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August 28, 2009

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Japanese politicians embrace Net for poll

JAPAN is one of the world's most Internet-savvy nations - except when it comes to politics. Decades-old rules have effectively banned campaigning on the Web.

But this Sunday's general election is testing that restriction with some candidates blogging, tweeting and posting speeches on YouTube.

A 1950 law, aimed at keeping costs down and leveling the competition among candidates, limits a host of campaign activities, including TV time and the number and size of leaflets permitted. It doesn't mention the Internet, but the official interpretation is that the Web is off-limits.

In the run-up to one of the most hotly contested votes in years, however, many candidates are regularly updating their home pages and blogs to woo voters. To skirt the regulations, the parties and candidates avoid direct references to voting and address general issues such as policies or events they are attending.

Many have become deft at trumpeting their cause or criticizing their opponents implicitly - highlighting the emergence of negative campaigning, rare in Japan.

In a cartoon on the official Website of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, a noodle chef tries to please every customer until his bowl is an overflowing concoction of fish, fruit and ice cream.

The cook bears an uncanny resemblance to opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama and is meant to poke fun at the alleged indecisiveness of his party, the Democratic Party of Japan, which polls indicate is likely to win control of the powerful lower house of parliament, the chamber that picks the prime minister.

"No one finds happiness by accommodating," a male voice says at the end of the video, which has drawn more than 200,000 hits on YouTube.

Government official Masanobu Hara said the boundaries on what is allowed under the law for campaigning are very complex, and the Internet so far is not included. He declined to comment on individual cases in which parties and candidates appear to be increasingly skirting the law.


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