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In Japanese Social Media, No Political Opinions During Election Cycle

BY Julia Wetherell | Monday, December 17 2012

Candidates at a live-streamed debate in November (screengrab from Global Voices)

As the Japanese general election came to a close yesterday, with the Liberal Democratic Party returning to control of the Diet in a landslide victory against the Democratic Party of Japan, it’s worth noting that the nation’s electorate made their choice without being allowed to express political opinions on social media.

Japanese election law bans citizens from publicly endorsing any political party, an edict that holds in the Internet era. Political candidates, in turn, are limited to a bizarrely narrow scope of publicity that allows for the distribution of paper leaflets but prohibits the publication of photos or written documents as advertisement, including on Twitter or Facebook (online pop-up political ads are apparently a loophole, as Global Voices reported).

In spite of these limitations on political discourse, social media has still played an unprecedented role in this year’s election, with Twitter and Google+ vying for Japan’s eyes as the country’s premier election platform. Japan’s first live-streamed debate was held on the popular video-sharing site Nico Nico Douga in late November; real-time viewer commentary from Twitter was broadcast on giant screens behind the candidates. On Friday, a series of Google Hangouts with candidates aimed to give citizens an opportunity for discussion with their political leaders. It also served as a high-profile showing for Google’s social platform, which lags behind Twitter in Japan. A special Google-hosted election website has been providing information to voters throughout the cycle.

Politicians and candidates have expressed frustrations with the campaign laws, including Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, who took to Twitter with a questionably-legal outcry against “stupid and formal rules based on ceremony.” The laws have been in place since the 1950s, when they aimed to level the playing field by taking an advantage away from well-funded candidates. Any application to electronic media has been based purely on interpretation of a document that includes no amendment on the Internet.

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