Democratic Party of Japan Public Review Session: Japanese Politics Goes Online

Just under half a year has passed since the Liberal Democrat Party took back the reigns of power in late 2012, after three years and three months in the wilderness of Opposition. As society holds its breath over Abenomics, for the first time in a while we are starting to glimpse the signs of economic recovery. On the other hand, the losers of that past election, the Democratic Party of Japan, held an event on May 11th called the Democratic Party of Japan Public Review Session to much media attention, promising to reflect on what they did wrong during their government.

Use of the internet during election campaigns has now in part finally been legalized in Japan. Being able to utilize social media will undoubtedly become a major turning point for future candidates when they are battling for an election seat.

Online media is expected to make its first appearance on the political stage in the House of Councillors elections this summer. The DPJ, however, have already taken the lead in engaging with the new media. Overseas there may well be nothing unusual about this but in Japan people are only now asking how politics can work in the digital age.

Some of the answers can perhaps be found in the Democratic Party of Japan Public Review Session.

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The event was open to members of the public aged thirty or under. Organized by the Party’s youth committee as a chance to consider seriously why the DPJ government ended in failure, five hundred people turned up to listen to the panel: former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, and Akira Nagatsuma, former Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare. The event was divided into three parts, the first an open talk session between the three politicians and the audience, and the second a group discussion between the young audience members. And it then ended in a meet-and-greet mingling event.

The event was streamed live on Nico Nico Douga and Ustream, with over 10,000 users watching it online. It also trended on Twitter (#daihansei), meaning it all felt much bigger than the confines of the venue space itself.

PingMag took a seat in the audience for the evening

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The day of the event was rainy. In spite of the wet weather, though, the venue was packed with members of the press, as well as the hundreds of participants. Each seat had the log-in details with which you could post questions to an online message board anonymously. Before the proceedings got started, everyone could be seen earnestly punching in their questions via their smartphones. There were also hardcore participants who had their computers open, simultaneously typing in questions while also watching the Nico Nico Douga broadcast. All in all, the air was bristling with expectation and excitement for what was about to happen.

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Although you had to have the ID and password that were left on participants’ seats at the venue to contribute questions, anyone could still log in and view the content of the special forum. This meant that the people watching via Nico Nico Douga or Ustream could participate but, unlike the people actually there in the flesh, were not able to offer their own questions to the panelists.

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The moment the three veteran legislators say down, the debate immediately ignited. As announced in advance, there was to be no speech or address from the trio, just answers to the questions selected immediately from the forum. The facilitator was Yujun Wakashin, who seemed to want to throw lots of questions at the panelists but struggled from the start when they overtalked.

Well, I posted a question and by chance it was quickly selected.

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Q. To be blunt, what’s the relationship like between the LDP and DPJ? Good or bad?

A. Naoto Kan: Edano has worked together with the LDP in the New Party Sakigake, while I also served in that Cabinet as Minister of Health and Welfare. So there’s that and in the LDP there were many people who were friendly towards us, but they weren’t necessarily the people in charge of the Party at the time. Then, the Tohoku tsunami disaster happened just when the LDP was all fired up for an election. Ordinarily such an event would mean a truce in party politics, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. I proposed this to Sadakazu Tanigaki [the then leader of the LDP] but the stance of the LDP at the time was to push for an election.

There’s something pretty exciting about being able to ask a question directly to a former prime minister! And no matter what you ask, it seems you can trust a politician to give a serious answer.

The bulletin board saw over twenty questions and comments added every minute, a non-stop surge of questions. There was a “like” button which you could click to indicate your preference for a question, but the pace of the log was so fast it seemed like it was hard for Wakashin to keep up.

The content of the board ranged from serious questions to the less so (“Are you an alien?”), as well as plain criticisms. At times it seemed to be collapsing into a forum more like 2channel. Regardless of whether your questions would be picked or not, there was simply no holding back for the posters as it was all anonymous.

Things were exploding on Twitter as well, as the participants and people watching the livestream tweeted furiously, turning the social media channel to all intents and purposes into a second question board.

It was all over before you knew it. With the first session finished, the panelists departed and then the press was asked to leave. There was also a significant exodus of the general participants at this point, whittling numbers down to something like half. Comments like “Disappointing! I’m going home!” suddenly sprang up on the bulletin board, presumably posted by the people leaving early. The press pack was waiting outside keen to harvest negative quotes from the premature departures and interview them with leading questions. The livestream broadcast also finished with the first session and the rest of the event was not open to the public.

Online, the response seemed to be that the supposed highlight of the event, making effective use of the internet, had not been a success.

During the event there were many comments posted to the message board calling for improvements to how it was being run. Comments mentioned the need for a more efficient way of selecting the questions, since the flow of the board was so fast and more people were needed to collate the content. Another idea suggested was that every panelist could have had a screen in front of them so they could spontaneously pick out and answer questions themselves.

Part Two: Group Discussion

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After a short break there followed a discussion in groups of ten on a fixed topic, facilitated by a regional assembly member.

The topic for debate was territorial disputes, which had featured a lot in the first part. With the recent issues surrounding conflicting claims to islands between Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, this delicate subject was understandably tough to discuss in such a short time, but the participants gave it their all. The group that this writer took part in examined the dangerous influence that national sentiments can have on foreign diplomacy.

After fifteen minutes each group shared what they had discussed with everyone else, and then DPJ members of the House of Councillors took the podium for a discussion that proved franker that the previous one.

Even though the length of the talk here was shorter, this latter section of the event actually seemed to be the most fulfilling. In the first part the panelists were perhaps influenced by the presence of the media and in the face of delicate topics they frequently retreated into self-vindicatory statements. Maybe because there was no media or online audience, it was in the second part that we finally seemed to hear what the politicians really thought.

Part Three: Small Talk

For the last part, we moved rooms for a laid-back chance to mingle with the other people. There were snacks and soft drinks, so we could chat and look back on the whole event along with the regional assembly members. Members of the DPJ youth committee also went around and asked how people how it had gone.

Someone was wearing what appeared to be a school uniform. When I asked, it turned out he was a high school first grader. “I’ve been interested in politics since a young age, so straightaway I wanted to take part in this event,” he said.

“The event was less about reviewing and reflecting (hansei), and more about vindicating. It was a bit different to what I expected from the name.”

We heard the same opinion from other participants. One male fourth-year student attending a college in Tokyo said that usually the only chance to get in touch with politics was by watching the news. “I didn’t hear what I wanted to in the first part. The responses by Mr Kan were also innocuous. It was that weird thing where politicians answer any question without actually saying anything.”

Moderator Yujun Wakashin reflects on how it went

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Last week PingMag interviewed Yujun Wakashin, who served as the moderator this time and is a senior researcher at Keio University. Wakashin is involved in a range of activities supporting Japanese youth, so we wondered how he felt the event had gone.

Well, the project was one that drew quite a big response, but, in a word, my feeling now is “the reaction was larger than expected, and I did not do things on the day or prepare in a way that fulfilled the goal of the project.”

The original goal was to create content meaningful for young people, exposing “what the grown-ups got wrong”. In particular, politics is dealt with by the younger generation as an untouchable. We wanted to treat this topic in a “pop” way. I think that this was something new, but the final event did not match up to the grand title.

Specifically:

・I should have rehearsed how to pick out the questions posted to the message board. It very quickly became overrun, so I ended up directing the discussion just by myself.

・From the start there was an attempt to search for one point of contention, which lowered the significance of the audience taking part. It would have been better if in the first half things had moved quickly, taking in lots of the questions, which if necessary, could then have been used as a base to search for an overall argument. In the end, it was all I could do to keep up with the questions.

・To say it now sounds like just an excuse, but the three panelists talked for a long time. This could have been foreseen. I should have been more conscious of having the panelists speak as succinctly as possible.

・It was an event for younger people, so I wanted as much as possible to keep it light and frank, but in the end it was kind of half-baked. Lots of people told me to get my act together.

・We talked a lot about “reflecting” (hansei), but in the end there was no frank apology. However, political problems are actually a complex beast and the panelists are not going to say “sorry” just like that. In this case, I needed to do tougher “following-up” during the event, but perhaps I’m a bit weak or self-defensive, and my knowledge of politics was lacking.

These are the kind of things that have been going round and round in my head since the event finished.

It didn’t turn out to be successful as a “review session”, yet I think what’s important is not focussing on how to use the internet, but rather having an attitude of openness with each other. From sharing the casual everyday things to consulting about your troubles, I think it’d be interesting if this kind of soft communication, one going beyond generations and status, could become commonplace.

There is still this distance between politicians and us; they are something “extraordinary” to us. With the internet, we will be able to see parts that till now didn’t crop up in articles or media content. I’d like there to be a kind of back and forth of perspectives where you realize that the politicians are just ordinary people, and you wonder what you would do if it was you in their place.

It is still only around one month since the ban on the use of the internet in election campaigning was lifted. As the flow of information constantly accelerates, the internet is sure to make politics into something more intimately connected to our lives in the future. As a first step towards that, it’s probably fair to say that there are still many improvements to be made to the way the event was set up, and the politicians’ response to it.

All around the world, leaders are now attempting to speak more directly with their people. If the Japanese people and their politicians could clarify what they expect from an event such as the DPJ’s, and if they are both looking for the same thing, then the day may well come when even in Japan we can speak seriously with our Prime Minister over Twitter.

The first part of the event can been viewed on the following website (Japanese only):
http://seiji.yahoo.co.jp/close_up/1290

The message board can also still be viewed (Japanese only):
http://dpj-reflection2013.herokuapp.com/speaks