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JULY 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 28 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

The Move to E-lections
Despite restrictive campaign laws, a new generation of Japanese politicians is going online to woo young voters
By STUART WHITMORE and KURT HANSON

Visitors to Shima Satoshi's website in the run-up to Japan's recent general election were greeted by a blank white screen. It wasn't a statement in online minimalism. Shima, a member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, was circumventing a law that forbids updating the text and images on political websites during the election period. While the screen remained opaque, Shima got his message across loud and clear with recorded voice messages, which he updated constantly.

Shima, 42, is one of a new breed of young Japanese politicians who took their campaigns to the Net in what was dubbed Japan's first IT election. Japan lags the U.S. in the use of the Internet, with only 24% of the population online compared to 40% in the U.S., according to research firm IDC. But Japan is catching up. Over 10 million people now subscribe to NTT DoCoMo's iMode mobile phone service, which connects users to the Net via their cellphones. Most of them are young, which has led to a clash between the political old guard and a new breed of young Turks over the banning of Web campaigns.

Japanese law imposes tight regulations on the use of posters and written materials such as flyers during the 14-day period leading up to the polls. Although the antiquated law makes no mention of the Net, the government has lumped use of websites, e-mail and even iMode phones into the same bracket. (Phone calls and voice messages are okay, hence Shima's audio site.) Critics say this liberal interpretation of the statute is a deliberate attempt by the old guard of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to freeze out the section of the electorate it fears most: younger voters.

The logic is simple. The Internet is used by the young, and the young don't vote for the LDP (if they vote at all). Take Rumi, a Tokyo career girl who is a regular Internet user but infrequent voter: "I would be more interested in politics and become a regular voter if it was all more accessible on the Internet," she says. And who would she vote for? "Anyone but the LDP!" she laughs.

Public interest in online politics is growing. In the first two months of Mori Yoshiro's premiership, the website of the prime minister's office (www.kantei.go.jp) received 18 million hits, or visits — almost triple the number chalked up following the election of Obuchi Keizo, Mori's predecessor. The spike in traffic has been fueled by a series of high-profile gaffes by Mori, official explanations for which have been posted on the site.

Government officials have cited everything from fear of slander to the expense that would be incurred by candidates setting up websites to explain their decision to suspend Web campaigning. But old-fashioned attitudes seem to be the main motivating factor. Kono Taro, 38, is an LDP member who has just won a second term in the Diet. He estimates that as few as 10% of his party colleagues actively use the Internet. The rest "just won't sit in front of a PC," he says. "They don't bother to talk to younger voters through e-mail. They rely on industrial groups for their political activities."

With a B.Sc. from Georgetown University and nine years at Fuji Xerox on his resumE, Kono has no such fear of new technology. He first tried e-mail in 1986. Today he uses it to reach all 200,000 households in his district quickly and cheaply. Kono spends at least an hour every evening answering the many e-mails he receives. "My goal is to tell my constituents what I'm doing, keeping them informed," he says. "Since most of the people who write to me are young voters, I get to know what they think." Some 5,000 people subscribe to Kono's online magazine while others log on to his self-designed website.

The rise of the Internet is being accompanied by the gradual eclipse of the LDP's gerontocracy. Thirteen of the party's over-70s retired at this election and a new age limit of 73 has been introduced for candidates. Lawmakers like Kono hope that this generational change will usher in a new, more open political era, one where the Internet and online campaigning entice young voters back into the policial debate. "Senior members don't want to change the current laws. But we must have reform," he says. "The Internet should be an open source for people to access government documents that are now locked up tight by bureaucrats." Perhaps then Japan's increasingly apathetic young voters won't be left staring at a blank screen.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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