David Blecken
Apr 23, 2019

Meaningful communications elude Japan’s local politics

Falling voter turnout and ill-informed selection suggests the need for a public relations approach focused more on direct engagement and less on loudspeakers.

A board showing local candidates in Chuo ward, Tokyo
A board showing local candidates in Chuo ward, Tokyo

In the run-up to the local government assembly elections that took place in Tokyo on Sunday, candidates assailed citizens relentlessly with loudspeakers. Their voices blaring from taxpayer-funded vans stuffed with waving white-gloved assistants, most offered little insight into their policies, but stated their names repeatedly in the hope that voters would remember them at the booth. In some cases, the candidate was not present in the vehicle, which broadcast a recorded message on a loop.

The process shows a poor grasp of public relations and communications but has become typical for various types of political campaign nationwide. Unsurprisingly, it leaves many voters cold. This year, the voting rate in Tokyo was the worst on record: 47.5% for mayoral candidates and 45.6% for other officials, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. (The figures are still high relative to the US, where the turnout for local elections is below 15%.)

Overall, voting in local assembly elections, which are seen to have the most direct bearing on individuals, has declined steadily since the 1940s. A turnout of over 80% in 1947 dipped below 50% in 2015, according to government statistics.

Young people seem especially uninspired. In the elections for the House of Representatives last year, which follows a similar format, less than 30% of people aged 20 to 29 voted, although the figure rose to 43% among those in their 30s.

A candidate advertises her distaste for loudspeakers in Chuo ward, Tokyo

Part of the problem is that there is a shortage of information that is easily comprehensible and accessible that can help voters make intelligent judgements on the candidates.

An associate professor at a university who Campaign asked for comment as a voter, who did not wish to be named, complained that finding information on candidates requires a lot of searching and is time-consuming. But he admitted that the loudspeaker approach was not “100% useless”, at least for the candidates.

“Repeating the candidate’s name endlessly doesn’t help me understand what this person stands for, but at least the name stands out,” he says. Kunikazu Suzuki, a Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member, says research has shown that people tend to vote for the name they are most familiar with. He says voters typically spend three to five minutes choosing a candidate. If their choice isn’t based on name, it’s likely to be on the photo or party the candidate is affiliated with.

As a student at Tokyo University, Suzuki launched a website, Japan Political Press, which offers commentary and a vote matching service to help people access information on candidates and narrow them down based on personal values.

As well as pasting their profiles on designated boards in a municipality, candidates typically present their policies alongside each other on a newspaper-like handout. One senior voter told Campaign he saw this as his best information source. The format of these individual pitches enables some comparison, but the information is inconsistent. The ads can be quirky, ranging from handwritten promises to details of personal achievements that sometimes have little bearing on politics. One candidate in Chuo ward in central Tokyo used the small space allotted to discuss the number of blood donations he had made over the years.

Ko Fujii, CEO of public affairs consultancy Makaira, says this style of campaigning undoubtedly turns some potential voters off and casts politics in a bad light. Some candidates make a point of going against the cookie-cutter approach. In Chuo ward, Yuka Kajigaya gained election as a legislator with around 1,700 votes. As part of her campaign, she emphasised the fact that she was not using loudspeakers.

At the same time, that method is seen as cost-effective given that candidates only need a small number of votes to be elected, and full-fledged internet campaigns can seem unjustifiably expensive, Fujii says. He notes that internet campaigning failed to take off in the first few years after it was legalised in 2013.

“Candidates who used the internet did not see it helping them win over voters, and voter engagement in politics and elections stayed low,” he says. “This has not changed radically in this year’s local elections.”

Togo Kida, a creative director at Dentsu who worked on Yahoo’s ‘Election in the Dark’ campaign to engage blind voters, says he thinks young people are disinterested in politics because they feel their voices are “not heard” in society, and politicians make little effort to reach out to them. “If we could engage them by using the media [they actually use], I think this could change,” he says. He sees value in more traditional “hand shaking” and direct interaction with citizens, and thinks candidates can widen this approach using technology.

A handout bearing the pitches of Chuo ward candidates in Tokyo

Fujii does see candidates starting to come to grips with newer platforms. Many are increasingly using images and videos, rather than text, to engage younger voters, he says, noting that the Communist party last month became the first to set up a TikTok account. Substance is of course the most important thing, he says, but social media and blogs are likely to be the best way to put it in front of a younger crowd. A mayoral candidate for Kita ward, Shun Otokita, mobilised his Twitter following to help raise more than 10 million yen through crowd funding to form a new party.

Yuuki Hozumi, another Chuo ward candidate, did without vans and speakers and instead used Twitter and Google Maps to advertise his location, inviting voters to come and speak with him directly. He also invited people to email him directly. However, lacking party affiliation and powerful endorsers, he drew just 985 votes—not enough to be elected. His example highlights the challenge of breaking through the noise, and of resonating with voters from different generations.

Debating is one way the campaigning process could become more meaningful. The associate professor Campaign spoke to calls for compulsory, scheduled public debates involving candidates and a single website housing recordings of them.

This would be a good way to judge a politician’s competence, Suzuki says. Debates are currently scarce. When they do happen, they often involve responding to moderators’ questions. “This isn’t satisfactory in terms of raising the bar and providing information,” he says. He adds that there also needs to be a system to evaluate a candidate’s activities once they have been elected.

Of all places, Suzuki points to Russia as an example of how ongoing communication could work. In Moscow, the elected mayor engages in dialogue with the public on an ongoing basis via an application and where applicable acts on feedback. In this way, “they can capture peoples’ will in real time”, Suzuki says, which serves to keep the public engaged, rather than switching off for four years until the next election and voting based on arbitrary information or whims.

Ryoko Tasaki contributed to this article.

Campaign Japan

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