On Gaien Higashi Dori
Tuesday, October 14
"Manifesto" and the Nova Bunny
Things become mysteriously popular overnight in Japan. This year gave us the Nova Usagi (Nova Bunny) , an ugly pink rabbit-like character used to promote Japan's biggest English conversation school. Within no time, the promotion was attracting people to Nova who had no interest in studying a foreign language, but just wanted to get the rabbit. Next, the Nova Usagi had released a CD, which made it to the Top 10 in the charts. In a short time, though, the Nova Usagi will be forgotten, laid to everlasting rest in the great big animated Japanese cemetery for inanimate cutesies, beside the Tare Panda (Flattened Panda) and Totoro.
Words borrowed (often in a semantically arbitrary fashion) from other languages and then converted into the Japanese katakana script enjoy the same kind of moment in the sun, and the word de jour at the moment is "manifesto." Not unlike the UK, where the biggest opposition to Blair's New Labor is actually the media, it was the TV talk shows that pushed this word into the spotlight. And their influence has caused a change in the laws, which could even redefine the whole course of Japanese politics. This is going to take a while to explain.
First, some background. Political parties in election campaigns in Japan, because of a law called the Public Office Election Law, were not allowed to create pamphlets or leaflets explaining their policies. Printed matter that could be distributed was limited to a postcard-size picture of the candidate, the name of the party and a "slogan," another katakana borrowing from English. This was apparently to act as an equalizer between big and small parties, and to curtail the amount of money spent on elections. These reasons, the first one especially, don't sit too well with me, but there you go.
As a result of this clause in the law, Japanese election campaigns to date have made those we see in the U.S. look deep and meaningful, as they actively encouraged candidates not to explain their policies. Anyone who has spent time here during an election will know what I mean: the hi-ace van, with the big cheesy picture of the candidate outside, driving by your apartment early on a Saturday morning, with the voice booming from the loudspeaker: "My name is Matsumoto Kiyoshi. I am in the LDP. Please vote for me. My name is Matsumoto Kiyoshi. I am in the LDP. Please vote for me." Over and over and over again, rudely ending your dreams of a title-winning Liverpool side and a three-day work week.
Anyway, amid the latest spate of scandals in Japanese politics, including comments by prominent politicians like, "We should nuke the North Koreans," and "It is more natural for a man to participate in gang rape than to be worried about asking a woman to marry him," someone in the mind-numbing Japanese talk-show circus for once got a good idea. Not a revolutionary one by any means, but a good one all the same: "Why don't we get election candidates and their parties to actually outline their policies before elections?" Why don't we get them to make, em, what's a good word, oh, I know, 'manifestos'?"
The word spread like the Nova jackrabbit, to the point where the LDP, who certainly don't want to have to tie themselves down to anything as cumbersome as election promises to the minions, felt their hands were tied: they were forced to change the Public Office Election Law, and change it they did. Lock up your daughters! November's general election in Japan is going to be based on policies! It is the "manifesto" election. And so it happens: A thought becomes a trendy new word, the word hits the TV screens, and mountains move.
Unless I suddenly become very good at ice-hockey, there is no way I will ever get to vote in a Japanese election. Nevertheless, I have found myself wondering what this change will mean. Will I be able to sleep peacefully on Saturday mornings? Probably not. Will I now get dead-tree loads of "policy outlines" as well as real estate brochures and pizza menus in my letterbox? Definitely. But it's bigger than that this time. This is a rare chance for a grumpy old git like me to write something positive about Japan. Granted, the tone is not without cynicism, but I really think this "manifesto" fad could have the effect of turning Japan into a thinking democracy, with accountable political parties. Ironic, isn't it, that TV and fad-fashion will have brought it about.