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As Japanese elections near, voters grow weary of megaphone-wielding candidates

Because of Japan's campaign laws, Yukiko Tokai must blast her message wiith a megaphone mounted atop her campaign van. The ear-splitting racket has been a mainstay of Japanese politics for years. But polls suggest the Japanese public has had just about enough

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By Chico Harlan
Thursday, July 8, 2010

First-time politician Yukiko Tokai wants voters to know her name before Sunday's parliamentary elections, but Japan's straitjacket campaign laws forbid her to knock on doors, update her Web site or advertise on television.

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So she reaches out to voters the Japanese way, blaring her name 12 hours a day with a megaphone mounted atop her campaign van.

The ear-splitting racket has been a mainstay of Japanese politics for years. But it seems the Japanese public has had just about enough. Polls show that people are weary of politics and that half of voters do not support any political party. Now, as election offices receive complaints about noise pollution and newspapers criticize the ban on candidates' use of the Internet, there appears to be a deepening divide between those who hold the megaphones and those forced to listen.

"I don't think this is the best way to do campaigning," Tokai, who is backed by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), said in an interview on a busy Tokyo street corner. "But this is our situation. Under the current circumstances, we have no other options." In between answering questions, she shouted her name and party affiliation over and over on a screeching bullhorn.

Japan's Public Offices Election Law regulates almost every aspect of a campaign. The law limits how many people can enter a campaign van. It limits the size of a paper lantern outside the candidate's headquarters. It forbids the offering of food and drink at rallies. The restrictions have persisted, analysts say, because they make it hard for new politicians to generate widespread attention; they're incumbent-friendly, and incumbents don't generally change laws that help them.

Later this year, parliament plans to revisit a bill that would loosen restrictions on Internet usage. In the meantime, candidates are required to maintain Web silence. On June 23, one day before the official campaign period, Tokai's 1,950 Twitter followers received 47 separate messages from her. Since then, they've received zero.

"It's really frustrating," Tokai said. "If I was able to access Twitter or a blog, I could send messages more effectively. I could talk about my policies or my personality."

She has told her Twitter followers that she will "tweet again" after she is elected.

In the meantime, she and other candidates fire up their megaphones for hour after ear-slamming hour.

For now, Japanese political rituals during this 17-day campaign period look nearly identical to those from1967, when author and Japan scholar Gerald Curtis tagged along with the campaign of a young lower house candidate whose loudspeaker droned over and over again, "This is Sato Bunsei. This is LDP-endorsed Sato Bunsei. I ask for your support."

"Values have changed here, particularly among the young generation, and there's so much discontent towards politics," Curtis said in an interview. "Politics represents the old Japan. And now that party support is so low -- leaving such a floating group of support -- what happens in the weeks leading up is extremely important. But the problem is, the campaigning is so artificial. It's so restricted. It's so out of tune with the values that society embraces."

Last Sunday afternoon, Tokai arrived in Tokyo's fashionable Ginza neighborhood, where thousands walked the streets, and at least a few stopped to listen. Her van, equipped with six megaphones, stopped in front of a department store. An assistant fastened a name sash over Tokai's left shoulder, and seconds later the candidate appeared atop the van -- roughly 10 feet off the ground.

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