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19,000-strong LDP supporters' group debates how to knock down election rivals

As the House of Representatives election heads into the homestretch, supporters of political parties and politicians are stepping up their "public relations" efforts on Twitter and other social media. But it's not easy to get a clear grasp of who's spreading what kind of information.

Amid such fierce social media "campaigning" by the public, the Jiminto (Liberal Democratic Party) Net Supporters Club (J-NSC), an organization with a membership of approximately 19,000 that supports Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, held an emergency general assembly that was streamed live online.

The session took place at LDP headquarters in Tokyo's Nagatacho district on the night of Oct. 6, days before the general election was officially announced. The 250 or so attendees sang the national anthem, after which LDP staff adopted a game-show format to inform supporters what types of online activities were acceptable during the election campaign period. Activities such as "publicizing false or distorted information about a candidate for the purpose of preventing their election to office" and "malevolent defamation and public insults" were raised as examples of crimes punishable by law, and staff cautioned supporters to avoid violations.

Energy and enthusiasm among the participants mounted as the assembly moved onto its question-and-answer session. One male supporter asked whether using puns to poke fun at other parties' names was acceptable, bringing up the example of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's Party of Hope ("Kibo no to" in Japanese) and using the possessive "no" to mean "No" in English, and calling the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) ("Rikken Minshuto" in Japanese) "Ikken Minshuto" instead, which, translated into English, means "At a quick glance, the Democratic Party of Japan" -- in apparent reference to the now-defunct party that merged into what became the largest opposition Democratic Party, from which the CDP split.

Former lower house legislator Masaaki Taira, who is the head of the party's online media division as well as J-NSC, responded, "Since they're parodies, I believe they are acceptable," to which the participants laughed. Another male supporter asked if it was problematic that he posted a collage of an opposition party chief with a Chinese People's Liberation Army soldier, and another collage of a female opposition candidate with a so-called "comfort woman" online. In response, Taira said, "I think that should be left up to your personal judgment." Again, there was a ripple of laughter from the participants.

It was when the crowd had warmed up that Prime Minister and LDP President Shinzo Abe appeared. Amid cheers and applause, Abe told those who had gathered, "I would like to express my gratitude for your steadfast support of the LDP." Photos were then taken of Abe with J-NSC supporters.

J-NSC is a volunteer organization officially recognized by the LDP. People aged 18 and over who meet other criteria, such as possessing Japanese citizenship, can join the group, even if they are not LDP members. A J-NSC bylaw states that "the reconstruction of Japan by expanding the party's strength in order to realize a Japan in which we can have dreams, hope and pride" as the cause under which the organization operates. In addition to posting online, the group's members take part in other activities, such as posting party flyers in mailboxes. The rules also stipulate that members of J-NSC are responsible for their own online posts, and that the organization itself will not take responsibility for conflicts between members of the group and outsiders.

Asked about the contents of J-NSC supporters' online posts by the Mainichi Shimbun, the LDP Public Relations Headquarters said, "At every general assembly, supporters declare, 'We will work toward the stability and development of Japan through the spreading of positive information.'"

In general, there's a fine line between freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution and defamation. Especially during election campaign periods, negative political campaigns become more common, with the LDP also becoming subject to a pun on its name "Jiminto" (in Japanese), in the form of "Kiminto," which in English translates to "party that discards the people." Still, it is believed that no other political party in Japan has been able to organize supporters in such large numbers to engage in online PR on its behalf.

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