Japanese poll war moves to TV screen

New power for the parties has forced politicians to turn to a previously neglected medium, writes Richard Lloyd Parry
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The Independent Online
Tokyo - Two men, their faces hidden by protective masks, are practising kendo, the traditional Japanese sport of fencing with wooden swords.

Swirls of smoke and occasional inexplicable bursts of flame obscure the action on the television screen but over the noise of the fighting we hear a nasal and naggingly familiar voice. "I think that Japan lacks dreams. I want to make Japan into a country in which those who strive can be happy." The epic battle is soon over and the victor removes his mask to reveal the features of Ryutaro Hashimoto, the Prime Minister. He looks tired, but determined. "This," he says, "is the new Liberal Democratic Party."

In most countries, the idea of a party political broadcast in which a government leader beats his opponent into submission would be eyebrow- raising and in Japan it is nothing less than extraordinary. Its political culture is comically conservative: campaigning candidates still don white gloves when delivering speeches, and the standard canvassing technique is to drive around the constituency in a loud-speaker van repeating a single phrase: "Please vote for me."

But Sunday's election, the twentieth since the Second World War, is unlike any others: it is a measure of the panic and confusion it is causing politicians that they are, for the first time, devoting lots of money and energy to television. Until the 1980s, they paid little mind to television, because it had little influence on elections; politics was a local affair in which a candidate's affiliation mattered far less than his reputation within his constituency and the efficiency of his canvassers.

This changed in 1993, when the Liberal Democrats (LDP) lost their 38- year ascendancy to a coalition of reform-minded parties whose one big achievement in its brief tenure was to reform the electoral system. On Sunday voters will mark two ballots. The first will be for an individual candidate in a local constituency, a first-past-the-post system filling 300 of the 500 seats in the lower house of the Diet. The second cross will go alongside the name of a party, and from these votes the rest of the seats will be divided proportionally. For the first time, politicians have to stake their futures on the appeal of an individual party.

The idea was to encourage policy debate and direct competition between the parties, but it has failed. The few big campaign promises - a pledge by the opposition Shinshinto (New Reform Party), for instance, to cut taxes by 50 per cent - are dismally vague, and the political vacuum which this leaves is eagerly filled by advertising.

Apart from official slots on NHK, the state broadcasting network, the parties are not allowed to make any mention of the election in their television commercials: the pretence is that Mr Hashimoto's kendo match is a party promotion, unconnected with the poll. But no one who watches it can be in any doubt about the inferred identity of the masked opponent whom he fells: Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of Shinshinto, Mr Hashimoto's former friend and now his rival.

Broadcasting rules forbid "negative campaigning" but the media campaigns of the two parties contain numerous little digs at one another. The buzz- word of Mr Hashimoto's commercials is yume, which means dreams, but also has suggestions of fantasy. "Let's create a country in which yume can be fulfilled," he gushes. "Shinshinto does not propose the politics of yume," runs an opposition slogan.

The LDP is lucky in Mr Hashimoto, a tough, confident politician who genuinely happens to be a kendo black belt. Mr Ozawa, a far less charismatic performer (a fellow politician once said he resembled "a toad which has just swallowed something bitter"), makes few appearances in his party's media campaign. Instead, it has opted for metaphor: its main television advertisement depicts vegetables in a juice-maker, representing the squeeze the government threatens to put on voters with a proposed tax increase.

Neither side will say what it is spending on advertising, although it is rumoured to be pounds 23m for Shinshinto and half that for the LDP, which is concentrating on the "ground battle", the old-fashioned local campaigns run by individual candidates in the constituencies, where the party still enjoys solid support. "An election is a war," said the LDP's public-relations chief, Katsumi Kishimoto. "You have to decide where you are going to concentrate your forces, and for us the ground war is the decisive one."

r Polls suggest the LDP will come close to recapturing a slim majority in the lower house on Sunday.