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Japanese Politicians Cut Off From Internet During Campaign

The political campaign is in full swing in Japan. Next month, voters will head to the polls for the general election. The prospect for a change in government has energized the two major political parties, but you will not find either lobbying for votes on the Internet.

When Japanese lawmaker Kan Suzuki was elected to the Upper House eight years ago, he knew he wanted to take his political discussion to the Web. The member of the Democratic Party of Japan started writing a personal blog and began broadcasting a weekly Webcast called "Suzukan-TV."

Suzuki says his goal was to connect politicians with average voters. This allowed for direct interaction. The Webcast quickly became a forum where thousands tuned in to discuss policies and exchange ideas.

But when Suzuki ran for re-election two years ago, he ran into a problem - a complicated election law that bans Internet use during the campaign season. He was forced to halt his blog and Webcast at the most critical time.

Suzuki says when voters are doing their own research, when the need for information is the greatest, the law asks politicians to take a break from this kind of communication.

Political analyst Yasunori Sone says the Japanese election law is a complicated maze that was written more than 50 years ago. He says it was intended to promote fairness and curb political corruption.

But it created a rigid system that controls the most minute details of a campaign. For example, it limits the number of fliers allowed and the number of cars that can be involved in the campaign effort. Posters can be no more than 83 centimeters long and 58 wide.

Sone says those rules are in place to limit the use of images and words, or "bunsho-toga."

The idea is to give every candidate an equal opportunity, and prevent well funded politicians from gaining an unfair advantage.

The election commission puts the Internet in that "bunsho-toga" category. Because the Web gives candidates unlimited access, they are banned from using it during the campaign season.

Politicians such as Suzuki who maintain Web sites during the legislative session must freeze content during the campaign period. So they pin up posters on election commission-sponsored bulletin boards and spread their message by megaphones.

One of the most digitally connected countries in the world remains locked in the 20th century at a time when global leaders are using 21st century tools like Twitter and Facebook to win votes.

This voter says Japan has all the technological tools in the world. But the laws have not kept up with the times. There is something wrong with that picture.

At least one party agrees. Suzuki says his Democratic Party has proposed four different bills to change the law and allow Internet campaigning. None of the bills have come up for discussion in the parliament.

He says that if the law is preserved, people will continue to show apathy toward politics. That works to the benefit of the ruling party.

But recent polls show that ruling party is in trouble. The Liberal Democratic Party suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Election a few weeks ago, and it is expected to lose its half-century hold on Japanese politics in the August 30 general election.

Suzuki says he is confident changes to the election law will come quickly, if his party takes power next month.