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  Towards a new politics — part 1
The politics of noise

The French general election looms, as does a round of local elections in Britain. Japan held local elections on April 22 and showed us all how campaigning really ought to be done.

Election poster,
Oji, Nara

In this country where excruciating politeness and excessive displays of concern characterise most social interactions and where raising your voice in your own apartment to a volume where the neighbours might hear — about one decibel above a whisper in these uninsulated houses — can mean ostracism for you and your descendants, it is striking the way that people feel a need to be as noisy as possible in public spaces. Pachinko parlours, bosozoku, yanki gangs, the municipal rubbish cart, the bloke who sells the night ramen or the mochi, the tankers that empty the septic tanks, any vehicle bigger than a push bike turning left or right, any shop with a front onto the street, every cafe, and seemingly each individual shelf in the supermarket is beaming music, jingles or announcements at you.

So it is natural that the local politician should approach noise as if it were a civic duty.

Election campaigning consists entirely of noise, of which there are two types — Parked Noise and Mobile Noise.

In both techniques, the candidate travels mob handed. The better off, better established candidate will have an entourage of beautiful young things, male and female. Jokes about catamites are strictly forbidden. Everyone will wear a sash bearing the candidates name, they may wear a nice suit or a colourful windcheater, and they will definitely wear white cotton gloves. Everyone: gloves. What is it with those gloves? Are they scared of some kind of contamination from the voters?Parked Noise involves a bus or lorry or van or car fitted with a speaker system that could bring down aircraft. The parking is carried out in front of a department store or railway station or other well-peopled location. The candidate will grasp a dramatic cluster of microphones that are taped together even if he or she has only one amplifier and will orate passionately to an invariably empty pavement. Passersby will put their heads down and leg it, ignoring the outstretched hands of the flunkies. When the candidate has finished his speech his entourage will clap politely and then the shebang will make way for the next party noise machine.

Mobile Noise is similar but involves moving — usually at the weekend when a great many people are at home relaxing. The various candidates each seem to pick on the same neighbourhood at the same time competing with each other for your attention. As they patrol and broadcast you begin to feel like a fugitive, or perhaps a wrecked sailor floating in the ocean as the sharks circle in on you. However, these sharks are not likely bite off your nethers. They may leap unexpectedly out of the water and blow out your eardrums with a megaphone.

Several years ago a candidate tried to combine both the mobile and the parked techniques right outside my house. We then lived in a small place, one of a nest of four tiny houses with shared front space. The houses were on a very quiet residential street a long way from any main road. The sight of four small houses facing each other and therefore making a sort of courtyard that would trap and amplify the noise very efficiently was evidently too much temptation for our politico who stopped and without warning let go a full broadside at a range of about five metres. I jumped and spilled tea on myself. My infant daughter, sleeping in the next room burst into hysterical tears.

Incensed, I picked up the crying child and headed for the front door. I intended to go outside and stand in front of the idiots and show them my bawling baby girl in the hopes of making them go away and perhaps shame them into giving up this ridiculous habit of noise once and for all.

My wife physically restrained me at the front door and when I saw that causing a diplomatic incident would likely cause a domestic one too, I gave up.

This year for the first time I have actually been listening to the campaigners that cruise around our neighbourhood, trying to decipher who they are and what they might stand for.
This is how it goes: "This is Taro Aho. Arigato gozaimasu. Thank you very much. This is Aho. Taro Aho [etc]. Issho kenmei ganbarimasu. I am going to try very hard to do my very best. This is [etc.] Yoroshiku onegaitashimasu. Please give me your regards. This is [etc, ad nauseam]"

And that's about it. How's that for a political message? All the candidates I heard were saying the exact same thing with only the candidates name changed.

Now, I know that in Japan it is considered polite to seek common ground with other people in order to establish group harmony, but seeking non-controversial consensus with your political opponents the day before an election seems to be missing the point of parliamentary democracy. How does the Japanese voter decide who to vote for?

Poster for the Japan Communist Party

Could it be the frequency with which they have heard the name of the candidate? The sheer volume of transmission? The energy of the delivery?

I was coming back from a Saturday trip to the library and the cake shop with my daughter and her friend when one of these cars bore down on us. The middle-aged lady in the back seat in her mother-Goth makeup and white gloves almost toppled out the window of her car waving and smiling at us. Like so many great displays of effort in Japan it was futile. Effort just isn’t real effort in Japan unless it is heroic waste of time. The object of her efforts were three non-voters. I am conspicuously not Japanese, and even though I have lived here married to a Japanese citizen for nearly 20 years, am a property owner, have always worked and paid my taxes, I am not eligible to vote. My daughter and her pal are both conspicuously 8 years old and a whole 12 years away from voting age. Perhaps the middle-aged lady thought my daughter might grow up dreaming of the day she could at last commit an X to paper next to that nice old lady’s name. Perhaps she thought that I might know a voter and tell him or her of the lady’s futile effort.

You can imagine the reaction of anyone hearing my account.

“ Leaning out of the window, you say? Waving energetically, was she? At three non-voters, was it? Utterly futile expenditure of energy, you say? Well she’s got my vote. What did you say her name was?”

Oops, I forgot that bit.

Of course, most Japanese voters don't decide who to vote for. They stay home and watch TV, go shopping or cleave to a baseball game, and good for them. I wouldn't vote for anyone who thinks that noising up the neighbourhood on a Sunday afternoon qualifies them for public office.

I have one acquaintance who has admitted getting into the polling boothon more then one occasion only to find she had no idea of who the candidates were or what they represented. She returns a blank ballot when this happens.

I firmly believe that candidates here must be elected according to the number of brothers, sisters and cousins they have, because only family members feel any obligation to go out and vote — perhaps just to stop the candidate using the megaphone in the living room.


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