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Japan's Lion Clicks for Citizen Power

July 22, 2001|GREYSON BRYAN and NINA HACHIGIAN | Greyson Bryan, a lawyer, is chairman of the Asia Society Southern California Center. Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, will become the director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at Rand Corp. in August

Which world leader would you guess has the most citizens subscribed to a weekly e-mail he sends? Tony Blair? George Bush? Surprisingly, the answer is recently installed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, and the implications of the "Koizumi Cabinet E-mail Magazine" for Japanese politics are far-reaching.

Until now, politics in Japan has been confined to cozy offices near the Diet and the private rooms of Ginza clubs. Politicians appealed for public support only infrequently and with discomfort, if not disdain. Cyber-politics has been as Japanese as a spicy tuna roll.

But Koizumi realizes that his political life depends on brokering the huge gap between his sumo-sized personal popularity (more than 80%) and the feeble standing of his Liberal Democratic Party (around 40%). Using the Internet to communicate directly with the Japanese people both burnishes his image as a "modern" politician and accomplishes his political goal of circumventing the normal channels of garnering political support.

The preview edition of his e-mail magazine was titled "Lion Heart--A Message from the Koizumi Cabinet," a reference both to the prime minister's lionine hairstyle and to the boldness of his reform agenda. Since its June 14 launch, at least 2 million citizens have reportedly signed up to receive the newsletter--more than one in every 20 of Japan's Internet users.

Not everyone has welcomed Koizumi's e-initiative. Some critics argue that public financing for e-mail "to sell his charming personality" is inappropriate. And, indeed, describing himself as a "caged bird" and lamenting the fact that "bodyguards always accompany me wherever I go," Koizumi's first e-mail was a personal missive, not a policy statement. But while there is room for more detail, the official Web site does offer some policy information, and later editions of the e-mail magazine could as well. Moreover, this criticism ignores the reality that a leader's personality can directly influence the content, communication and, ultimately, the success or failure of policy.

Others have argued that the launch of the e-mail magazine just before two critical elections may be an attempt to circumvent laws restricting campaigning near election day. While perhaps true, this observation is less a critique of Koizumi than of Japanese campaign laws that do not yet offer clear guidance for online campaigning.

Criticisms of Koizumi's e-mail may also reflect a deeper discomfort with a new trend in Japanese politics. If it continues, this movement away from party-based political power and toward citizen-based political power, from group decision-making toward a concentration of power in the hands of a popular leader will have at least two profound implications for the Japanese political system.

First, a leader less beholden to the party would be a leader less mired in the consensus-building necessary to maintain a coalition and more able to act quickly and decisively. Of course, rapid decision-making does not ensure successful outcomes, but there is little doubt that the failure to make decisions quickly has cost Japan mightily during the past decade of economic stagnation.

A second important implication of "Lion Heart" e-mails may be hidden in this sentence from his first communication: "For [my] reforms to succeed, dialogue with all of you is essential." If made during a stump speech to a room full of supporters or even on a television broadcast, the promise of such dialogue would seem an unattainable platitude.

But made in a medium with unlimited potential for rapid, low-cost interactivity, where feedback is as easy as a click of the mouse, this pledge to listen to the Japanese online public may foretell greater access to politicians and more transparency in their policies.

Of course, it is easier for Koizumi to say he will listen to his constituents than to actually read and reply to the many e-mails, but the rhetoric is an important first step. And the possible result--more timely policymaking both informed and supported by the Japanese public--is an objective worthy of an electronic crusade.

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