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In February 2013, we reported on legislative momentum in the Japanese Diet to bring Japan’s sixty-year-old election laws into the brave new world of Web 2.0. On April 19, 2013, that reform effort came to fruition, when a bill permitting the use of the Internet during election campaign periods passed both Houses of the legislature—just in time for the upcoming Upper House poll in July.

The debate revolved around Article 142 of the Public Offices Election Law (POEL), which imposes strict regulations on campaign activities during the two- to three-week “official campaign period” leading up to each national, prefectural and municipal election (also known informally as the “blackout” period). Specifically, Article 142 prohibits the dissemination of “documents and drawings” for electioneering purposes during the blackout period (with limited exceptions), a restriction that until now has been consistently interpreted to prohibit Internet-based electioneering activities altogether. Indeed, Article 142 has been understood to prohibit even the general public from participating in online election-related activities, activities synonymous with many popular grassroots campaign efforts in the United States and elsewhere.

These somewhat antiquated restrictions are now largely part of the past. The amended Article 142 permits candidates for political office, political parties and members of the general public (both Japanese and non-Japanese) to utilize a range of online tools for electioneering activities during the official campaign period, ushering in a new era of net senkyo (the buzzword for Internet-enabled campaigning). The potential benefits for candidates and political parties include inexpensive, twenty-four hour access to constituents, and the freedom to depart from the narrow range of permissible activities that define the current mode of electioneering in Japan: train station stump speeches, pamphlet distribution and showering passersby with megaphoned sound bites from officially sanctioned campaign vans. Another purpose of the legislation was, reportedly, to energize Japan’s infamously “apathetic” youth vote.

Essentially, the amended law divides the universe of online tools into websites and similar services (including blogs and social networking services (SNS)), on the one hand, and electronic mail, on the other. At least with respect to websites and similar services, the old restrictions have largely been dissolved: candidates, political parties and members of the general public are now permitted to update their websites, blogs and social network profiles with election-related activities during the official campaign period, and to engage in direct advocacy and solicitation of votes over the Web.

The specific inclusion of SNS among the types of services for which restrictions have been largely relaxed is crucial, given that SNS carry the greatest potential for political innovation under the net senkyo regime. SNS, of course, have been a major force in American politics for a number of years, and Japanese politicians have themselves flocked to services such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter for conducting non-campaign-related activities outside the blackout period. However, the prospect of engaging in real-time and (theoretically) two-way communications with candidates for political office during the crucial period when voters are most attuned to the issues could represent a breakthrough for Japanese democracy, as Professor Matthew Wilson forcefully argued in 2011.

The relaxation of the POEL’s restrictions on online electioneering has already impacted Internet technologies based in Japan. Naver, developers of the Japanese homegrown messaging app “Line”—which has surpassed 150 million users worldwide and 45 million users in Japan alone—announced in May 2013 that ten political parties opened official Line accounts in the wake of the POEL amendment. The political parties reportedly hope to use Line to facilitate direct communications with supporters and solicit comments and feedback in real time, in addition to broadcasting news and information to followers using a more traditional one-to-many model.

On the other hand, the Diet has maintained much tighter regulation of the general public’s use of electronic mail (as opposed to websites, SNS and similar services). Although the POEL now permits parties and candidates to use electronic mail for electioneering purposes, lawmakers decided to preserve existing restrictions on voters’ use of campaign-related electronic mail, or to at least postpone resolution of the issue to a later date, in an apparent response to fears of “negative campaigning,” defamation, spoofing, identity theft and spam. As a result, the general public is still prohibited from sending electronic mails for election-related purposes during the blackout period—including from mobile phone-associated electronic mail accounts, which are widely used in Japan.

This creates an interesting tension: although a member of the general public may be free to use Facebook to express support for his or her favorite candidate, sending an electronic mail message containing the same content would continue to be off limits under the POEL. As many have observed, this leads to counterintuitive results, whereby someone who forwards to his or her friends a candidate’s official campaign electronic mail blast may potentially be liable for a fine (up to JPY500,000) or imprisonment (up to two years) and face disenfranchisement, while someone who simply copies and pastes the same information into a Facebook message would probably not run afoul of the POEL.

There is some skepticism amidst the excitement around net senkyo. According to a survey conducted jointly by the Sankei Shimbun and Fuji News Network, 56.8% of respondents said that they would not use online campaign information to inform their voting choices, while only 39.3% said that they would. (On the other hand, among voters in their twenties, the number of respondents expressing affirmative interest jumped to 62.7%. This bodes well for the effort to remobilize Japan’s youth vote, which reportedly was one of the original drivers of POEL reform.)

Further, anxiety over the twin threats of narisumashi, or identity theft, and defamation has not abated, and both Internet service providers and law enforcement authorities are already preparing for potential hiccups in the upcoming election cycle. Given the prevalence of Internet-enabled negative campaigning in other countries (for example, in Korea during 2012), it may be reasonable to worry about the downsides of the net senkyo revolution. However, as Professor Wilson has pointed out, the threat of fraud and other bad acts is omnipresent even outside any “official campaign period,” and both traditional law, such as the law of defamation, and technology itself—e.g., direct verification of accounts on Facebook and Twitter—can help mitigate these risks. SNS and similar technologies may even empower politicians to respond to false assertions more quickly and effectively.

Even though the amended Article 142 has become law in Japan, there is no way to predict the extent of its impact on Japanese political culture. But the surging popularity of SNS platforms and other mobile and online communications platforms makes it clear that net senkyo will impact the way Japanese citizens interact with political actors and political information in a lasting way.

Here at Socially Aware, we report regularly on the difficulties inherent in applying long-established laws to new technologies like social media. An interesting example of this is unfolding in Japan: it concerns a decades-old law that has been interpreted to prohibit candidates, parties, and even the voting public from engaging in most campaign-related activities on the Internet during the run-up to any given election. But this may be about to change.

The law at issue is called the Public Offices Election Law or Koushoku Senkyo Hou (POEL). As Professor Matthew Wilson describes in his 2011 article, “E-Elections: Time for Japan to Embrace Online Campaigning,” the POEL, enacted in 1950, strictly regulates which campaign activities can be conducted in Japan during the so-called “official campaign period”—a period that immediately precedes each national, prefectural and municipal parliamentary election and that generally lasts from two to three weeks—and precisely how those activities can be conducted. As Professor Wilson summarizes neatly, “Essentially [the POEL] is a collection of ‘thou shall Nots’ or barriers involving the time, place, manner, and methods associated with elections and campaigning.”

Given that the law was enacted over sixty years ago, needless to say, it does not explicitly address modern, computer-mediated communications, let alone social networking. But Article 142 of the POEL does prohibit, among many other specific restrictions, the dissemination of “documents and drawings” during the official campaign period for electioneering purposes, other than the distribution of a limited number of postcards and leaflets as otherwise specifically permitted by the law. And importantly, the Japanese government has consistently interpreted this “documents and drawings” limitation to apply to online activities, including email and social media, such as Twitter feeds. Reportedly, Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications continues to hold the view that Internet-based electioneering activities are governed by the POEL.

The upshot is that, even though Japanese political parties and candidates routinely use blogs, Twitter profiles, Facebook pages and email for general political purposes, those same parties and candidates typically freeze their existing blogs, websites and online presences, refrain from creating new ones, and suspend other campaign-related online communications during the brief periods immediately preceding elections—periods many would consider to be the most crucial times to engage the voting public. And not only does the law apply to political parties and candidates, but it also restricts the general public from engaging in campaign-related activities online.

In any case, the POEL’s prohibitions on Internet and social media electioneering may be nearing a makeover. According to a report in the Japan Times, on February 13, 2013, all eleven major political parties in Japan’s National Diet tentatively agreed to relax this long-time ban on Internet-based electioneering, in time for the House of Councillors election in the summer of 2013.

Glimmers of this news have been on the horizon for some time. In December 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his view that Japan’s strict prohibition on Internet campaigning should be lifted. (Prime Minister Abe is active in social media—witness his Facebook page, with over 230,000 followers, and his Twitter feed, with over 70,000 followers as of the date of this entry.) Other major political figures in Japan have expressed similar views, including Goshi Hosono, Secretary-General for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and in December 2012, Toru Hashimoto, Mayor of Osaka and co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party, reportedly took to Twitter itself to challenge the logic of the POEL’s restrictions on Internet campaigning.

Japan’s ruling and opposition political parties continue to disagree on the details of how to liberalize the POEL. For example, as the Yomiuri Shimbun reported in early February 2013, the then-current proposal by Japan’s recently elected Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would have permitted candidates to send campaign-related emails during the official campaign period only to people who had agreed to receive such emails in advance (an “opt-in” approach), while the DPJ’s proposal would have permitted sending unsolicited emails to an unspecified number of people, but not to those who declined to receive such emails (presumably, an “opt-out” approach). The parties have continued to differ on other points as well, including whether only political parties, or both the parties and their respective candidates, should be able to engage in paid web advertising, and whether the right to send campaign emails during the official campaign period should be limited only to political parties and candidates or should extend to the general public. As of February 21, 2013, Japan’s two ruling political parties—the LDP and New Komeitoreportedly have decided to break off discussions with opposition parties and instead propose their draft bill to the Diet directly.

This isn’t the first time that Japan’s political realm has called for a relaxation of the POEL’s restrictions on online campaigning. As several sources point out, in late May 2010, preceding the summer House of Councillors election, ruling and opposition politicians collaboratively drew up a bill to amend the POEL to permit candidates and parties to update websites and blogs during the official campaign period (but not to permit electioneering emails or, at least explicitly, the use of Twitter). However, the Diet was unable to turn those proposed changes into law in time for the election.

Various objections have been raised against easing the POEL’s current restrictions. For example, many are concerned that relaxing the existing restrictions could lead to more harassment and libelous activity, particularly given the quasi-anonymity of Internet communications and the ability to pose as others on social media and “spoof” communications to mask their real origins. These concerns are not without cause: on June 4, 2010, promptly after the selection of Naoto Kan as Japan’s Prime Minister, someone—not Prime Minister Kan—registered a Twitter profile bearing the name “kann_naoto” and displaying Prime Minister Kan’s photograph, and posted a single tweet that translated as, “Using this chance, I have started Twitter.” The account was eventually removed, but only after it had attracted more than 10,000 followers. And then-Prime Minister Kan isn’t the only Japanese politician to have received the fake-profile treatment on Twitter. (Any final proposal to modify the POEL may call for stiffer penalties for using the Internet to defame candidates or spread false information during the official campaign period.)

Objections like these are balanced against the potential benefits of liberalizing the POEL, including the possibility that freeing up the use of social media during the official campaign period will not only help level the campaign playing field cost-wise and give the voting public a chance to hear from their candidates when needed most, but that it will help increase voter turnout among young voters who use social media for … well, practically everything else.

The use of social media by politicians in Japan has exploded over the past few years: according to tracking site Politter, over 560 current and former Japanese politicians are actively tweeting. In view of this, changes to Japan’s Public Offices Election Law could have a major impact on the Japanese electioneering landscape.