TOKYO - Japanese elections are getting a new look as candidates turn to consultants for help with slogans and a warmer personal style to win over increasingly influential floating voters ahead of an August national election.
It's all about the Americanization of Japanese campaigning, a trend that can be seen in other countries as politicians recognize that high-priced consultants can fine-tune their message and give them an edge at the ballot box.
Campaigns are about appealing to voters, not about meeting the interests of parties or the political situation at hand. I learned this from Americans, said Hiroshi Miura, a consultant who started his career after a trip to the United States to study its campaign system in 1988.
What is obvious to the public may not be obvious to campaign teams. We fill in the gaps.
For decades, Japanese politicians were assured victory as long as they promised favors or money to corporations, labor unions and other interest groups in exchange for their support.
But with an election rule change and shifts in voting patterns, candidates face growing pressure to appeal to a public increasingly cynical about a political system that has brought Japan four prime ministers in as many years.
Voters with no party loyalty now make up around a half of the electorate compared to just 20 percent in the early 1980s, surveys show. Those swing voters, who look for image and policies over personal connections, hold more sway over election outcomes.
The trend is already reflected in crumbling support for Prime Minister Taro Aso's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed Japan for most of the past half-century but is in danger of losing power in the August 30 ballot.
That's where campaign consultants come in. Suggestions to spice up promotion materials and strategies to develop a rapport with voters may tip the balance toward candidates with savvy consultants. More than 1,200 candidates will compete in what is expected to be a close race.
COURTING WOMEN VOTERS
Miura has advised 240 candidates since 1989. He likens elections to battles and says he provides ammunition to campaign teams struggling with outdated ideas.
One team wanted a poster with a picture of their candidate with a serious face, thinking voters would be put off with someone smiling when the economy is bad, he said in his office.
I asked: 'Who's going to vote for a face that's frowning?' A young candidate, maybe. But a middle-aged man won't get a single vote.
The LDP in the past dominated elections, especially in rural areas, where groups such as farm cooperatives, construction companies and postal workers backed the party in return for subsidies, public works projects and other perks.
But a legal change in 1994 replaced multi-member districts with a single-seat constituency system, creating the need for candidates to appeal to a wider audience to win.
The change coincided with a decade of economic stagnation from the mid-1990s that led to a depletion of government budgets, weakening incentives for group members to back the LDP en masse.
Elections used to be all about connections and nothing to do with setting a campaign strategy and building up a base of supporters, one by one, said Kazuhisa Kawakami, political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University.
But groups can no longer provide the security their members are looking for. Money is running out.
Women, in particular, are breaking free of party allegiances, as they become more economically independent and less subservient to their husbands' requests to vote for a certain candidate. Female votes are now a prime target for campaign strategists.
Campaign teams traditionally hired women to roam through constituencies in vans, promoting candidates through megaphones, but some have switched to recruiting young men who are more popular with female voters.
Consultant Miura, who boasts a success rate of over 70 percent, recently helped a former actor win a gubernatorial election with ideas such as using fluorescent paint on posters so his name would glow at night.
Miura uses focus groups to hone slogans and selects a lucky color for clients based on their date of birth. The color is used as the main color for fliers, posters and campaign cars.
Besides brushing up candidates' images, consultants also suggest ways to help them communicate their message better.
Candidates are advised to practice pre-written speeches in the soundproof comforts of karaoke booths, where they can spend time alone shouting into a microphone.
I tell candidates to stop going around just repeating 'Please vote for me' to voters, said Kaworu Matsuda, a 29-year-old campaign consultant based in Shiga, western Japan, who is popular with candidates trying to get the younger vote.
They need to explain what it is they want to do for the community, how it's different from what other candidates want to do so voters can decide who to choose, he added, citing one example of a client who offered to cut his salary and use it for projects to help children if he was elected.
Elections have come a long way since the days when campaign teams wrapped money into lunchtime rice balls for supporters, said Matsuda. Today, there are many opportunities for candidates to reach voters thanks to the Internet and wireless devices.
Limits on online campaigning have held back Japanese political cyberstrategies compared with efforts seen abroad, such as in the United States where President Barack Obama's campaign reached out through social networking sites and text messages.
Other restrictions, such as a ban on paid TV ads by candidates, mean consultants in Japan can offer a smaller range of services and make far less money than their U.S. counterparts.
Changing the rules could encourage more candidates to seek consultants, a trend some analysts say would be welcome.
Nurturing political consultants is needed in Japan, said Kawakami at Meiji Gakuin University. As consultants grow in number, elections will shift more into the right direction, of people getting more involved in exchanging opinions about policies.
(Editing by Megan Goldin)