David Blecken
Aug 13, 2009

Social media enters Japanese politics

General election candidates break from tradition to use social media, as governments around the region experiment online.

Social media enters Japanese politics
Taro Aso, Japan’s embattled prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is hoping to replicate the success of US president Barack Obama’s electoral campaign by using social media in the run-up to Japan’s general election.

Breaking with tradition, Aso and fellow candidates have used a Q&A platform initiated by Google and YouTube in Japan. By inviting celebrities and the public to pose policy-related questions, the candidates are hoping to dispel the perception of a barrier between politics and the real world, and, in particular, reignite an interest in politics among young voters.

The initiative marks the first time Google’s Moderator service has been used as a political tool in Japan. But according to John Kerr, regional director of Edelman Digital, while the platform generates strong PR value for Google, how valuable it will ultimately prove for the politicians using it is open to debate.

The initial response has been encouraging: by the end of July, about 6,300 people had participated and posted more than 4,500 questions. Although the concept, which Kerr noted has clearly been lifted from the Obama campaign, may not be sophisticated, it seems to be an indicator of things to come.

“It’s a welcome initiative if it helps engage the Japanese youth who are sceptical and don’t feel part of the political process,” agreed Charlie Pownall, regional director of digital communications at Burson Marsteller. But Pownall questioned whether the use of YouTube may prove a limiting factor in the exercise, potentially attracting less participation than a domestic site such as Nico Nico Douga.

Another issue, said Pownall, may be the reluctance of Japanese to comment openly on controversial topics. “Is open discussion going to take off in that culture?” he asked. The response of the candidates to the public’s questions will be critical in building participation in future schemes. Yet Pownall said a “human, informal style” would not come naturally to the average Japanese politician when addressing the public.

Open online debate requires less effort in Korea, which, according to Kerr, is among the region’s most advanced markets in terms of government use of social media. The key characteristics are a mature online audience (80 per cent of Koreans are active online) and the use of online templates by local offices.

The adoption of social media as a broadcast mechanism is a growing trend for governments around the region. “It’s a truism that governments are waking up to the fact that the internet offers a genuine opportunity to increase awareness, participation and even fundraising,” said Pownall, pointing to Malaysia as an example. The Malaysian Government is currenlty seeking a PR agency to boost its reputation and help it better connect with its citizens online.

“Malaysia has been very active in engaging Government ministers through social media. All ministers have a blog. They have realised they have to engage through social media, because that’s where people are,” said Pownall.

He added that Singapore, while “not as advanced”, is taking steps to connect ministers with the public online and is likely to develop quickly. Despite low online penetration, India too hosts online discussion relating to social issues with the president.

“Japan is relatively behind,” said Kerr, noting that use of Twitter by candidates remains outlawed during the official 12-day campaign period. “It is now in experimental mode, but I wouldn’t be surprised if over the next four years [online] came to play a central part of forming coalitions, parties and communities.”

He said the commercial sector would do well to look to governments for inspiration and guidance. “Brands should follow a similar approach. Using this approach they can gain a deeper insight from detailed online intelligence, then develop prioritised engagement and response frameworks that are backed by clear social media policies and training.”

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This article was originally published in 13 August 2009 issue of Media.

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