It’s election campaign season again in Tokyo. If you’re on the ground in Japan’s capital, you can’t help but know this. Even if you don’t follow any current political news or any news, for that matter, in any way whatsover — via smartphone, social media, the web, TV, print, radio, podcasts — you can’t help but know it’s election season.
This is because in Japan when election campaigns start, billboards are put up in every local neighborhood that display brightly-colored posters for each political candidate running for office on the upcoming election ballot.
The space on the billboards is divided into squares, each numbered. On the official campaign start day, politicians have a poster sized perfectly to fit in the numbered square assigned to them. The poster usually shows their photo, name, party affiliations and so on. These billboards are an unmissable visual presence on the urban landscape, a constant reminder that Japan is a functioning democracy.
As if the billboards aren’t enough, politicians send out vans decorated with banners and mounted with loudspeakers to drive through local neighborhoods playing loud pre-recorded messages promoting their candidacy, blasting their slogans and names and calling on voters to support them at the ballot box come election day. Sometimes the candidates themselves ride in the vans and make their announcements live, microphones in hands, from the moving vehicle. It’s retail campaigning on an immediate visceral level.
These vans are a form of noise pollution for some. We live on the top floor of a mid-rise condo building and at 100-feet up from street level the noise can seem just short of deafening when the vans drive by. Directly across the street from the condo is a billboard. The visual and aural barrage is inescapable.
After a while, you get use to it and tune it out. And, in a way, even though we as non-Japanese citizens can’t vote in Japan and only give cursory attention to Japanese politics, it’s reassuring to see the democratic process play out in person, virtually on our doorstep. We’d rather have it this way than being exposed to a ceaseless barrage of campaign commercials on TV for months and months.