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Japan Lets Politicians Use Haiku-Like Pitch on TV

Some get only 15 seconds of air time before Sunday's election

For a nation that has done as much for the proliferation of television as Japan, this country's politicians have precious little access to the airwaves.

More than 1,500 candidates are zipping around their constituencies this week, trying to catch the voters' attention before they go to the polls on Sunday. Japan will elect a new lower house of parliament, which will in turn select the next prime minister.

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The government recently liberalized some rules on televised political advertising, but American-style "attack ads" are nowhere in sight. Candidates can't produce and air commercials on their own and even party-produced advertisements aren't allowed to refer to the election.

Unless a candidate merits some coverage by a news show, where the focus is usually on party leaders, his or her appearances on television may be limited to a snippet of air time lasting a quarter-minute. Independent candidates have virtually no chance of getting on TV.

"It would be very nice if we could use media more effectively," says Ichita Yamamoto, a member of the parliament's upper house from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

With little opportunity to broadcast their messages, candidates rely on the staples of Japanese politicking: courting organizations that can deliver votes, house-to-house canvassing, and meeting with small groups of supporters. They also use a primitive form of broadcasting: sound trucks that cruise neighborhoods blaring a candidate's name.

"Under the current rules, in a Japanese election you can't do an 'air battle' like in the States," says Shigehiro Morita, spokesman for the main opposition New Frontier Party (NFP). "We can't display our creativity because of regulations," he complains.

Still, candidates have been allowed little more of an opportunity to express themselves in this campaign than they were during the last lower house election in 1993. Two types of political advertising are allowed on television. Political parties produce spots that they may air on commercial TV, and the LDP and NFP are spending at least $6 million each on such ads.

The parties also put together nine-minute public-policy broadcasts, in which they present all their candidates seeking seats in a particular prefecture. Those running in more populous prefectures - where there are more voters and more candidates - must share the same nine minutes allotted to rural districts.

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The government subsidizes the public-policy broadcasts, which are televised 16 times during the 12 days of the official campaign.

But the rules mean that in Tokyo and other urban prefectures, a candidate may have as little as 15 seconds in a party's public-policy broadcasts. Politicians in outlying regions may have up to three minutes.

The question is, what to do with the time? In 1993, candidates merely introduced themselves before a bland backdrop, creating television that caused viewers to lunge for their remote controls. The parties now produce these public-policy broadcasts themselves, meaning that the nine minutes are filled with scenes of candidates meeting the citizenry, swinging golf clubs, and speaking in parliament.

All this regulation occurs in the name of fairness. "The Japanese people are particular about fairness," notes social psychologist Yasushi Haga. He says that allowing politicians to buy their own ad time "doesn't guarantee equal opportunity to each candidate."

Ideas of fairness apparently don't apply to independent candidates, who are effectively barred from television because they don't belong to a party. Those rules were written because the reforms were intended to induce a more party-based political system.

If candidates were allowed to promote themselves on television, they would need more money and no one wants to find ways to make Japanese politics even more costly than it already is. "That would create another problem," observes Yasunori Sone, a political scientist at Tokyo's Keio University.

There is no official ban on negative ads, but custom has generally kept Japanese politicians from attacking each other directly.

In this campaign, however, the gloves have come off a bit. The ads of the two main political parties have exploited the personalities of their leaders - the LDP's Ryutaro Hashimoto, the current prime minister, and the NFP's Ichiro Ozawa - adding to the sense of an "Ichi-Ryu" clash of political titans.

The LDP's party ads, for instance, have made a great show out of Mr. Hashimoto's skill as a practitioner of kendo, a Japanese martial art. Some of the NFP's ads, taking a poetic, issue-based high road, have used a humorous form of haiku to express sentiments such as, "A hefty tax cut is a good thing."

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