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Twitter reveals divergent political cultures of Japan and America

  • July 11, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 5:00 a.m.
  • English Press

Stephen Givens is a corporate lawyer based in Tokyo.

 

Twitter, under attack on charges that it filters out disfavored political viewpoints and “misinformation,” is a window onto the sharply divergent political cultures of America and Japan today.

 

In America, Twitter has become a platform for polarized political discourse of a nature that is incomprehensible in Japan. The ideological concerns that animate Tweetstorms in America — race, gender, crime, gun control, immigration, the 2020 presidential election — simply do not register in Japan as anything to waste time arguing about.

 

Japanese users account for 11% of Twitter’s $5 billion in global revenues but, one can safely assume, less than 1% of its political content. It is the country’s second most popular social media platform after Line, with 42% of the total population and 80% of people in their 20s maintaining Twitter accounts. But it is almost never used as an outlet for political expression.

 

Twitter in Japan is overwhelmingly nonideological. Thousands of businesses, restaurants, stores, schools, clubs and other organizations use it to advertise goods, services and events. To name but one example: hundreds of sex workers in the Yoshiwara “soapland” brothel district have accounts advertising their services, rates and open time slots.

 

For individual users, Twitter is a convenient way to exchange information about products, weather and traffic conditions, hobbies, sports, fashion and other matters unlikely to lead to a heated argument.

 

Twitter’s rare and unaccustomed role in an ongoing spat between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and one of the opposition parties illuminates just how parochial politics actually are across the archipelago.

 

Starting in 2019, an anonymous Twitter account began posting video snippets of opposition party members making statements from the floor of the Diet selected to invite derision from the LDP’s conservative base.

 

Example: Video snippet of opposition Diet member saying officials should avoid paying visits to Yasukuni Shrine “in order to spare the feelings of Koreans,” a sentiment patently risible to the LDP base.

 

The Twitter account, operating under the name “Dappi,” meaning exuviation or “strip” as in taking off one’s clothes, quickly attracted 175,000 followers and howls of protest from opposition politicians who complained that the video snippets were dishonestly edited to put them in a false light.

 

In October 2020, Dappi intervened in the obscure Moritomo Gakuen scandal, a complete exposition of which would take at least several thousand words and still leave non-Japanese readers mystified. In short, the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his widow are alleged to have arranged for government-owned land to be sold to a pet nationalist school at a huge discount to market value.

 

The opposition political parties pounced on the scandal to score political points against Abe and the LDP. The Ministry of Finance, hauled into the Diet by the opposition to explain the real estate transaction, sheepishly confessed that most records had mysteriously disappeared. A local finance ministry official involved in the investigation and possible cover-up committed suicide.

 

Dappi intervened in the scandal with a Tweet suggesting a causal connection between the official’s suicide and the fact that he had been grilled for hours the day before by two leading members of the left-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party. In turn, the Tweet led to an ongoing libel lawsuit by the two against a web consulting company to which the Twitter account was traced.

 

The consulting company, it turns out, provides website maintenance services to well-known LDP members, including Yuko Obuchi, the former economy, trade and industry minister under Abe.

 

According to the company, the now-abandoned Dappi Twitter account was run without company knowledge by an unnamed rogue employee who has been duly disciplined. The defamed politicians maintain that Dappi’s highly sophisticated video content could not possibly have been produced by one person acting alone.

 

In the sleepy backwaters of Japan, the Moritomo Gakuen and Dappi scandals qualify as important political news covered by a thriving industry of newspapers, tabloids and weekly magazines. In refreshing contrast to America, what passes for political news here is largely devoid of ideological or policy substance and mostly consists of harmless mudslinging between political personalities and factions.

 

 

My late night and early morning visits to my habitual menu of U.S.-based news and political websites rarely fail to provoke greater or lesser outrage and disgust, amplified by the knowledge that I am being manipulated to click on the links that deliver the adrenalin rush associated with those emotions.

 

Transgender athletes, abortion rights, Black Lives Matter — the politicization of what seems like every dimension and facet of daily life in America is exhausting, even when viewed remotely on my iPhone in bed in Tokyo late at night.

 

In America, Twitter’s proprietary algorithms are busy filtering out offending content — revenge porn, hate speech, election disinformation, climate change skepticism, QAnon conspiracy theories. Whether this filtering represents an ominous Orwellian Ministry of Truth is yet one more exhausting political issue I would prefer not to think about.

 

In Japan, Twitter users rarely post content that would trip the algorithms. In a homogeneous nation, those that bother to think about politics at all more or less tacitly agree on the basic issues that matter. Everyone has been trained from childhood to avoid dangerous subjects in public.

 

Japan’s lack of political diversity, and indeed its lack of interest in politics as a category, makes reading the morning newspaper at breakfast, whether it be the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun, the indispensable Nikkei or the right-leaning Sankei Shimbun, predictable, boring and altogether less stressful than my late-night iPhone habit.

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