A debate is a debate is a debate... right?
TOKYO: No wonder Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was at first hesitant about taking part in what was billed as Japan’s first political debate to be held on the Internet.
The debate, which involved Mr Noda and the leaders of nine other political parties, took place on Thursday (Dec 29) night in a former disco in Tokyo’s Roppongi entertainment district that is mostly used these days as a live house for music events.
The politicians were there to discuss their policy stances in the run-up to the Dec 16 general elections.
The 90-minute session turned out like the political equivalent of a rock concert with screaming fans.
The difference was that whenever the politicians spoke, they were greeted not by thunderous applause and piercing whistles, but by a barrage of realtime comments from netizens that whizzed across one’s display screen. Most were snide remarks, such as about the way a politician spoke or gesticulated. Sometimes, a string of 8’s would roll across the screen, signifying the clapping of hands in Japanese Internet slang. The Japanese word for 8 (pronounced “‘hachi”) sounds like “pachi”, which means clapping.
The terse and often cynical comments not only distract other viewers but also the speakers themselves if they attempted to follow what was being said about them.
Niconico, the video-sharing web site that hosted Thursday’s live event, does allow one to switch off the comment flow. But if this interactive feature were turned off, it won’t be any different from normal television, right?
While last night was the first time that so many of Japan’s top political leaders gathered together on the Internet to debate their party policies, many of the parties in fact regularly make use of Niconico’s services to broadcast press conferences in their attempt to reach a younger audience.
Niconico, which is like a Japanese version of YouTube except that it also allows subscribers to host livestreams, is said to be a favourite hangout for young, male Japanese netizens, many with alleged rightwing sympathies. Apart from the real time comments however, last night’s debate was otherwise little different from similar events held in a non-Internet setting.
Shiga prefecture governor Ms Yukiko Kada, who formed a new political group only on Wednesday called the Japan Future Party, succeeded in making a grand entrance and drawing attention to herself by turning up, deliberately or otherwise, a few minutes late. No matter how big or how small a party was, the 10 leaders were each given exactly two minutes at the start to talk about their party manifestos.
During the discussion period that followed, a professional moderator ensured that all 10 politicians had more or less equal exposure. PM Noda, who not surprisingly was asked by his political rivals to defend his policies, had probably the most air time of all. But even those who had no questions to ask were prodded by the moderator to say something. Spontaneity was frowned upon. No one was allowed to speak unless called upon to do so by the moderator. The sparks seen in the television debates during the recent US presidential elections were definitely missing.
Amid these limitations, however, some politicians still managed to find ways to impress. In his initial two-minute presentation, PM Noda not only spoke with utmost clarity and made no mistakes, he even ended his remarks right on the dot, just as the bell rang to say “time’s up”. He was the only one of the 10 to do so.
In contrast, Mr Shinzo Abe, head of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and the man who may become prime minister if his party wins, stumbled over his words several times and was the least persuasive of the lot. But Mr Abe was clearly the “crowd” favourite. Whenever he spoke, the volume of comments swelled. Whenever Mr Noda spoke, the comments slowed to a trickle.
Niconico said that, at its peak, over 1.2 million people tuned in to watch, many on their cellphones. Viewing of Niconico programmes is free in principle, but the website charges a fee to guarantee trouble-free viewing during the evening, high-traffic hours. But the stability of Niconico livestreams partly depends on how good one’s Internet connection is.
Breaks in transmission are also to be expected if one attempts to watch such livestreams on computers or cellphones with limited processing power. Still, last night’s event was a good start. With the boundaries between old-fashioned television and Internet programming continually being blurred, what over a million Japanese saw last night could very well become the everyday norm.