Saturday, August 29, 2009

Elections, please!

During US election season, anyone with a TV or radio will typically have to brace themselves for a deluge of negative political ads. "Senator Jones says he won't raise your taxes, but can you really believe him after he cheated on his own wife? Who will you cheat next, Senator?"

Well, folks, I'm here to tell you that the Japanese have a political messaging system in place that is somehow even more obnoxious and abhorrent-- and I should know, since the election is tomorrow and despite the result being something of a foregone conclusion, the media machine is still going full tilt.

If you've ever seen the Robert Altman movie Nashville, you're already familiar with this campaign style: a van or series of vans with loudspeakers that will drive around town all day, blaring political messages and propaganda to anyone within earshot. Unfortunately, their paths seems to often include the street we live on, and our windows don't really have much in the way of sound insulation. And these suckers are loud-- I assume the thinking is that the louder and more obnoxious they are, the more likely people will be to vote for them. Okay; maybe that works here, I'm not sure.

I'm sure the two main parties, the Democratic Party and Liberal Democratic Party (confusing, eh? Not to mention that the Liberal Democratic Party is the more conservative of the two...) have been using this tactic. Without an obvious sign, though, figuring out which van corresponds to which party can be tough. Squeaky-voiced women are the usual messengers, and their voices are heavily distorted due to the volume being cranked up so high. It doesn't help that my Japanese listening skills are weak, so I don't really pick up most of whatever messages each van might be blaring. I gather that the bulk of what they're saying is "Please vote for [Candidate X]! Please vote for [Candidate X]! Thank you very much!"

Occasionally, you'll see them as you're walking on the street, and the most noticeable ones are always the weird fringe parties. Two stand out in my mind: one is the Happiness Realization Party, whose two main platform planks are happiness realization and being excessively paranoid about North Korea. They're run by some kind of cult group that I don't really understand, but they're nice, they wave from their van, and they have a happy, colorful light-blue van with cartoon birds on it. So, given that they're not likely to pick up any seats in the Diet, I'm okay with them.

At the other end of the spectrum is a party whose name I don't know, but their platform is not that difficult to glean. They drive three huge, menacing black buses in tandem adorned with blood-red lettering and angry, hoarse men shouting through the loudspeakers. The best part is that each bus has its own distinct message going, so the effect is something like three loud, pissed-off men shouting completely different things at you through megaphones all at once, which I imagine produces a totally incoherent noise assault even if you can understand what they're saying. I was later told that they're the "We don't like foreigners" party. Somehow I got the message even when I didn't catch the words.

America has plenty of its own xenophobic lunatics, but they generally have the decency not to rent enormous, intimidating black buses and shout things at you from the street. Instead, they show up at town halls, have their adorable "tea parties" and write anonymous Internet comments about Obama being a Kenyan-born Muslim Communist, and when you have the luxury of being 3000 miles away from all of that, it's all very amusing. But the difference is that in two days, the vans here in Kanazawa will be gone, while back home, the armed peanut gallery will be making noise for as long as I can foresee.

If you want to read more about tomorrow's election and the (major) Japanese political parties, be sure to check out the excellent English-language blog Observing Japan. You might think of it as

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