Japanese politics – the movie

For most of the time since I’ve arrived in Japan, I’ve been fascinated by the election process. Politics are generally interesting, but politics in Japan have some fairly unique features. Finally, some of my questions are answered!

Campaign is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Japanese electoral process. Most of the documentary is presented in a very unobtrusive manner, with no commentary from the director. It’s hard to know if it was skillfully edited to do so, but the whole story left me just a little bit more sorry for the state of the democratic process. Although it’s about the Japanese political process, no doubt many of the lessons can be applied to many countries.

The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan decide to put up a Mr. Yamauchi as their candidate in a council by-election (he’s on the poster above). Yamauchi runs a coin and stamp collecting shop, and is by most accounts, just a little odd. He has absolutely no experience in politics. He did, however, go to the right university, has a pipe dream to be Prime Minister, and looks nice in a suit.

So, the massive machine of the LDP swings in behind him, organising posters, appearances at events and a loudspeaker car. Amazingly (or not), none of the candidates run on any real policy, other than to “pursue the reforms”. In fact, the main tactic employed is blanket name-brand coverage. Say your name as many times as possible to as many people as possible. One senior campaign adviser to Yamauchi solemnly observes that he should aim to say his name once every three seconds, and to “bow to everyone, even telegraph poles”. So, Yamauchi swings into action, hitting the streets by foot and touring in one of the infamous vans fitted with loudspeakers that begin bleating their repetitive messages at 8am on the dot. On a personal note, even Yamauchi wonders whether the announcements will annoy people at such an early hour. I can answer that. Yes. Yes, they do.

For Yamauchi, this is really like boot camp. Although he’s the candidate, he’s at the bottom of the food chain. His senior, seasoned campaigner advisors constantly berate him for his manner, his bowing technique, that he doesn’t shake hands correctly, or that he’s late for events. He’s always made to be keenly aware of the debt he owes his party for helping him, and to return favours in the future when they are due.

Ultimately, he is a somewhat pitiable figure. He has to put up with a lot to achieve his goal, which he uniformly absorbs without comment. Perhaps the most telling moment is when the Prime Minister of Japan at the time, Koizumi, makes a personal appearance to promote Yamauchi as the LDP’s candidate in the by-election. However, Yamauchi is not deemed important enough to actually appear on the platform with the Prime Minister – he has to be content with standing below the more senior party officials where no-one can see him, frantically waving his hands to the crowd. He was, however, very excited to shake Koizumi’s hand as he briefly walked past, and personally pledge to “push the reforms”.

Perhaps the most sobering point of all was how aware the participants were of the many farcical aspects of the election process. However, no-one has the motivation to change them once they themselves are absorbed into the insulated political world.

Campaign is in Japanese with English subtitles – recommended for anyone interested in politics or Japanese culture.

See the trailer

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2 thoughts on “Japanese politics – the movie

  1. You’re not wrong. In the film, he runs like a madman to get every last passer by, and is generally up from a very early hour to very late. He’s just about exhausted through the whole campaign, and speaks very hoarsely from all the shouting he has to do. Poor fella.

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