Japan's Byzantine Election Laws
Tuesday, December 12, 2006 Posted: 03:01 PM JST
Eric Johnston of the Japan Times has written an excellent article about Jane Singer Mizuguchi, the American wife of independent Kyoto Prefectural Assembly Member Hiroshi Mizuguchi. The article is especially interesting for what it reveals about Japan's election laws:
However, perhaps the most difficult part of the campaign -- not only for Singer but for Mizuguchi, too -- was designing a campaign strategy that conformed to Japan's Byzantine local-election laws, which place severe restrictions on how a candidate may campaign.
Not many people, especially foreigners, have ever defended the ubiquitous sound-trucks that deliver candidates' messages before elections at ear-splitting volume. But Singer says they are necessary because political campaigning of the kind taken for granted in almost all developed countries is simply not allowed in Japan.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the life of a politician's wife in Japan is a never-ending round of swank parties, gourmet meals, five-star hotels and trips hither and thither. That is an image that provokes laughter from Jane Singer Mizuguchi, the American wife of independent Kyoto Prefectural Assembly Member Hiroshi Mizuguchi (with whom she is pictured, left). `There's not a whole lot that's glamorous about it,' she says with a look of bemusement. `It's about taking care of the details, focusing on local concerns, and doing whatever I can, quietly, to help my husband. And since he's an independent with no party backing, it all has to be done on a shoestring budget'
"Although party-political commercials are allowed," Singer explained, "individual candidates are forbidden by law from taking out paid advertising in the media. But then, once the campaign starts, it becomes illegal to even alter a candidate's Web page -- making it impossible to post last-minute speeches or appearances on the site. Consequently, the sound-trucks provide much-needed publicity."
The trucks are also necessary because candidates are barred by law as well from initiating door-to-door campaigning or soliciting votes via the telephone or e-mail.
"What this means on a practical level is that the candidate cannot simply drop into neighborhood shops or enter people's homes to seek support. Prior to a candidate's visit to a neighborhood, volunteers go around and tell everyone to stand outside their homes or establishments so the candidate can come by and shake their hands," Singer said.
And, of course, things like T-shirts, jackets or campaign buttons bearing a candidate's name or picture -- which are a staple of campaigns in other advanced democracies -- are not allowed in Japan. Instead, a candidate may have his or her own official color -- and jackets, headbands and armbands in that color may be distributed to volunteers or supporters.
"The system is clearly designed to prevent independent candidates from getting their message out. At the same time, I've discovered that those who will actually go to the polls expect the candidate to have a sound-truck. If he or she doesn't, voters will think they're not serious," said Mizuguchi.
Ofer Feldman, a professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto and the author of two books on Japanese politicians and their relationship with the mass media, says that legal barriers and the culture of the Japanese media makes being a politician in this country extremely difficult -- regardless of their views or party affiliation.
"Japan's campaign laws are among the most restrictive in the world for a parliamentary democracy, while its news media supports the idea of a campaign being political party versus political party -- not individual candidate versus individual candidate. Thus newspaper advertising by the individual or their support group are not allowed," Feldman observed.
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