TOKYO – No door-to-door house visits. No freebies except hot tea and sweets.

This is campaigning, Japan-style, with strict rules that date back a century under the Public Offices Election Law.

Experts say this is to level the playing field between established ruling parties that have more funding and upstart parties, as well as to avoid pork barrel politics and any semblance of undue influence and quid pro quo.

Unlike in some countries where politicians fill stadiums for rally speeches, rallies in Japan take place by the roadside in high-traffic areas, such as outside busy train stations and shopping malls, and end within 45 minutes by law.

Politicians are fanning across the country to canvass for votes as Japan goes to the polls tomorrow – after 12 days of campaigning – to deliver a verdict on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its leader, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office on Oct 4.

Mr Kishida campaigned for candidates in Kagoshima and Miyagi on the south-west island of Kyushu before appearing in Chiba, near Tokyo, on Friday (Oct 29) in hopes of strengthening his party’s hand.

The LDP is widely expected to eke out a majority with coalition partner Komeito, though forecasts show a tight race in as many as 80 single-seat districts.

A disastrous outcome might cause Mr Kishida to become Japan’s most short-lived premier even when compared with the late Mr Tsutomu Hata, who led the country for nine weeks in 1994.

Much is at stake in the general election to elect 465 Lower House lawmakers for four-year terms. Parties have sparred over macroeconomic and security issues, as well as bread-and-butter issues – from the Covid-19 strategy to diversity.

The election rules also state when street speeches are allowed (between 8am and 8pm daily), the number of party volunteers allowed on-site (up to 15), and the number of pamphlets each candidate can distribute for a Lower House election (up to 70,000).

Still, there have been lapses leading to a fair number of scandals.

Last week, former justice minister Katsuyuki Kawai dropped his appeal against a three-year jail term for buying votes to get his wife elected in Hiroshima in an Upper House election in 2019.

In 2014, then Justice Minister Midori Matsushima, now 65, lost her portfolio over the distribution of paper fans bearing her name to voters at a summer festival. She is now gunning for a seventh term.

Pork barrel politics may also surface in other ways. Despite a legislative push to reduce the disparity in the value of one vote, rural voters still get more sway than urbanites.

Tokyo’s most densely populated 13th district has 2.09 times more voters than the first district of the least populated Tottori prefecture.

Passers-by looking at an election notice board displaying posters of candidates in the Minato district of Tokyo on Oct 28, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Passers-by looking at an election notice board displaying posters of candidates in the Minato district of Tokyo on Oct 28, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

This has often meant more money for public projects in rural areas, typically conservative LDP bastions, than in urban districts, resulting either in positive rural revitalisation or, conversely, little-used white elephants.

The election rules have also allowed online campaigning since 2013. This is far less regulated and gives parties wider reach.

Both the LDP and the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan have started hashtag campaigns and live-streamed rally speeches to target younger voters.

This comes as Japanese elections have suffered from low turnout – hovering at about 50 per cent in recent national polls – amid tepid public interest.

This has prompted the celebrity-led campaign, The Voice Project: Your Vote Is Your Voice, to urge people to cast their ballots.

About 500 merchants, ranging from eateries and cafes to onsen hotels and even one rock-climbing gym, have joined a movement to offer voters a discount when they produce their ballot confirmation slips.

Polling will open from 7am to 8pm on Sunday, though millions would have cast their ballots in early voting, offered to those who cannot vote on election day due to reasons such as work or travel.

Mail-in ballots and electronic voting are not allowed. Voting is open to all citizens aged 18 and above. There are an estimated 105.6 million eligible voters out of the total population of 125.1 million people.

Voters will cast two ballots, given Japan’s hybrid electoral system.

One ballot is for their preferred Member of Parliament, with the country divided into 289 single-member districts.

The other is for their preferred party under the proportional representation system, accounting for 176 seats. Under this system, the country is split into 11 regional blocs. The number of seats each party gets is divided according to the proportion of votes it secures.

Voters cast ballots at an early polling location in the Minato district of Tokyo, on Oct 28, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Voters cast ballots at an early polling location in the Minato district of Tokyo, on Oct 28, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The MP and party votes do not need to overlap – voters can choose an MP from the ruling party but vote for an opposition party.

A candidate may run for a single seat but also get listed on the proportional representation list as a form of “insurance” to make it into the Diet as a lawmaker if they fail to win the seat.

A total of 1,051 candidates are in the running – among them former actors, former bankers, an anger management consultant, a former swimsuit gravure idol, and a former Formula One racing driver.

And while the Diet passed a non-binding law in 2018 to “equalise as much as possible” the number of male and female candidates each party fields, just 17.7 per cent of candidates are women, on a par with the 17.8 per cent in the last general election in 2017.

Ballot counting will start immediately after polls close. Media exit polls and sample counts will give an early sense of the results, though the final outcome will be clear only on Monday.


Heard on the campaign trail…

Climate effect

“Thanks to the fact that the average annual temperature is now 2 deg C higher, the rice produced in Hokkaido is delicious. Previously, Hokkaido rice was unsaleable to the point of being labelled ‘burdensome’.

But now it is even exported overseas. Is this thanks to the efforts of individual farmers? Thanks to the local agricultural cooperatives? No.

This is all because of higher temperatures. What this shows is that global warming is not always bad and can sometimes be good.”

– Former deputy prime minister and finance minister Taro Aso, 81, in a street rally speech in Otaru, Hokkaido, on Monday. The remarks by the veteran lawmaker led Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to apologise, saying they were “not appropriate”.

Taxing the poor

“The tax rate on capital gains on stock investments should be at least 30 per cent, which is on a par with international standards. This should also apply to investments made via the Nippon Individual Savings Account (Nisa).”

– Mr Kenji Eda, 65, economic policy in-charge for the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), in a television interview.

Nisa is a tax-exempt account that allows individuals to invest up to 1.2 million yen (S$15,000) a year in a scheme launched in 2014 to urge people to save for retirement. The scheme is used by millions of voters in the low and middle classes. CDP chief Yukio Edano stressed that Nisa will not be taxed but will be expanded under the party platform. Mr Eda said he had misunderstood the question.