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Wednesday, July 7, 2004

ELECTION '04

Net-based campaigning still long way off

Interactive stumping remains defined by politicians in loudspeaker trucks


Staff writer

Candidates vying for House of Councilors seats in Sunday's election will not have the luxury of updating their positions or activities via the popular medium of the Internet.

News photo
A candidate in the July 11 House of Councilors election leans out of his campaign vehicle to greet a passerby in Tokyo's Asakusa district.

Most candidates have Web sites, Web logs, or blogs, and e-mail newsletters, but had to put all their information out by the night of June 23, as the Public Offices Election Law does not allow them to update their sites or send any electronic information during the June 24-July 11 campaign period.

They can keep any information that was posted before June 24 up on their sites, as it is still considered part of day-to-day political operations and not campaign activities, which are subject to the election law.

Web-based political activism is believed to have helped Roh Moo Hyun in the final stages of his bid for the South Korean presidency in 2002, and this year's U.S. presidential candidates are using Web pages and blogs to get their messages out and to solicit donations from the public.

But in Japan, a nation of 77 million Internet users, Net-based campaigning has a long way to go -- for both legal and cultural reasons.

The Public Offices Election Law, introduced in 1950, outlines campaign dos and don'ts -- covering such minute details as the size and number of leaflets that candidates can distribute.

Messages posted on the Internet are considered "texts" and therefore are subject to regulation, although the law itself contains no direct reference to the Web or e-mail.

Yuji Tamura, president of fons inc., a Tokyo-based information technology startup, said the government ban on Internet campaigning is out of sync with reality.

"It's wrong to deny people access to real-time information on the Web during the campaign period," Tamura said. "During off-campaign months, no one but politicians' staff check up on the Web sites of individual candidates."

But the Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry insists that controlling the number of campaign documents a candidate releases -- and banning distribution of video clips or e-mails once the campaign period kicks off -- will ensure equal opportunities for all candidates, regardless of their financial resources.

"The rule was introduced as part of our long-running effort to ensure fair elections," said Hiroshi Nishiuchi, an official at the ministry. "Without such a rule, people with lots of money would try to influence the election results."

But experts say the Internet can offer candidates a more level playing field, especially for Upper House elections, where candidates running in the proportional representation segment often spend a lot of time and money campaigning throughout the country.

Hiroshi Miura, president of Tokyo-based election consultancy ASK Co., estimated that every time a candidate running on a party's proportional representation ticket mails a message to 1 million supporters, the postal and printing cost alone is over 100 million yen. With e-mails, that cost would be removed.

A panel of experts in the telecom ministry, led by Ikuo Kabashima, a professor of law at the University of Tokyo, compiled a report in August 2002 recommending the government remove its Internet election campaign curbs so candidates can at least update their Web sites during the official campaign period.

According to the report, the U.S., Britain and France have no legal restrictions on Internet use in campaigns, although authorities do impose some controls on the use of campaign funds for it.

The Democratic Party of Japan submitted a bill to liberalize Internet campaigning during the last Diet session, but it has yet to be passed.

But many politicians are not interested in using the Internet as a campaign tool, a reflection of the large cultural gap that exists between the generations.

Blogs are commonly used to spread political messages in the U.S. But in Japan, they are still considered by many to be only of interest to computer geeks, Tamura said.

"In Japan, active bloggers are not necessarily people who cast votes in elections," he said.

Takashi Uesugi, a freelance journalist and former aide to Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Kunio Hatoyama, said that many politicians, particularly those from rural constituencies, scoff at the idea of Net campaigns.

Even those who do have Web sites still believe in traditional "dobuita" campaigns, he said.

Dobuita, which literally means a board covering a ditch, refers to a style of campaign in which candidates make their way into even the most narrow alleys in their constituencies to talk to as many voters as possible.

"I was once told that, for someone to be elected, he must visit at least 20,000 homes and give 50,000 street speeches," Uesugi said.

Likewise in the race for cash, contributing via the Web has yet to catch on, even though online fundraising is legal if done before the campaign period starts.

The LDP and DPJ once solicited donations from the public on their official Web sites and used an online payment service provided by Tamura's firm.

But both parties recently suspended the program, in part because few people used it.

"Supporters here feel that the most effective way to make a financial contribution to politicians is to go visit their offices and hand them a bundle of 10,000 yen bills," Tamura said, adding that supporters continue to donate in person because they believe that way politicians will better remember where the cash came from.

So for the time being, Japan will continue to see candidates in loudspeaker trucks roll through quiet neighborhoods, blaring out their names.

But as younger generations begin to exert more influence, lawmakers will realize the power of the Internet and try to use it more strategically, Tamura said.

And with the strong mobile phone culture, the day might soon be here when people will start using them to check for real-time information on candidates and last-minute changes to their campaign schedules, said Miura of ASK.



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