On Tuesday, 1,370 Japanese stopped blogging and Twittering. There’s perhaps nothing unusual about that; after all, hundreds give up social media efforts every day. But for these people the halt to their online activities has been brought on by the law.
No, they haven’t done anything wrong. But they are candidates in Japan’s upcoming national election, and with the official 12-day campaigning window now underway, online communication is off-limits.
It’s the result of a 59-year-old election law that has failed to keep up with the times. In an era when politicians are turning to the Internet to interact with potential voters and mobilize a support base something demonstrated so vividly by U.S. President Obama in his election campaign Japanese politicians are restricted to stump speeches, leaflets and posters, and those are regulated too. The law also goes against the grain moves by other governments such as that of the U.K. which recently launched a policy document to explain to government officials how to use Twitter.
“Today is the beginning of campaigning. I must end Twitter today, I feel it’s unreasonable,” wrote Seiji Ohsaka, a lawmaker from the northern island of Hokkaido, to his 6,361 followers on Twitter.
The Public Offices Election Law doesn’t specifically ban use of the Internet, but it does place restrictions on the use of literature and images in campaigning, and that has been interpreted by all to include the Internet.
The result is that during election campaigns in Japan, the airwaves are not filled with political commercials and streets are not covered in posters. Election billboards, with a space allotted to each candidate for an 83cm-by-58cm poster, are erected throughout cities, and candidates are allowed to distribute only a limited number of posters. Leaflets must be counted and numbered.
Candidates get a brief slot on public television, usually in the early or late-night hours when few are watching, to make their pitch. The rest of the time it’s down to campaigning in neighborhoods, walking through the streets and making speeches outside railway stations.
It’s all designed, the law’s defenders say, to stop the candidate with the deepest pockets from dominating the race.
But the law has an increasing number of critics, and not just Twittering politicians. Voter turnout among the young is poor and some believe it’s because the old-fashioned way of campaigning has failed to energize a population that is surrounded by digital media from the day they are born.
“The Internet must be made available for election campaigns as soon as possible,” the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-largest newspaper, wrote in a recent editorial.
But the Aug. 30 election could be the law’s last stand.
If you believe the opinion polls, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is on the verge of a historic defeat. After more than 50 years of rule, broken only once for a few months, Japanese voters look set to reject the party and hand control of the powerful lower house to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. The DPJ already controls the upper house and plans some swift changes should it win at the polls.
Among those is likely to be the election law.