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Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010

TECHNOLOGY

Petition project lets Web surfers make their mark


Staff writer

As of Tuesday, 84,512 people were united in their call for laws banning restrictions on manga / anime content, at least 8,984 people had endorsed same-sex marriage, and 1,609 individuals wanted Panasonic to keep a speech aid for the physically impaired on the market.

News photo

The public knows about all this — and much more — thanks in part to ShomeiTV, the only professional Web portal in Japan specializing in petitions.

The website, which attracts around 100,000 unique users a month, is run by Yokohama-based IT firm United People, which is perhaps better known in Japan for having created an Internet-based charity service where users can donate to NGOs/NPOs of their choice every time they click on certain Web pages or buy goods from a plethora of sponsor companies.

Kenji Sekine, founder of the social venture, came up with the idea for ShomeiTV 2 1/2 years ago, out of his own futile experience of speaking up about Japan's foreign policy in the Middle East.

"In 2006, when Israel pulled out of Lebanon (which it had invaded), it did so after scattering a million cluster bombs," fumes the 34-year-old entrepreneur, who says the backpacking trips he took to the region in his 20s changed his life and led to him being more socially-minded in businesses.

"I sent my words of protest to the foreign ministry via its website, saying how inhumane the use of the bombs was," says Sekine. "But I heard nothing back. I felt disappointed, and realized that my voice alone wasn't powerful enough."

But it was not a total waste after all, Sekine now recalls, because it inspired the U.S.-educated, Web-savvy businessman to soon hit upon the idea of helping people bond together by signing petitions on the Web. He researched petition sites in the United States, quickly absorbed their knowhow and launched ShomeiTV in March 2008.

To simply sign a petition, you are not charged a fee or asked to register. If you advertise a petition on the site, the company charges ¥3,150 for a three-month project, ¥5,250 for six months and ¥10,500 for a year. Projects are also pre-screened for libel and defamation considerations.

The portal site has a comment section, where people can write their views about the issues in question while signing the petition. It also displays a real-time count of how many signatures have been collected and how that figure compares to their target. In addition, every time the petition organizer updates news about related activities, it automatically gets sent via e-mail to everyone who has signed it.

ShomeiTV has collected nearly a million signatures for more than 1,100 causes. As the site lists petition drives in the order they are filed, as well as by popularity, site visitors can find out what issues are "hot" in Japan at the moment. For example, just above a passionate plea for continued sales of "Let's Chat," Panasonic's speech-aid product, is an NGO-sponsored drive that calls for support for the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which has gathered more than 70 signatures. Below the "Let's Chat" campaign is a petition started by the Japan Gal-mama Association that calls the current government to beef up child support for low-income families instead of the blanket ¥13,000 monthly allowance currently provided for every child — a campaign that has persuaded more than 230 people so far.

Also on the same page, you can see angry fans of professional baseball team Hiroshima Toyo Carps protesting a recent remark by its owner Hajime Matsuda that he "can live with it" even if the team were ranked at the bottom of the Central League. For that, more than 1,100 people have joined the protest. Oh, and there is an urgent demand by concerned citizens to the mayor of Hakodate City, Hokkaido, that the city remove the "ugly" Statue of Liberty statue that suddenly popped up at the foot of Mount Hakodate.

This seemingly disorganized display of petitions has its meaning, Sekine grins.

"We've purposefully mixed in issues from a variety of genres," he said. "I hope that high school students who have come to the site to sign a petition asking for revival of a popular anime program on TV, for example, could potentially become interested in other issues on our site, such as HIV-AIDS infection, child labor in developing countries or environmental protection."

And of course, thanks to the Internet, signing a petition is much easier, as it is not bound by the time or place of the petition. But have Internet-aided petitions actually brought about visible changes in government policy or corporate strategy?

Sekine cites the example of a documentary TV program — in which a passionate fan of the TBS program "CBS Document," featuring noted commentator Peter Barakan, learned that the program would end in March and immediately started a petition on the ShomeiTV site to ask the network to keep it on air.

Hiroko Sugamoto, the petition sponsor, also set up Twitter and Facebook accounts to mobilize forces, which then got picked up by the mainstream media. The number of signatures grew fast — and within two weeks resulted in the network's decision to keep the program.

Other success stories include a revival of a popular konnyaku (a gelatinous food made from the root of the vegetable devil's tongue) jelly, which had once disappeared off store shelves after choking a few babies and elderly people to death, and the government certification of an incurable disease for a sufferer of severe allergy problems, according to the company.

Sekine, who says the revenue from the petition site only comes to about ¥100,000 a month — a fraction of the company's total earnings — is adamant that more people in Japan should be actively engaged in politics. And with the rise of social media, online petitions get greater mileage, bringing like-minded people together more easily and speedily, he says.

"Internet petitions are very powerful," he said. "Of course, you might not be able to move society even if you collected a million signatures on a certain issue. But by having collected those million, you are now connected. And if petitions don't work, you can think of other ways to make changes. It gives people the courage to take action."



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