates who drew the most attention: DPJ President Naoto Kan's son, Gentaro, and Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara's third son, Hirotaka.

Gentaro took his defeat in stride, saying that his father lost his first three bids for office and that he would try again. Papa Ishihara campaigned for his son while maintaining that this was not a case of seshu, since Hirotaka was not taking over a seat from him. The media agreed, instead calling Hirotaka's candidacy another opportunity to sell the "Ishihara brand." The entire Ishihara Gundan -- the talent agency once headed by Hirotaka's late movie-star uncle, Yujiro -- was out in force, foisting the boy on the local electorate.

It didn't work, and it was tempting to view Hirotaka's ignominious defeat as a backlash from voters who didn't appreciate being treated like star-struck hicks. But, actually, Hirotaka never had an opportunity to demonstrate his fitness as a potential lawmaker. He was so overshadowed by his family that he wilted under their effusive compliments and sort of faded into the bunting. The voters never formed any idea about him one way or another. And, unlike Gentaro, when he lost he couldn't be found for an interview. It's as if he'd never existed in the first place.

The big news story about the election was the low voter turnout. During its postelection analysis Monday night, "News Station" projected "59.86%" in huge figures on a screen behind the newsdesk, as if the number explained everything. Chikage Ogi, the former construction minister, said on Fuji TV that young people "lack a sense of crisis" and therefore don't see any need to vote. Indeed, street reporters seemed to have no problem finding people who hadn't voted and didn't mind admitting as much on air.

Other commentators said that a Nov. 3 survey, which concluded the LDP would win big, discouraged people by convincing them their vote wouldn't mean anything. Voters whose main concerns were treated as marginal issues -- the integrity of the Constitution, or sending the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq -- didn't think they would make a difference, since the media made it seem as if all anybody cared about was the pension system.

But it always makes a difference. The fewer votes cast for opposition parties means a higher percentage of votes for the ruling party and thus a greater likelihood that the majority will claim a mandate, which is what Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did even though he clearly doesn't have one. This sort of cynicism comes easy when your main hope is that people don't come out to vote, since, as everybody knows, low turnouts benefit the LDP. Who needs manifestos?

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