Sunday 9 April 2017

Noisy Candidates, Quiet Citizens: Elections in Japan

A wooden board carrying posters of all the candidates in the upcoming municipal election in Kodaira City
An election board in Kodaira City
Today (April 9th) Kodaira City holds a double election (senkyo=選挙): one for the mayor plus a by-election to fill a vacancy on the local council. All over the city, wooden boards with pictures of the candidates have magically sprung up (picture left). While there are only a handful of candidates in this particular local election, metropolitan and national elections require much bigger boards requiring an awful lot of signage (and wood).

Japanese elections are strictly regulated and what candidates can do and say is severely limited. Door-to-door canvassing is illegal in Japan so candidates typically drive around in sound trucks (see below) blasting out their message and name and furiously smiling and waving. Pre-election campaigning is also illegal, so the trucks are (thankfully) heard for only a short period, in this case 12 days before election day. Critics have noted that the abundance of rules effectively limits public participation in elections; indeed the turnout rate, especially amongst youth, is extremely low (see here for turnout data on elections 1967-2014: the bottom blue line represents those in their twenties). Token measures, such as lowering the voting age from 20 to 18 (in 2015), introducing voter education and mock elections in schools, and (since 2013) allowing (limited) online internet campaigning (but not emailing) seem to have made little difference. On top of this, becoming a candidate is extremely expensive and campaigning is largely self-financed in Japan: as a result, politicians tend to be older, wealthy males, often from political family dynasties.