August 19, 2009

Election Kickoff

As a huge fan of democracy – but not eligible to vote here – I take a detached, apolitical joy in observing the Japanese democratic process in action. Yesterday was the “official” start to Japan’s House of Representatives election, slated for August 30th. That means the quasi-campaigning and posturing is over, and prospective legislators can legally give their campaign speeches in the most heavily trafficked public spaces. By law, political hopefuls running for the lower house have exactly fifteen days to campaign, so we are at the outset of this election amid the scorching summer heat and humidity.

Last night, TV programs were laser-focused on the election kickoff and each party’s platform, which I frankly found to be a little nebulous. Billboards and candidate posters immediately went up in my neighborhood with colorful, and occasionally amusing, headshots of the local candidates for the respective parties.
My favorite English translation of a political party’s name is the Happiness Realization Party. They will not win a seat, but would win my vote, just because it feels like there is Ken Kesey-like character running the show for them. Alas, there are no apparent Merry Pranksters in Japan.
Most pundits project that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will defeat the ruling coalition (Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito Party), ending the LDP’s nearly 55 years of mostly-uninterrupted control of government. For my fellow Canadians, imagine 55 years of Liberal governments and you can get a feel for the political climate. Uhh…"maybe we can."

Some of the lighter elements of Japanese elections include a few things that North Americans might not be familiar with, such as:
- The aforementioned candidate, standing on a corner in a predictable dark suit, with a silk sash hung over the shoulder emblazoned with his or her name, bowing and waving maniacally at drivers while simultaneously bellowing out his/her campaign messages. This can’t be fun in 90-degree heat.
- Impeccably clean vans filled with the candidate’s supporters, who wave at passers by with white-gloved hands. They cruise my neighborhood, blaring a canned greeting, the merits of the candidate and how hard they will work for the community, through huge loudspeakers . They screech the candidate’s name many, many times so you can’t forget it.
Interestingly, TV advertising, door-to-door canvassing and direct e-mailing to sway a person’s vote is not allowed. This is a nice element to offset the added noise pollution.

This entire exercise in public affairs coupled with glaring public disturbance is amazingly out of character for a society that favors privacy, self-restraint and decorum. I still am juggling the complex array of social norms that keep Japanese society functioning smoothly, but when it comes to election noise, there is no escaping the invasive public noise and the inevitable hot air. In the end, though, a few weeks of noise pollution is the price Japanese people, and those of us who live here, abide with to live in a free and democratic society. Plus, for me, it’s quite entertaining.

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