Japan's Politicking: You Thought American Political Campaigns Were Weird

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

I've spent a fair amount of time in the Land of the Rising Sun, working there as well as just hanging around. I'm not a big fan of cities but I do love Tokyo, and I'm about a third of the way towards my self-anointed title of Tokyo Ramen King, which I will achieve upon completion of my goal to eat a ramen bowl in each of Tokyo's 23 wards. 

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Here's the thing, though: Whenever I think I've got Japanese people and Japanese culture pretty well sussed out, something comes along and throws me for a loop. One such example was when I learned something about the Japanese word "Wakarimashita," which when said in normal, uninflected Japanese, means "I understand." But when a slight glottal stop is added after "Wa" and before "karimashita" it carries the implication, "I understand what you're saying, but I think you're full of crap."

So, as you might imagine, I wasn't terribly surprised to learn how weird Japanese political campaigns can be.

Tokyo elects a new governor this weekend, but residents say personal publicity stunts have overtaken serious campaigning to a degree never seen before, with nearly nude women in suggestive poses, pets, an AI character and a man practicing his golf swing.

It’s impossible to ignore. With internet campaigning still relatively new, candidates traditionally use designated election billboards — more than 14,000 of them — to promote themselves. The makeshift billboards are set up only during the short campaign season and are valuable space for exposure in a city already crammed with advertising. 

But this year’s wackiness — notably from non-candidates renting the billboard space — is proving exceptional, and residents have flooded election offices with angry calls and messages.

The fun angle to all this is the non-candidates competing for billboard space. Maybe this is a practice we should start following here in the United States; have some private organizations do some fundraising and compete for political campaigns for online advertising spaces or TV air time. Although the Japanese tradition of having small vans with huge loudspeakers cruising through business districts blasting a candidate's message at the approximate decibel level of a B-52 at takeoff, I could do without it. I've witnessed this practice myself and was told it's common, especially in local races. (And yes, it's annoying.)

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Still - how much of our system of politicking is annoying, if we're honest about it?


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There are limits, though, to what Americans - or Japanese - will put up with. Apparently, some Japanese politicians are pushing up against that line. Some specifics in the Associated Press article (linked above) include:

One billboard featured racy posters for an adult entertainment shop. Another had an almost naked female model in a suggestive pose with a message that said “Stop restricting free speech.” Others showed photos of a pet dog or a female kickboxer. One candidate called AI Mayor used an image of a metallic humanoid.

Campaign video clips have also drawn criticism. One shows female candidate Airi Uchino saying, “I’m so cute; please watch my campaign broadcast,” and repeating her name in a high-pitched, anime-style voice while asking voters to be friends on social media. She then strips down to a beige-colored tube top.

In another video, a male candidate who represents what he calls a “golf party” talks about his policies while occasionally practicing his golf swing.

Former President Donald Trump has not, as of this writing, commented on the Japanese candidate's golf swing.

Japan is, yes, its own kind of place, in politics as in everything else. It's a culture a lot of Westerners just don't get; I've spent quite a bit of time living and working there and still find Japanese culture baffling at times. Their political campaigns and the media that pops up around them are wild, varied, and chaotic; see for yourselves in the video, courtesy of Inaka Adventure's YouTube channel:

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 I love Japan. Always will. But their political campaigning? I never will understand that.

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