Smile, You’re On Nico Nico Douga! Japan’s First Livestreamed Debate

Japan was late to using the internet to engage voters during elections, but the country's first livestreamed debate involved the public in an unprecedented way.


Japan Debate on Nico Nico Douga

Image captured from Nov. 29 , 2012 debate on Nico Nico Douga / Global Voices

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Case Study:
 First livestreamed debate on Nico Nico Douga (now Niconico)
Country: Japan
Debate: Nov. 29, 2012

On Nov. 29, 2012, 10 party leaders in Japan took part in the nation’s first livestreamed pre-election debate. The debate featured a question-and-answer format with a single moderator and a studio audience. To those watching online, it looked at first like a regular political debate—until viewers’ comments appeared on screen.

The livestream was broadcast on the popular video sharing site Nico Nico Douga, which essentially translates as “Smiley Smiley Video.” Nico Nico Douga users could type in comments about the candidates, and the comments appeared in an overlay on screen, creating a discussion about the debate that was open to anyone using the platform.

In essence, the viewers were participating in the debate conversation, too—and potentially creating a new form of political engagement in the process.

From Arkansas to Japan

Nico Nico Douga has its roots in the middle of Arkansas. It was at the University of Central Arkansas in 1999 that a Japanese foreign exchange student named Hiroyuki Nishimura created an internet bulletin board system that allowed anyone to post any kind of content. Nishimura did it “to kill time,” he told Wired Magazine in 2008.

But the idea created out of boredom turned out to fill a very big void in Japan—the desire for a free, anonymous space in which people could say whatever they wanted.

The bulletin board, 2channel, served as a precursor to Nico Nico Douga, which Nishimura developed in 2007. What’s unique about the Nico Nico Douga site, Lisa Katayama wrote in Wired, “is that the Flash-based video files have an extra interactive layer that lets viewers insert text on top of any clip as easily as if they were typing an instant message, and it displays that comment whenever someone else loads the video.”

The platform eventually began offering live programming, too, including news conferences and concerts. It also found success in showing edited TV programming in its entirety, including a 2009 debate between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). That type of unfiltered content attracted users, who quickly flocked to the site.

After a year of existence, Nico Nico Douga had more than 6 million registered users. By 2011, it had 20 million users. And users loved voicing their unfiltered opinions.

But while Nico Nico Douga was quickly carving out its space as an open oasis on the internet landscape, Japanese election law remained strict and limited. During the two-week election cycle, citizens could not publicly endorse a political party, and political candidates could not promote themselves on social media (Google and Twitter engaged voters with some interesting workarounds).

Still, some politicians, including LDP leader Shinzo Abe, were starting to explore the possibilities the internet offered to reach voters. Abe’s party even hosted a 12-hour Nico Nico Douga program from inside its headquarters early in 2012.

Breaking New Ground

The idea for a livestreamed debate initially stemmed from a challenge: After then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the DPJ dissolved Parliament on Nov. 16, 2012, and set up a new election, he challenged Abe, his main opponent, to a one-on-one debate.

Abe responded with a counter-challenge: He would agree to the debate only if it was streamed on Nico Nico Douga, where it would be “interactive and open to the world.” After Noda reluctantly accepted Abe’s proposal, eight of the other party leaders also expressed interest in joining the debate.

The debate itself can be viewed on Ustream, with comments occasionally in the background, but the version with onscreen comments is not accessible on Nico Nico Douga. The Asahi Shimbun reported that during the debate, “Some viewers wrote explicitly of their support for individual politicians, while others used online shorthand to express their thoughts—such as a long string of 8’s, which can be read in Japanese as the sound of applause.”

Most of the applause lines were for Abe, who may have come into the debate with built-in support given his previous presence on Nico Nico Douga.

According to Nico Nico Douga, 1.4 million watched the debate on the site. But non-paying subscribers, who had to watch on a lower bandwidth, reportedly experienced viewing glitches because so many people were streaming it.

Nobuyuki Okumura, a sociology professor who watched both the free and paid-subscriber versions online, told the Asahi Shimbun, “It quickly became difficult to view on the free site,” adding that the site “did not live up to its free-access credentials, despite this being a debate ahead of a Lower House election. There may be a need for another viewing environment, along the lines of television.”

Still, despite the limitations, some acknowledged that the format itself was empowering.

“More than 1 million people simultaneously shared unedited information. That’s meaningful,” said viewer Hiroki Kaneda.

Saying the comments were “simultaneously shared” is a bit of a stretch, though. As Keiko Tanaka, writing at Global Voices, pointed out, some Twitter users were outspoken about the commenting format, which differed from Nico Nico Douga’s usual practice. Instead of being posted in real-time, comments appeared on screen during a break in the on-stage discussion or a shift in topic.

As one user said, “I think the debate was much more open compared to conventional television broadcasts, but it was not as open as how Nico Nico livecasts normally are.”

As such, it is unclear how much, if any, of the content shown was edited before it was displayed, and if more words than usual were banned. Others on Twitter, though, would not have minded if some of it had been edited. Another user pleaded, “Please. No need to show these comments. It’s embarrassing just seeing them.”

The comments on Nico Nico Douga did not directly correlate to the questions being asked by the moderator; though both occurred roughly in real-time, the questioning and the commentary took place on separate tracks.

Nor did it directly impact viewers in a way that the “worm”—which displays real-time tracking of audience opinions during televised debates—has been shown to influence other viewers’ perceptions of who won the debate. [Read about New Zealand’s use of the worm, also part of the Rethinking Debate series.] It also appears that party leaders in the Nico Nico Douga debate did not make as many exaggerated claims as expected to attract audience attention, according to the Asahi Shimbun.

Changes in Campaigning

LDP routed the DPJ in 2012, easily securing a majority in the Lower House election, and Abe became prime minister. Three years on, Nico Nico Douga is still smiling, too. Now called just Niconico, it has continued to livestream debates, including one for the Upper House elections in the summer of 2013.

Other things have changed related to the use of technology in Japanese politics. Abe pushed through the legalization of online campaigning in 2013. His first campaign message to constituents was broadcast on none other than Niconico: “I hope you’ll shower our candidates with lots of ‘likes,’” he said in reference to Facebook.

Many remain underwhelmed with the effort; the new law still keeps the public from using e-mail to solicit support for candidates.

“Even today after the law change, Japan’s campaign restrictions in general are far more severe than any other democratic nation,” said Ellis Kraus, professor emeritus of Japanese politics and policy-making at University of California San Diego.

But the lines of openness are still being pushed to their limits—and sometimes past them, even by politicians. During the aforementioned 2013 Upper House election livestreamed debate, the leader of the LDP’s Internet Media Division, Takuya Hirai, posted a comment that read, “Shut it, old hag!” in reference to the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Mizuho Fukushima.

Not surprisingly, Hirai received widespread criticism for his comments. When questioned about them, he remarked: “Well, I’m very sorry, but they were just parliamentary jeers. They weren’t supposed to have appeared on the screen.”

With additional reporting by Christine Cupaiuolo.

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