Japan's Cyber-Savvy Pols

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2001

Politicians in Japan are finally wising up to the ways of the Web.

by Chiaki Kitada

YOU CAN'T TALK ABOUT politics without looking into Web sites these days. John McCain, a former Republican presidential candidate in the US, raised $6.4 million from online contributions in the presidential campaign last year. Are Japanese politicians using the Net? If so, are they using it differently? They do, after all, operate in a different kind of environment than their Western counterparts, one in which they network through attending marriages and funerals of constituents, and big gatherings for organizational voters are often inevitable tasks.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi surprised the country's Netizens by starting in mid-June an easy-to-read weekly email magazine conveying his personal thoughts, combined with essays contributed by his Cabinet members. Meru maga, as email newsletters are called, are hugely popular here, since they cut down on Net surfing costs. There are an estimated 50,000 meru maga in publication in Japan.

In spite of the prime minister's extraordinary popularity, nobody expected such an explosion of Koizumi meru maga subscribers. More than 2 million signed up within a month after the preview came out. The topics are simple and straightforward: "a public figure for 24 hours," "impressive sports," "how to cope with stress," et cetera. The figure measures up against media giants like some national newspapers. A special report in the July 12 issue put the number of subscribers at 2.11 million, equivalent to 5.7 percent of Japan's 37.2 million Internet users and 1.4 percent of Japan's total population of 126.9 million. Male subscribers make up two-thirds, and one-third of them are in their thirties. Macromill.com Research surveyed Koizumi meru maga readers in June, soon after the first issue came out: About half the respondents did not have much interest in politics before, and a little more than half were frustrated with the lack of discussion about policies.

Netizens are also flexing their muscles by creating Web sites where they rank the page views of pols' sites and evaluate their activities. Koichi Kato, a core LDP Diet member who attempted a revolt against the Cabinet ruled by his own party last November, made clear the power of the Net in Japanese politics. Almost 190,000 viewers visited his home page at the peak and filled his BBS with stormy debates. In another instance of Net power, the active online networking of katteren, volunteer support groups, helped the current governors in Nagano, Tochigi, and Chiba prefectures to win their seats, by defeating the efforts of organizational voters.

Satoshi Shima, a Diet member of the Democratic Party of Japan, said at a press conference in July, "People hesitate to talk frankly to Diet members face to face, but they send us straightforward messages by email. [In this way,] consumers and taxpayers could become key players in politics."

Given the sluggish economy, political parties can't rely on corporate donations as much as they did in the past. The Democratic Party of Japan introduced an online contribution system by using an American credit card and settlement companies in early July. "Japanese credit card companies don't deal with political contributions because of some - conventional reasons," says party spokesman Ichiro Nakayama. (Card companies and their associated banks want to avoid specific political affiliations.) The LDP has launched a campaign contribution system that includes i-mode. But party spokesman Keiji Kuribayashi says, "You can use only 503i or more advanced models, because the older versions don't have the SSL security function required by the credit card companies."

The developer of the system is fons, an ASP company specializing in online donations. The company tested its pilot version in April for then LDP presidential candidate Koizumi's home page, which was set up by katteren volunteers. The site raised over JPY 1 million in contributions within two weeks. This system allows individuals to make a minimum JPY 500 donation by paying through VISA or Master Card. Founded in May this year, fons is getting quite a few inquiries from politicians and NPOs. The company charges JPY 50,000 for the initial setup and JPY 10,000 in monthly maintenance fees. Hiroshige Sekou, an LDP Diet member and the first user of the system, describes it as "democracy from your palm." Nakayama of the DPJ is doubtful young keitai users have much money after their monthly contributions to keitai carriers, but says, "People could donate small amounts of money, when they like his or her speech performed on a street. It's like throwing coins to your favorite actor or actress as tips."

On the legal front, meanwhile, Shinji Miyadai, a sociology professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, has been challenging a stodgy old election law established in the pre-Net era: Under the law, if candidates email constituents and/or renew their Web sites, it is considered a delivery of unofficial documents and is therefore not allowed during the campaign period, which varies between seven to 17 days between the announcement and election day. The original purpose of the law was to control campaign expenses for candidates with limited budgets, so that rich candidates couldn't hand out millions of leaflets during the campaign period to beat the have-nots. However, in the Internet era, viewers don't wait for information to be handed out. The Democratic Party of Japan submitted a proposal to revise the law in May this year. The General Affairs Ministry planned to form a study group within the ministry to discuss the possibility.

DPJ politician Shima points out that Net campaigns lower the hurdle for newcomers by minimizing the cost. "If you are a candidate without any organizational backing, your time runs out quickly while pasting stamps on 110,000 leaflets" (only stamped official leaflets are allowed for delivery during an election campaign period). Miyadai, who represents a group called Cyber Voters' Political Revolution Network, asserts that Net campaigns will turn organizational and floating voters into individuals who make conscious policy-based decisions. Will individual voters or contributors someday become the majority? DPJ's Nakayama thinks it's too soon to draw such a rosy picture. "People still expect politicians to bring back tax money (to their district), but don't think of giving it to them from their own pockets. But individual contributions is a start line for citizen-centered politics."

Meanwhile, pioneers in the Internet industry like Joichi Ito of Neoteny, Takao Nakamura of Infoseek Japan, and others formed a group called i-revolution network in June to promote Net democracy. Jiro Kokuryo, a professor at the Keio University Business School and a network member, said at a July gathering, "The Internet is a tool that could give opportunities for everybody to participate in the decision-making process. It's all up to our decisions and commitments to make it work."

We'll vote for that.

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