Why Japan Fears Internet Politics

In the summer of 2007 Toshiaki Kanda, a freelance video journalist, decided to run for the upper house of the Japanese Parliament as an independent—no easy feat in a country where machine politics still rule. But as a techie, Kanda was hoping that he could improve his prospects by harnessing the power of the Internet.

He bet wrong. No sooner had Kanda declared his candidacy than he collided with an election law that banned him from using his Web site to update voters on his campaign. Instead, he had to waste countless hours putting up posters around Tokyo—"the ultimate nonsense," he says wryly. A loophole in the law did allow him to post podcasts daily—but those didn't exactly reach the masses. On election day, he won only a handful of votes

Surprising as it sounds, Kanda's frustrations are fairly typical. The Internet may be transforming political campaigns in other countries, as candidates use it to mobilize supporters and harvest donations. In the United States, Barack Obama has proved a master of the new art and has raised record sums on the Web. Yet campaigning on the Internet still proves virtually impossible in Japan, because the country's political establishment fears the medium's formidable potential for change.

The problem has nothing to do with hardware. Japan is one of the world's most wired countries; 60 percent of its citizens have high-speed broadband and e-commerce is thriving. More blogs are written in Japanese than any other language. Politicians do use the Web for some things—listing schedules or recounting what they had for lunch or, in Prime Minister Taro Aso's case, turgid accounts of the history of his constituency.

Try to use the Internet in an actual campaign, however, and you run into serious obstacles. The first hitch is Japan's 58-year-old election law. (Originally intended for printed matter, the law has been extended to cover virtual material as well.) Once an official campaign has started, candidates are barred from updating their home pages, launching or amending blogs—podcasts are allowed because the law applies only to text or images—posting political statements or sending text messages to mobile phones. Additional regulations prohibit donors from using credit cards online to support candidates, effectively preventing online fundraising.

Then there are the informal restric-tions. Some 80 percent of Japan's broadband infrastructure is owned and operated by a single company, NTT, which has been criticized for using its dominance of fiber-optic networks to undermine competitors who want to offer alternative content. The formerly government-owned company was privatized in 1985, but its managers still retain close ties with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the bureaucracy. (Retired bureaucrats routinely end up with lucrative jobs in the industries they once supervised.) Meanwhile, the all-powerful Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications doesn't just plot the national telecommunications strategy, but also regulates networks—making it a player and a referee, a combination of functions usually separated in other countries. The result is a system critics worry tends to favor the status quo.

As Kim Jung Hoon, a Keio University professor who is lobbying for liberalization of the Japanese Web, puts it, Japan "is ruled by a very stable and old political system." Kim says that "politicians, bureaucrats, the media and big business are all very tightly interconnected. Basically they want to suppress and eliminate any possibility for change. And the Internet is a major source of change."

Japan's nonconfrontational culture probably also plays a role. Despite the proliferation of blogs in the country, there is a notable lack of political polemic online—in remarkable contrast to neighboring South Korea, where the fates of heads can rise and fall on the whim of a fiery Internet culture. Even when Japanese politicians are allowed to post what they want—namely, outside campaign periods—the results are still strikingly tame. "It's so weird," says Kumi Yokoe, a political analyst and e-government expert. "Why don't Japanese politicians talk about what's going on in the [legislature]? It's always about who I met, what I ate. For that you don't need a Web site."

The average age of Japanese politicians also doesn't help. According to Hiro Kishi of Keio University's Graduate School of Media Design, "so many politicians are older, in their 70s. It doesn't even occur to them to make use of the Internet." Yokoe agrees: "Older politicians don't want to allow … people to make donations via the Web. They worry that if they have such a law, people will only vote for young politicians."

At least one force is pushing hard for change, however: the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). "The LDP has a fixed notion that the [wider use of the] Internet would benefit the DPJ," says party member Kan Suzuki, who sits in the upper house of Parliament. And the numbers seem to bear him out: Suzuki cites a recent online survey conducted by Yahoo Japan that showed that 79 percent of Internet users polled said they hoped to see the DPJ win the upcoming election (while polls of print-media users find the two parties roughly tied). Suzuki says Japan's ruling party has watched Obama's remarkable success in harnessing the Internet with fear. "Obama and the LDP stand at opposite ends when it comes to election campaigns. The LDP would not want to see the [Obama phenomenon] happen here."

Like it or not, however, signs of change are beginning to emerge. Politicians have begun discovering the power of YouTube and similar sites as ways of generating buzz. During recent municipal elections in Tokyo and Osaka, some Web enthusiasts used video-sharing sites to post videos of candidates' speeches even during campaigning. Other Netizens updated the Wikipedia pages of certain candidates in defiance of the ban. The police sent warnings to offenders, but no arrests were made.

Internet users are also finally starting to flex their muscles. Kim is the initiator of a group called The Contents Association, which is pushing for gradual reform of the telecommunications bureaucracy to allow for greater checks and balances. He also advocates "spectrum reform," the auctioning off of space on the airwaves—much of which is now being freed up as Japanese TV broadcasters shift to fiber-optic networks—to new wireless providers as a way of bringing greater diversity to the Japanese Web. For his part, Kanda, the frustrated candidate, agrees that the pressure to reform the outdated election law is growing by the day. Given his own experience, however, he's not holding his breath.