November 20, 2008

Online political engagement in the U.S. and Japan

The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, hosted a cross-cultural discussion of the internet and politics in which the word “cool” played a starring role.

Tadamasa Kimura, a professor at the University of Tokyo, presented his findings about the internet’s negligible effect on Japanese electoral politics. People who follow traditional media were more likely than SNS users to vote and, in his observation, mobile internet use is mostly for socializing, not information gathering or political organizing. (This was confirmed later by a student commentator.) Kimura observed that Japan has not yet said, “Yes, We Can” to the internet or to political action.

I talked about how in the U.S., broadband internet access allows people to engage more deeply with “unfiltered” political information sources and with each other. Young people were especially likely to have used social media to get involved in politics this year.

The discussion went on to reveal that Japanese politicians are barred from updating their websites or going door to door in the last two weeks of a campaign. Contrast that with the experience shared by Lauren Lucas, a college senior and a McCain volunteer, who said that going door to door in Ohio was the most important work she felt she could do in the last days of the race.

Yuki Okubo, a student at the University of Tokyo, closed out the presentations with his observations that it’s just not cool to be interested in Japanese politics. He described a documentary which lampooned Japanese politicians bowing to every passerby and even an electrical pole in their attempt to gain votes. Okubo seemed almost wistful about what he saw of the U.S. campaign — “cool” politicians giving “eloquent” speeches in front of cheering crowds.