On October 22, 2017 Japanese voters headed to the polls to cast their ballots for members of the House of Representatives. As a Japanese and government double major, I immediately began to consider the ways in which this election could be compared to last year’s election in the United States. I quickly realized that the differences far outnumber the similarities. The American example is useful to think about insofar that it highlights the distinctive social norms of Japanese culture and how that has extended to political discourse and campaigning.
Since I have limited knowledge of other countries’ electoral politics, I can only compare this past election to what I know about American politics. Electoral politics in America is pervasive in every sphere of public and private life. From signs on lawns to appearances by candidates on talk shows, there is no shortage of exposure to the candidates and issues. That was not the case in the lead-up to the Japanese election. Election day felt like any other day, and not much attention or importance was assigned to it by the people around me. Even television news was more dominated by the impending typhoon in the days leading up to the election than anything else.
I think that the general differences in attitudes toward politics can be boiled down to different cultural ideas about the role of political activity in both public life and private life. The public, performative dimension of politics takes on a different form in Japan, where distinctions are upheld by language and cultural norms for the sake of social cohesion. For one, the short election period in Japan means that candidates are not exposed to the public for as long. Thus, they must rely on their personal network to build a name in their respective districts. In the days leading up to the election, I encountered candidates bicycling up and down streets of Nagoya, accompanied by a white campaign van that was broadcasting the candidates’ name and campaign message over a sound system.
The official campaign period in Japan is limited to 12 days, and candidates must abide by restrictions on everything from updating their social media accounts to the number of fliers that can be distributed. Therefore, the candidates must make use of methods by which they can connect with as many voters as possible on an individual level. However, the nature of that interaction is reflective of the ways in which campaign laws limit candidates’ ability to engage on a more personal level with the public. The candidates cannot make speeches if they make use of the campaign trucks while the vehicle is in motion, so the interaction is limited to greeting and broadcasting their names and not on policy specifics. There is an underlying sense that policy is secondary to personality. Visibility and connections are of utmost importance.
All of these laws are ostensibly in place to equalize the playing field, but in reality they make it difficult for newcomers and opposition parties to generate attention. Without viable and visible opposition candidates, political discourse is dominated by the most recognizable candidates and tends toward stability—as is evidenced by the recent landslide victory of the Liberal Democratic Party.
In sum, I was struck by how starkly different this election day was from what I experienced almost a year ago in America, where politics is not limited to a particular area of public life. Politics in America is dispersed into all areas of public and private life—even affecting social dynamics on an individual level to the point of arguments and violence. In Japan, expressing views as frankly as Americans do could be considered impolite at best and offensive at worst. There is a culture around keeping certain views or opinions hidden for the sake of group harmony. These cultural values undoubtedly exert influence on what is considered acceptable behavior by both politicians and the public when engaging in political activity and reflect the tendency to keeping aspects of public and private separate.