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About Japanese Elections

July 1st, 2004

Long-time BfAD visitor Pat alerted me to this article in the English-language Asahi, written by Jane Singer, the Western wife of a Japanese politician. The article seeks to explain what politicians are doing and why they do it, at least in part–if not fully–for the purpose of calming the protest by foreigners in Japan about the loudspeaker truck barrage. A very interesting read, though I do have some comments:

A Diet and a local election campaign of course differ vastly in scale and organization, but all campaigns must abide by regulations aimed at curbing fraud and vote-buying. Election management committees and local police keep an eagle eye on a candidate’s activities during the official campaign period (17 days for Upper House elections, 12 days for the Lower House, 9 days for prefectural posts). The rules forbid many of the campaign activities, like television advertising for a particular candidate or, for the most part, ads in print media, that are sine qua non for elections in other major democracies, although advertising a political party is allowed. Campaigning door-to-door is prohibited, campaigns can use only one sound truck and one microphone at a time, and outdoor campaigning is restricted to the hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

While Ms. Singer does not necessarily endorse these measures, she does not contest them, either–perhaps because it would not help her husband’s campaign or status as a politician.

But I certainly would disagree with the need for the exact restrictions. For example, television or print ads. Politicians make speeches on NHK Educational–very democratic (as you sometimes see the loonies in there too). And if that’s not enough, then in exchange for licensing, private TV stations should also be made to allow for such statements. Or, if necessary, the government can fund each candidate who receives a certain number of petitions or other prerequisite to a limited amount, forbidding any other funding for advertisements. Singer notes that parties can run ads–I just saw one today for the Jiminto, the ruling party–and it featured Koizumi, a specific candidate–which kind of puts a hole in the anti-corruption net–and the idea that corruption is not rampant in Japanese politics despite these restrictions is, of course, wishful thinking. Despite the freedom-of-speech questions, I fully approve of restrictions on advertising (I do not see money as equalling freedom of speech in any case), but completely banning it, to me, is a far less attractive alternative than banning the loudspeaker trucks. As I noted a year ago, at least you can turn advertisements off.

The door-to-door ban is a fair idea, I’ll admit–especially if it keeps the party reps from doing the business. If it were allowed for candidates only, I’d be OK with it–just a half dozen doorbell rings to fend off, rather than weeks of non-stop noise pollution.

However, the rules on loudspeaker trucks I cannot abide. The trucks are restricted to 8am-to-8pm shifts (I can personally attest that some politicians break this rule), and though she does not detail this, the trucks are “cautioned” from doing their thing in front of schools, hospitals, or nursing homes. Those restrictions are far too lax. First of all, not everyone has the same sleep patterns. One reason many foreign residents may complain is because many of us are teachers, often with late schedules. And we’re not the only ones who sleep later than 8am. As a result, a great many people have their sleep interrupted for weeks on end. But more than that is the disruption for infants–can you imagine what it must be like to get an infant to sleep with those trucks blasting by every few minutes? Limiting the trucks to predominantly public and shopping areas areas (in front of train stations, at shopping streets and so forth) would be best–I mean, whatever happened to the famous Japanese “wa”?

And if that is not possible, then turn the damned volume down! Who says that it has to be up so high? I’m rather high up (equivalent to the 6th floor or so relative to the street, and even if I set my TV to blaring levels, the volume of the sound trucks still competes hardily with the audio right there in my apartment. If it’s that loud, then it’s too loud. I can hear the trucks clearly when they are half a kilometer away and more–and there are two schools closer to me than that (so much for the school zone rule). The obvious solution (which Professor Dolan speaks to) is to limit the vans to a reasonable sound level: enough so you know when they’re out in the street in front of you so you can go look if you want to, but no louder. And I certainly would not be averse to forbidding the trucks from entering parking lots for apartment complexes and driving at 5 kph through every last lane, keeping the high volume in your ears for 5 minutes at a time.

Singer’s article does explain a few things, though:

When voters visit the polling place, they write their candidate’s name directly on the ballot, rather than just check a box or punch out a chad. So the need to ensure name recognition despite the restrictions on promoting the candidate may help explain why the uguisujo (nightingale women), as female campaign van announcers are charmingly called, spend so much of their on-air time repeatedly warbling the candidate’s name.

That explains that. But it also calls into question why they can’t do it another way. Not that it would make the loudspeaker trucks much more bearable if they varied their message.

Singer’s observations are also sometimes amusing:

After an hour or so, the driver received an urgent call from the campaign office. A local resident had called to complain that my hand-waving “lacked sincerity.” For the rest of the drive, I leaned halfway out the van’s side window, endeavoring a full-arm flourish that left my shoulder aching for days. My efforts were praised by the campaign staff.

I have to admit, this sounds quintessentially Japanese, not just that windowsill observers would note and call in a complaint about lackadaisical hand-waving, but that the call would be treated as “urgent,” and–well, I can just visualize the Japanese campaign staff earnestly praising the candidate’s wife on how strenuously she waved. “Good waving!” “Yes, that was an excellent job. Sugoi!” “Yes, I’m impressed, too.”

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  1. Enumclaw
    July 2nd, 2004 at 04:49 | #1

    Luis, I think you missed the main point about the loudspeaker trucks.

    The main point, of course, is that while they’re great people in many ways, in some ways the Japanese are completely and utterly insane.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that; each nation or group of people has its insanities; it’s just that coming from a Westernized background, you’re having a hard time with THEIR insanities. :)

    Seriously, some of these things are just goofy- you gotta write the candidate’s name exactly? What if you can’t spell? You just disenfranchised an entire underclass of dyslexia sufferers! No TV ads? (Actually, I kinda like that one.)

    When it comes to the volume, though- no sympathy. If you’re going to have a truck driving around blaring out its ads to people, well, let’s face it- you might as well have it turned up loud enough that the people damn well HEAR your truck!

  2. July 3rd, 2004 at 01:37 | #2

    Me thinks enumclaw must not have to endure the speaker trucks.

    The thing I disagree with is your calling Koizumi a specific candidate. He is technically not a candidate in my understanding, as he is elected by the diet and not by the people.

  3. Luis
    July 3rd, 2004 at 02:13 | #3

    Yes, but doesn’t he have to run for election in his own district?

    Maybe they get around the law by not showing that commercial in his district, just in all the others, or maybe it’s allowed to show the party head. Still and all, that would give the Jiminto the advantage, but then the incumbents usually have that privilege.

  4. Enumclaw
    July 6th, 2004 at 10:52 | #4

    I can safely say that in Enumclaw, Washington, USA, population ~11,000 or so, we have never had speaker trucks touting political candidates roll by.

    I wonder how it would go over for the first candidate to try them out? Rolling through suburbia… “VOTE FOR GEORGE W BUSH, HE PAID FOR THIS MESSAGE, VOTE FOR GEORGE W BUSH, HE PAID FOR THIS MESSAGE!!!!”

    Maybe it’s something the Kerry campaign should look into. You can figure that the Republican dirty tricks squad already has!

    :)

    Paul

  5. coze
    September 12th, 2005 at 13:31 | #5

    the candidates names are written on the voting booths, so anyone who can read japanese (and the candidates who have difficult kanjis in their name write their name in haragana or katakana) can write their name on the ballot. I checked this in person in this election, I visited a voting booth with my wife.

  6. John Lancaster
    November 7th, 2006 at 21:55 | #6

    I live in the countryside and they started at 7:45 yesterday. Thanks for the information about 8am to 8pm. It is good to know the law and I can make a more powerful complaint with knowledge of it. Near my home they drive through the rice fields with their speakers blaring disturbing everyone who lives on the hillside. Interestingly I have seen girls waving their white gloves at the rice. I assume that is what they were waving at as there were no humans to be seen anywhere near them.

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