TOKYO (Reuters) - The social media steamroller credited with helping Barack Obama win re-election as U.S. president is playing a bigger role than ever before in Japanese politics as the country prepares for national elections on Dec 16.
Politicians still plead for votes at rallies and shake hands with commuters in busy train stations, but many have broken the staid mould of the country’s lawmakers to send 140-character long messages on Twitter, gather “likes” on Facebook and post video clips on YouTube.
Their entry into the cyber world of social media reflects a broader change among Japanese, whose use of social media sites has soared since the last election in 2009 partly in response to last year’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, when the likes of Twitter become go-to places for information.
“It’s a huge change,” said Daisuke Tsuda, a Twitter expert from the Movements for the Internet Active Users, a Net user rights lobby.
Tsuda estimates only 1 in 20 Japanese used Twitter during the 2009 election for Japan’s powerful lower house. Now it is more like 1 in 2 or 1 in 3, he said.
Candidates for the lower house are banned from campaigning on social media after official electioneering got underway on Tuesday. But the election was flagged well in advance giving politicians time to develop their online profiles.
In addition, the ban doesn’t stop Japanese from debating the election issues, such as the future of the nuclear power industry in the wake of the meltdown at the Fukushima plant.
In contrast to neighbouring South Korea, where the five most popular politicians on Twitter are all left-leaning, in Japan conservative candidates hold sway over cyberspace.
The Facebook page of opposition leader Shinzo Abe, whose Liberal Democratic Party is expected by opinion polls to win the election, is a case in point with as many as 120,000 followers.
The 58-year-old Abe, who served as prime minister from 2006-2007, was the first high-ranking politician in Japan to use the website to announce policies, call on supporters and criticise his opponents.
Incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), has a mere 395 Facebook followers.
But even Abe’s support is dwarfed by fiery Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, 43, who formed the right-leaning Japan Restoration Party. He is not seeking election but is the most popular Japanese politician on Twitter, boasting more than 900,000 followers.
Talenttwit, a website that ranks politicians and other celebrities on the number of followers, access and publicity, ranks Hashimoto just below uber-popular J-pop star Atsuko Maeda.
He is two positions above Masayoshi Son, the maverick founder of telecoms carrier Softbank Corp who has a rock-star status among corporate leaders in Japan.
There are several reasons why conservative attitudes seem to dominate the online debate, experts say.
Right-leaning candidates appear to have gained an online edge with Japan’s youth, described by experts as risk-averse and inward-looking. They are disillusioned with the DPJ and are looking for a return of the LDP, which has ruled for much of the past half century.
“Most of our interns want to vote for the LDP,” said Daigo Sato, the head of dot-JP, the biggest Japan organisation for student placements at offices of politicians.
Twitter in Japan is also used by more mature users, who have little in common with the liberal, urban campaigners who organised the Occupy Wall Street movement largely through social media.
“The average age of internet users in Japan is 40, very close to the national average age of 42,” said Masahiko Shoji of the International University of Japan Center for Global Communications.
“The majority of them tend to be conservative as well, and the LDP has used it to their advantage,” said Shoji.
The ban against candidates campaigning online has not stopped debate.
Leftist activists and pundits have joined their right-leaning rivals in a fierce online debate over the role of nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima radiation disaster, the world’s worst in a quarter century.
A perceived lack of timely and credible information about radiation risks from officials and media sparked a post-disaster Twitter frenzy, which saw the number of its computer users spike by some 5 million to 17.5 million in March 2011.
A breakdown of election-related tweets published by the Asahi newspaper showed comments about nuclear power far outstripped remarks about diplomacy and security. That offers some contrast to Abe and Noda, who have largely focused on how to revive the moribund economy.
For all the online activity though, experts are not convinced social media will play a decisive role in determining the election outcome beyond helping some undecided voters make up their minds.
What will still count the most in slow-changing Japan is the traditional need for politicians to pound the pavement to meet their constituents face to face.
“Despite those Twitters and Facebooks, you still have to convince the people to vote for you in your district. You’ve got to stand in front of the station and shake their hands - there is no escaping traditional campaigning here,” Tsuda said.
Editing by Linda Sieg Neil Fullick