Japan eyes e-politics as political rivalry grows

TOKYO Mon Aug 3, 2009 9:28am EDT

1 of 3. Opposition Democratic Party lawmaker Seiji Ohsaka uses Twitter at his office in Tokyo June 29, 2009. Ohsaka, one of the few Japanese politicians who posts microblogs on Twitter, sees the social networking service as a way to reach disengaged voters.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Caronna

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese opposition lawmaker Seiji Ohsaka was disappointed, if not surprised, when he found he was supposed to stop posting microblogs on social networking service Twitter once the formal campaign begins for an August 30 election.

But as Japanese politicians increasingly eye the Internet as a way to woo independent voters, Ohsaka and others wonder if an outdated ban on cyber campaigning will really hold.

"Really, it will have to be used in campaigns. It is no longer possible to say 'don't use it'," 50-year-old Ohsaka, one of Japan's few tweeting lawmakers and a member of the opposition Democratic Party, told Reuters in an interview.

"Even if our murmurs on Twitter might violate Japan's election law, it is probably impossible to stop it ... even if we are told to cease speaking," he said -- tweeting about the interview even as it was taking place.

Japan's 1950 election law has been interpreted as barring candidates from updating websites, sending e-mails, or tweeting, once the official campaign begins on August 18.

The law, along with voter apathy and a fondness for old-style campaigning has kept cyber politics from taking off in high-tech Japan, where around 70 percent are plugged into the Internet.

That means Japanese politicians' cyber strategies lag far behind the sort of organized effort seen in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, where Barack Obama's campaign reached out through online videos, social networking sites and text messages to motivate vast numbers of voters and raise money.

Momentum for change, however, is building as competition heats up after a half century of almost unbroken rule by Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The opposition Democrats, who surveys show have a good shot at ousting the conservative ruling party and ending its half-century of almost unbroken rule, have already came out in favor of lifting the Internet ban in their policy outline.

The fraying of traditional voter blocks such as farm co-ops and unions and the growing clout of independent voters, who now account for up to 50 percent of the electorate against 20 percent in the 1980s, means cyber-savvy politicians will have an edge.

"Parties are being asked to link with individuals. In order to do so, they will have to deploy various methods and the Internet is likely to play a big role in this," said Etsushi Tanifuji, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University.

SOME WARY, CHANGE AFOOT

Many ruling party politicians have been wary of reform.

"When vested interests face a turning point with the appearance of a new type of media, they feel threatened and it has been hard for them to give a green light," said Yoshikazu Iwabuchi, a professor at Nihon University in Tokyo.

Change, however, is already afoot.

With online politicking outside the official campaign period permitted, blogs by lawmakers and YouTube videos of cabinet ministers are becoming more prevalent.

The LDP has revamped its website, which now features an animated cartoon portraying Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama as a smooth-taking suitor full of fuzzy promises and an interactive quiz about Prime Minister Taro Aso.

The Democrats, for their part, broadcast news conferences live online and provide downloadable games.

Online donations are not accepted on either party's website and most prominent politicians shun social networking sites.

But some in the private sector are trying to change that.

Japanese Internet shopping mall operator Rakuten Inc said in July that it would soon start a Website accepting individual political donations by credit cards.

And Internet search engine Google Inc has started a service in Japan where candidates and parties can answer questions from users on YouTube.

Legal barriers aside, experts say another barrier to the spread of cyber politics persists: voter apathy toward politics.

Only about 22 percent of Japanese voters said they received information online for the last election in 2005, a survey by Tetsuro Inaba of Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo found.

That compared with 40 percent in the United States for the 2008 presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center.

"When voters mature and develop interest in politics, then the Internet for the first time may be able to contribute to democracy," Nihon University's Iwabuchi said.

(Editing by Linda Sieg and Sugita Katyal)

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