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FEATURE: Japanese politicians still wary about full Internet use+
[December 29, 2008]

FEATURE: Japanese politicians still wary about full Internet use+

(Japan Economic Newswire Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) TOKYO, Dec. 30_(Kyodo) _ While casting a glance at U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's success in winning support and collecting a large amount of donations online, Japanese legislators are shying away from doing likewise despite the absence of any legal restrictions on fundraising via the Internet.

Most Japanese politicians have already launched their own websites, written blogs and issued e-mail magazines in an attempt to make their policies known to voters.

But they are wary about making fuller use of the Internet, particularly for political debates ahead of the first general election in four years coming up in 2009.

Behind this reluctance to use cyber communication is a reclusive Japanese culture, in which people prefer to keep their political opinions to themselves than speak out on public occasions such as debates, some legislators and experts say.

Toshinao Sasaki, a freelance journalist following information technology matters, is urging people in Japan to launch more sophisticated websites on political issues, challenging the traditional view that what the mass media say should equate to public opinion.

The launching of such advanced debate websites could be led by people in the Internet-related industry instead of those in the traditional news organizations, Sasaki said.

"But the biggest task we could be faced with is how to deal with possible 'disruption' of websites," Sasaki said, referring to the possibility that an operator of such a website could be forced to close it due to a flood of offensive messages.

Sasaki said the Internet culture in Japan has been led by bulletin boards such as "2 channel" where "cynical" messages tend to dominate, and that this has discouraged potential political debaters from expressing themselves in a serious and straightforward manner.

Sasaki also called on lawmakers to learn more about the Internet.

"The number of legislators who check all the messages they receive is very limited. Usually their aides delete messages they think inappropriate in advance. It means most legislators are unaware of the danger of the Internet."

Sasaki pointed out, however, "There is a growing mood toward more active use of the Internet in politics."

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa promotes the policies of his Democratic Party of Japan on various Internet programs, expressing his resolve to unseat the beleaguered Prime Minister Taro Aso through a general election to be held in 2009 in a make-or-break battle between the archrivals.

Koichi Kato, a former secretary general of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party, is known as a frontrunner among lawmakers trying to use the Internet for their activities.

In November 2000, he called on people to support him in a failed bid to topple the then unpopular Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori through messages on the Internet.

But Kato, 69, is now one of the veteran politicians who doubt the potential of the Internet as a communication tool in politics.

"Any messages or expression of opinions mean little in politics insofar as they are anonymous," Kato said.

"My website received as many as 100,000 messages per day at that time...I thought I could hear grass-root voices directly from the people by using the Internet," Kato said, referring to his online campaign at the time in an incident dubbed in political circles "the rebellion of Kato."

"But in fact, I remained in the dark about exactly who were supporting me, who they were and where they lived," Kato said.

"Politicians should try harder to understand what their supporters are calling for through face-to-face meetings and rallies," he said.

Sumio Mabuchi, a lawmaker with the opposition DPJ, said it is necessary to have a two-way approach to the Internet.

"Needless to say, the Internet is a helpful tool in communicating with people and dispatching information that could lead the existing mass media," Mabuchi, 48, said.

Mabuchi frequently sends messages to people including his close supporters through e-mail magazines and blogs and has experience of receiving 120,000 messages within several hours when he was accusing the government of lax checks on the safety standards of buildings in 2005.

"But at the same time, I am cautious about fully using the Internet for election campaigning. Having nice websites and blogs costs a lot and competition in the field could threaten the fairness of democracy. I mean that only the rich can win," Mabuchi said.

Mabuchi proposed an election system in which all candidates can compete on an equal footing by taking such legal measures as setting a cap on the capacity of the server of their websites.

In August, a group of nonpartisan lawmakers set up a group to study the feasibility of allowing political donations to be made online, in a bid to encourage more eligible voters, especially Internet-savvy ones among the younger generation, to engage in politics prior to the next House of Representatives election.

The participants in the study panel included heavyweights from both ruling and opposition blocs such as Kato and Naoto Kan, acting president of the opposition DPJ.

But they just agreed to keep studying the matter and the project has yet to develop into a major movement.

Copyright ? 2008 Kyodo News International, Inc.

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