Passing out leaflets on cold January morns

I’ve just arrived at the office after an hour and a half — from 6:30am to 8am — of distributing fliers outside a nearby train station. This was the third morning this week of standing outside a train station during the morning rush greeting commuters with “ohayou gozaimasu” and “Minshuto desu.”

I figured that three mornings of waking up at dawn in order to stand out in the cold would make me miserable, but, surprisingly, I’ve had a great week. Unlike earlier occasions when I assisted with distributing fliers, I’ve been placed in positions of greater visibility and heavier traffic. And I love it.

Watching the morning commute in process provides a great cross-section of Japanese society, (at least in this electoral district): young, old, men, women, lots of school children of all ages, middle-aged and old men dressed in natty, three-piece business suits, young adults who look like they’re ready to hang out in Harajuku. Lots of iPods. A lot of people who appear to be literally sleepwalking their way to work. I’ve played a game over the course of the week, trying to “profile” people and guess who will take a flier. Not surprisingly, middle-aged to older men are far more likely to take a flier than any other demographic category. Behind them are probably older women and younger men, followed by middle-aged women. The least likely has been younger women. I hope the interest in taking a flier is not reflective of an interest in politics, although I suspect it is — which means Japan may have a government by and for old men for some time to come.

Meanwhile, I remain a curiosity, especially to school children.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the coming of mass communication politics to Japan. While I remain interested in seeing more use of mass communications media to communicate with voters, I hope that Japanese democracy retains its emphasis on persistent direct, personal contact with voters even as it makes more use of TV and radio.

Consider this: my boss is not even up for election this year, and while his appearances this week have been partially in support of a candidate for the prefectural legislature, the idea of addressing and meeting voters in a non-election year strikes me as unusual. These appearances aren’t coordinated events at which the politician preaches to the converted. They are simply a matter of mingling with the electorate, without separating out voters by partisan, professional, or other affiliations.

There are a number of possible explanations for Japan’s reliance on this type of mass politics, include the geography of Japanese society (densely populated, with train stations serving as major nodes of activity), election law that limits the types of campaigning that candidates may use, and a society that continues to stress the importance of personal connections in politics and business.

This is neither the time nor the place to dig deeper into which of these causes is the leading explanation for the Japanese style of campaigning, but I think the result is that elected officials and candidates are more accessible to voters than in the US.

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