Japan Begins Web 'Trading' of Political Party Stocks

Ahead of Japan’s red-hot Sept. 11 general election, the popular blog-hosting company Hatena Thursday launched a new game enabling players to buy imaginary stock in each of the political parties offering candidates in the election, and trade their shares just as on a stock exchange. The participants’ collective activity is expected to predict the relative proportion of Parliament seats each party should win.

However, within a day users pointed out that the game might violate Japan’s Public Office Election Law, which prohibits campaigning on the Internet during official election campaigns. Hatena told Nikkei Media Lab, a Web site published by Nikkei BP, that it is discussing the issue with its attorneys, and will take action by Monday.

Each participant is initially allotted 1,000 “idea points,” a kind of fake currency issued by Hatena. Similarly, each party is initially allotted 10,000 shares, which are issued at one point apiece. Once those 10,000 shares are sold off, trading commences between participants, just like on a stock exchange.

Hatena says the trading will cease Sept. 10, a day before the election. Once the results are known, Hatena will distribute a total of 100,000 points in proportion to the percentage of Parliament seats each party has won. For instance, if one party has won 240 or half of the 480 seats up for grabs, then each owner of that party’s stock will receive five points per share (50 percent of the 100,000 points, distributed equally to the 10,000 total shares available).

According to Nikkei Media Lab, Hatena apparently did not notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which supervises elections, prior to launching the site.

The Ministry refused to comment on the game, saying it has not yet reviewed the content of the site. But it said that in general, Web sites cannot be used for campaigning, since they don’t fall within the strict limitations for permitted written and graphic materials. Even if one were to write one’s own opinion on a personal Web site, it will break the law if it’s deemed to be campaign literature, the Ministry said.

Japan’s election laws are said to be among the strictest in the world, according to Kenta Yamada, a lecturer at Aoyama Gakuin University. Candidates are prohibited, for instance, from making door-to-door visits, from using paid advertising and from undertaking any campaigning prior to the official beginning of the election period.

A similar system to Hatena’s, Iowa Electronic Markets offers trading on candidates in important U.S. election campaigns. Operated by the University of Iowa’s Henry B. Tippie College of Business, it is said to have successfully predicted every presidential election since 1988. In the Iowa system, however, participants bet real money on their preferred candidates.

About David Jacobson

David Jacobson is a journalist with experience on both sides of the Pacific. He graduated from Yale University with a degree in East Asian Studies and attended the Inter-University Center of the Japanese Language in Tokyo and Hitotsubashi University, the latter on a Mombu(kagaku)sho Scholarship. He has both covered and worked for the Japanese media, as a reporter, writer or producer for the Nikkei, NHK, and the Associated Press in Japan, and CNN, TV Asahi, and Nikkei BP in New York. He also has an MBA from New York University's Stern School of Business.