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“Online Campaigning” and the Complete Abolition of Campaign Regulations:
First Lifting of Ban Reveals Poor Results and Contradictions in “List of Don’ts”

Jun Katagi
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

The Liberal Democratic Party enjoyed a landslide victory in the House of Councillors election that was held yesterday. In a coalition with the New Komeito, it gained a majority of the seats, bringing a resolution to the “divided Diet.” At the present moment (the morning of July 22) the voter turnout is estimated at around 52%, meaning that it has fallen since the previous election (57.92%) and remained at a low level (Source: Yomiuri Shimbun).

The ban on “online campaigning,”[1] a long-standing issue, was lifted for the first time in this election,[2] and its influence has received much attention. In this article, I would like to provide an overview of “online campaigning” at the present moment and consider upcoming challenges.

1: Or more precisely, “election campaigning over the Internet.” Not to be confused with “online voting” (discussed later), in which people vote from home over the Internet.
2: The ban on “online campaigning” was also lifted in time for the Nakama City Council election held in Fukuoka prefecture on July 14.

“Online Campaigning”: Evaluation and Challenges

The amendment states, “The ban on election campaigning through methods using the Internet, etc. needs to be lifted in light of the spread of the Internet, etc. in recent years, in order to enhance information about candidates during the campaign period and promote the political participation of voters” (Reasons for Submitting the Bill).

Table: Legalized “Online Campaigning” Activities
Political Parties Candidates Third Parties
Use of websites Websites, blogs
(Includes the posting of campaign flyers and posters (images).)
Twitter, Facebook
Delivering video
Use of email Sending campaign emails
Attaching campaign flyers and posters (images)

Note: ○ = Legalized, ✕ = Prohibited

First, let’s look at the point about “enhanc[ing] information about candidates.” We can evaluate that generally all the parties and candidates actively engaged in “online campaigning” during the election period, with party leaders taking the lead, and that the amount of information provided increased dramatically in comparison to the past.

But the situation changes when we consider the point about “promot[ing] the political participation of voters.” Despite the many political issues on the agenda, such as the constitution, nuclear power, TPP (The Trans-Pacific Strategic Partnership Agreement), and consumption tax, lively policy debates on these issues have been rare, and various services developed by SNS companies have produced lackluster results, leading to reports like “Online Campaigning Fails to Connect with Voters” (The Nikkei, July 19).

The fact that only 23 warnings have been issued and there have been no violations like the creation of “spoof” websites or other kinds of falsification (as of July 19, National Police Agency; Yomiuri Shimbun) should be welcome news, but it may actually reflect the lack of enthusiasm about “online campaigning” in this election.

Why did the results turn out this way? More particularly, why weren’t interactive online features used for policy debates? We need to figure out the reasons and use this information for future improvements. I would like to point out a few issues below as upcoming challenges we face.

The Necessity of “Sovereign Education” for Citizens and Politicians

The Liberal Democratic Party was expected to win the election, so its avoidance of the risks of debating may have been one of the reasons “online campaigning” had such poor results. A more basic problem has been clarified by the lifting of the ban, however. It has been brought to light that while the different political camps in Japanese elections have repeatedly and loudly voiced their views, they have rarely engaged in substantial political debate. In other words, neither politicians nor citizens, it seems, have acquired basic democratic skills such as giving explanations for one’s views based in logic, debating one another, and working toward a better solution. Arguably this has revealed that while the “system” of democracy is more or less in place in our country, deliberative democracy is not really functioning here.

Thus, while it may seem to be a roundabout approach, one of our future challenges is the need to improve and strengthen political education for politicians and the general public, especially the youth, to bring Japanese democracy to maturity. Traditionally, political education in Japan has pursued political neutrality to the point that debating political subjects has itself been seen as taboo. From this point forward, we need to break out of the rut of traditional activities and work toward “sovereign education” that sustains democracy, with organizations like the Association for Promoting Fair Elections playing a central role (The 21st Century Public Policy Institute, The Nature of Democracy and Leadership in Japanese Politics [Nihon Seiji ni okeru Minshushugi to Ridashippu no Arikata]).

“Online Campaigning” as an Opportunity for the Complete Abolition of Campaign Regulations

The lifting of the ban on “online campaigning” has also revealed contradictions and an ambiguity of boundaries that make one wonder why this kind of wide latitude has only been applied to campaigning in the realm of the Internet, while campaigns in other fields continue to be strictly prohibited or regulated. For example, why are there no restrictions on the distribution of campaign documents via the iPad, while the distribution of the same documents on paper is prohibited? And why are third parties allowed to provide video recordings of speech meetings but are not allowed to hold speech meetings?

As is well known, pre-election campaigning and door-to-door canvassing are prohibited, and documents, campaign offices, automobiles, speech meetings and repeated shouting are regulated in detail in the current Public Offices Election Act.

However, election campaigns have the important role of providing information about the policies and opinions of candidates and political parties to sovereign citizens and residents so they can make appropriate choices in elections, and are supposed to be conducted in a free and lively manner. Thus, most developed democratic countries in Europe and America have a freedom-in-principle approach.

In the days ahead, we should follow the example of Europe and America and take the lifting of the ban on “online campaigning” as an opportunity to completely abolish the “list of don’ts”—the campaign regulations in the Public Offices Election Act—and take the restrictions off of everything, including door-to-door canvassing, debates among candidates, and the distribution of documents and images (Katagi et al., Abolition of the Public Offices Election Act [Koshoku Senkyo Ho no Haishi]).

Online Voting

Another quandary brought to attention by “online campaigning” was why voters in the age of Internet have to physically go to polling stations in the first place. At present, law-based e-voting (voting at polling stations using electronic equipment) initiatives for local elections are inching forward, thanks to the efforts of some of the more progressive local governments. In the days ahead, the Japanese government should introduce e-voting to national elections as quickly as possible and further link it to the implementation of voting from home over the Internet.

Jun Katagi
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University


Professor Katagi graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Tokyo and has served as Director-General of the Election Department, Ministry of Home Affairs and Vice-Commissioner of the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. He has also served as Director General of the General Affairs Department for Kochi prefecture, Hokkaido and Osaka. He became a professor at the Okuma School of Public Management (now the Graduate School of Public Management), Waseda University. He is the Director of the Media Culture Research Institute of Waseda University. Professor Katagi specializes in local self-government and electoral system theory. His publications include A Comparative Study of Japan and Germany: The Consolidation of Municipalities [Nichidoku Hikaku Kenkyu: Shichoson Gappei] (Waseda University Academic Series), New Local Government and Governance: Theory and Practice (coauthored; Ichigeisha), and Germany: A Nation of Local Sovereignty [Chiho Shuken no Kuni: Doitsu] (Gyosei).