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politics

Targeting Young Voters, Japan’s Abe Takes to Instagram

Updated on

Targeting Young Voters, Japan’s Abe Takes to Instagram

  • Polished posts, #LDP2019 hashtag ahead of upper house vote
  • Abe on path to be Japan’s longest-serving prime minister
Shinzo Abe

Shinzo Abe

Photographer: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg
Shinzo Abe
Photographer: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg

As Japan prepares for an upper house election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to have taken a page from social media giants like U.S. President Donald Trump and stepped up his influencer game.

Unlike Trump, who favors Twitter, Abe’s format of choice has been Instagram -- and his target is the young voters who flock to the platform. Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party are trying to grab their attention with slickly produced videos of him on the campaign trail ahead of Sunday’s vote, including posts of the leader meeting constituents and even enjoying local delicacies.

Abe isn’t a total beginner when it comes to digital platforms, having been active on other social media sites including Facebook and Twitter even before his return to power in 2012. But this is his first time using Instagram as he campaigns in a national election. The move gives him the ability to reach millions of young voters -- more than 50% of Japanese citizens in their 20s use the image-driven platform, which is owned by Facebook Inc., according to a study by the Ministry of Communications.

“We think about the youth as liberal and critical of power, but that’s not exactly how it is in Japan,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “The LDP has gotten increasingly confident on its appeal to the youth.”

Social Parties

Opposition parties are also embracing social media in their campaigns, trying to keep pace with Abe’s multiple posts a day. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan has taken to Twitter to relay its messages, using hashtag slogans including: “This summer I want to change” and “Reiwa Democracy,” which uses Japan’s new imperial era name, announced earlier this year.

What to Watch in Japanese Election That Will Shape Abe’s Legacy

Yuichiro Tamaki, the leader of Democratic Party for the People and a self-proclaimed YouTuber, has created a channel on which he posts videos about the elections and other issues addressed in sessions of Japan’s Diet, or parliament.

Young voters tend to back Abe’s LDP in greater numbers than left-leaning opposition parties, a trend that runs counter to most developed democracies, whose younger voters typically support liberal parties over conservatives. Abe’s support among people aged 29 and younger was 52% in June 2019 -- higher than the average of 45% across all age groups -- according to a survey from the Asahi newspaper.

Life has been relatively good under Abe for Japan’s youth, most of whom are far more familiar with him than any other leader. Jobs are available and while unemployment among those ages 15-24 surpassed 20% in France and 8.5% in the U.S. last year, it was less than 4% in Japan, according to the World Bank.

Selfies With Trump

Polling shows the LDP will be Sunday’s big winner. The number of young people who participate could be a measure of the new digital media strategies’ effectiveness. In the last five upper house elections, the voter turnout rate among those in their 20s was the lowest of any age group.

Initial posts on Abe’s Instagram after its 2017 debut included staid photos of his meetings with world leaders. In recent months, the images have become more candid -- there’s even a smiling selfie with Trump when they golfed together during the U.S. leader’s visit in May.

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After the election, Abe and his party may look to social media to build support for a possible referendum on constitutional change, Nakano said. Abe’s long-held goal is to make the first revisions to Japan’s pacifist constitution since it was enacted with U.S. backing in the aftermath of World War II.

The LDP-led block is expected to win at least 70 of the 124 seats up for grabs, a Kyodo News poll released this week showed. Abe and other proponents of constitutional change would have to win 85 of the contested seats to secure the two-thirds majority needed to advance any revisions.

“Platforms like Instagram and Twitter are not exactly tools for debate, but for relaying short messages,” Nakano said. “They may be trying to get some sense of what kind of media strategy might work if the referendum were to happen.”

— With assistance by Isabel Reynolds

(Adds poll in penultimate paragraph)