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Friday, Sept. 12, 2008

Can YouTube cure political apathy?

Staff writer

Thanks to video-sharing Web sites like YouTube, it has become easier to broadcast and share video clips with the world, whether it's a short film shot with a cell phone or an elaborately choreographed movie.

News photo
Digital soapbox: Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa appears in a video posted on YouTube. KAZUAKI NAGATA PHOTO

Inevitably, politicians are among those taking advantage of Google-operated YouTube, which boasts 250 million users worldwide, as a promotional tool.

While the best-known political use of YouTube may be the last couple of fierce U.S. presidential elections, Japanese politicians are riding the wave as well, although the election law here bans the use of online promotional tools during official campaign periods.

Content varies from party to party, but seven parties have been actively uploading original video clips since December, when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party started its own YouTube channel.

An LDP spokesman said the party initially ran its own Web site and e-mail magazine to spread the word on its activities.

"When we evaluated ourselves on reaching out to younger people who tend to use the Internet more and unaffiliated voters who may not be interested in politics, we didn't think we were doing a good job," he said.

Young Japanese tend to be bored by politics in general. This is why many parties are trying to get their policies out there and explain social issues in simple and "softer" ways, using visual aids rather than relying on an overwhelming amount of dense text.

However, the LDP spokesman said the party was a bit reluctant to upload lighter content on its official Web site out of fear of criticism the party isn't serious about politics.

The party decided to create another site mostly made up of lighter and amusing content to differentiate it from the main Web page.

That's when the LDP turned to the hugely popular YouTube and ultimately created its own channel last December.

"Of course, we have to have serious content because that's our job," the spokesman said. However, "to introduce the party, we need to use some kind of light content."

For instance, the LDP has promoted tours of the Diet building and party headquarters with its lawmakers, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who himself appeared in a promotion video, and received huge turnouts.

Other parties are coming up with their own ways to provide content that doesn't induce headaches.

New Party Nippon leader Yasuo Tanaka and Social Democratic Party chief Mizuho Fukushima often appear in their parties' video clips to discuss social issues and chat with guests.

The SDP's site has a video showing Fukushima shopping before April 1, when prices were raised on various food and other products, and then again after that date to note the difference.

New Komeito uploads its information with videos of an anchorwoman in a studio made to look like a TV news set.

The Democratic Party of Japan offers "manga"-style comic strip videos to promote its policies.

A DPJ spokesman acknowledged the popularity of YouTube and the party's need to prepare content that makes politics more approachable.

"We have been uploading regular press conferences on our official Web site, but the site is mainly text-based," he said. "We are interested in using more videos."

Because politics can sometimes be hard to understand, the spokesman said he hopes YouTube will act as a gateway for people to learn about the issues and the DPJ.

He said the party is mindful about keeping content short because long clips will bore viewers. The DPJ mainly uses YouTube to familiarize people with politics and the party, while the official Web site is dedicated to getting out detailed policies, he said.

The Japanese Communist Party and Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) have been uploading videos on their regular political activities, including street speeches and segments from the House of Representative Budget Committee.

One JCP clip from a committee hearing in February in which party chief Kazuo Shii talks about temp staffing and its related law has been viewed more than 60,000 times. It has also drawn about 80 comments, some of which praise Shii's articulation of the temp staff problem.

Given YouTube's popularity, online videos could be a solution to Japanese political apathy by drawing the attention of Internet users toward politics.

But because the Public Offices Election Law bans online promotion as a campaign tool, parties must stop updating the content on their Web sites once campaigning kicks off.

It is a good sign that parties are getting into cyberspace to promote their activities, said Jin Igarashi, a political science professor at Hosei University in Tokyo.

"I think it's very good. Political parties should provide information as much as possible to ensure citizens are informed," said Igarashi, a frequent blogger himself.

But he added that online promotions have one snag.

"With the Internet, people don't check it unless they want to. You might get leaflets coincidentally on the street, and you might happen to see something on TV. But you never see something online unless you access that site."

Nevertheless, it is a good medium for getting people interested in politics, he said.

"We scholars also have to try hard and think of ways for students to better understand political issues and to be interested in politics," he said.

"It's probably hard (for political parties) to spread their message in conventional ways, so I think it's natural to try to make efforts to find creative ways to do that."

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