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Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008

Japan lags U.S. in using Net to mobilize voters

Staff writer

When Tadamasa Kimura says he is envious of Barack Obama's victorious campaign to become president of the United States, it's not because he's an unsuccessful aspirant to political office.

Instead, the University of Tokyo professor is a specialist in the information society who laments that Japan has so far been unable to make full use of the Internet to attract young voters.

"Unfortunately Japan doesn't have an 'Obama girl,' and it seems Internet use doesn't necessarily encourage political action or voter turnout," Kimura said during a conference in which he was a panelist.

Kimura expressed his admiration for the U.S. grassroots campaign that used blogs, video-sharing sites and other Web-based content to help inject enthusiasm in young U.S. voters during the recent campaign.

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo hosted a digital video conference Nov. 20 as part of International Education Week, a U.S.-sponsored initiative to highlight the benefits of international exchanges of dialogue. The session attracted more than 100 experts and university students from Japan and the U.S. to debate the role that the new media plays in political participation among young voters.

Speaking from a conference room in Washington, Henry Farrell, a political scientist at George Washington University, explained how, especially in the Obama campaign, young volunteers were able to take advantage of new technology and use it to mobilize people around them in ways that were unprecedented.

Social networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook kept supporters updated and connected to the campaign, as well as serving as a platform for online political discussions. YouTube circulated various Obama-related videos, helping raise his political profile and attract a record amount of campaign contributions.

Farrell said such activities reflected "a genuine modest revolution in the ways that participation works in America."

In sharp contrast, Japanese youngsters have little interest in politics partly because politicians don't appeal to them, Japanese panelists said.

"Japan's youth tend to be indifferent to politics," said Yuki Okubo, a University of Tokyo student and staff member of dot-jp, a nongovernmental organization specializing in sending student interns to offices of Diet members.

Politicians are considered uncool, and "they bow too often," during campaigns, he said, a behavior well depicted in the 2007 documentary "Campaign."

In the film, which offers an insider view of Japanese electoral politics, a rookie political candidate is instructed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to even "bow toward telephone poles."

Asked by a U.S. student what was so "uncool" about Japanese politicians, Okubo explained that, for example, during the campaign season, candidates often stand in front of train stations or parks, giving speeches to mostly indifferent passersby — a bleak scene compared with the glitzy image attached to American political campaigns.

Even if lawmakers want to use the Internet for campaigning, political parties are legally banned from using the Net as a campaign tool during elections, making it difficult for them to reach out to young voters, said panelist Sadayuki Shimizu, a staff member in the public relations and advertising bureau of the LDP's junior coalition partner, New Komeito.

Under the 58-year-old Public Offices Election Law, the "literature and images" that political parties can hand out to the public during campaign periods are limited to handbills and postcards.

Although obviously outdated in the Internet age, the law has not been revised, although the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, submitted a bill to the Diet in 2006 to lift the ban. An official at the communications ministry, which oversees election policies, said the bill "remains under deliberation."

During the 2007 Upper House election, however, both the LDP and DPJ were seen updating their Web sites during the campaign, taking advantage of loopholes in the election law. Their justification was that it was part of their general political activities and not related to election campaigns.

Despite the regulation, this move shows that use of Web sites, blogs and video-sharing sites for election campaigning will inevitably increase in the future, panelists agreed.

In some cases, George Washington University's Farrell said, blogs are "changing the way in which the media works," and forcing the media to gear toward the left or the right to attract attention.

Blogs are likely to become a dominant news source compared with traditional media, including newspapers and TV broadcasters, he said, citing a conversation he had with an editor of a prominent political journal who said he expected the publication to disappear in three to four years, due to the prominence of blogs.

Okubo of dot-jp said although social networking sites such as Mixi are popular in Japan, users rarely leave political comments in their diaries. He said he didn't know of any other places besides personal blogs where youths went to express their thoughts on politics, again reflecting the low degree of interest among the younger generation.

Speaking on behalf of the Japanese participants in the event, the University of Tokyo's Kimura said he believes the discussions made it clear that Japan needs to think of ways to offer more active and open use of the Internet.

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