For those who keep a finger on the pulse of Japanese politics, the close relationship between advertising giant Dentsu and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is no secret. The exact nature of their rapport, however, has been a subject of speculation for decades – resulting in many discussions of their relationship taking on a rather conspiratorial tone, not to mention a host of conspiracy theories that often cross over into the realm of the far-fetched.
Part of the reason for this lies in the deep historical ties between Dentsu and Japan’s rulers. The company traces its roots back 116 years, to when the “Japan Advertising Ltd. And Telegraphic Services Co.” was constructed on state-owned land in order to spread government propaganda, a role it fulfilled until Japan’s defeat in World War II. Dentsu is far from unique in this aspect of its history; the Japanese Empire often provided property and other assistance to enterprises which it deemed likely to advance to its political, military and social interests. However, unlike businesses such as the Asahi Shimbun, which also received government land to begin operations, Dentsu retained close business ties with the conservative political elite in the post-war era.
In 2018, Dentsu Inc. is the fifth largest advertising agency network in the world, placing it far above the league of any of its domestic competitors in Japan. In its quest to attain that stature, Dentsu has arguably benefitted greatly from give-and-take with its most important client, the LDP; the political party that has dominated post-war Japanese policymaking, and which for many decades also had a strong role in decision-making in the country’s key industries. Just like any PR and marketing company that contracts with political parties in developed democracies (Saatchi & Saatchi’s relationship with Britain’s Conservative party under Thatcher being perhaps the most famous example), Dentsu conducts surveys, creates campaign posters, and produces commercials for LDP. Although the lion’s share of the company’s profit comes from advertising work for private companies, in the political arena, Dentsu’s mandate is to shift how society feels about the and its policies.
One unified branch of Dentsu works exclusively with the LDP; details of their tasks are not shared internally
Striving to change public opinion is common in public relations operations – in some respects it’s the entire purpose of the field – but the relationship between the LDP and Dentsu is unusually exclusive. Dentsu works exclusively for the LDP in politics, and the LDP only contracts their advertising and PR work to Dentsu. When a private company or organization requests Dentsu’s services, the advertising company has a system for determining under which of its divisions the work will fall, with divisions typically categorized according to the industry and the specific service that the client is seeking. For political affairs, however, there is one unified branch that exclusively works with the LDP and boasts a special elite status within Dentsu. Many details of their tasks are not shared within the company.
Every legislative bill, council name, or slogan that is put forward by the LDP is either crafted by, or goes through Dentsu brains before going public. This includes all of the political catch-phrases that you may have seen or heard, including “Regional Revitalization”, “Work-Style Reform”, the “Council for Designing 100-Year Life Society”, “Creating a Society in which All Women Shine”, and so on. After the naming has been determined, Dentsu continues to promote these and their concomitant policies through television, Internet, and various other advertising tools that are discussed behind closed doors in the LDP’s Election Strategy Committee and Public Relation Headquarters meetings.
Given the cosy nature of this relationship, conspiracy theories are inevitable – and the rationale of such theories is boosted by historical details that have emerged about Dentsu’s work for the LDP. Long before terms such as “political marketing” became commonplace, the Japanese public was shocked to find that the LDP had hired Dentsu in the 1960s to shape public opinion around the wildly controversial Japan-United States Security Treaty. Later, following the Recruit bribery scandal in 1986 and the Tokyo Sagawa Express bribery scandal in 1992, the LDP found itself in a position of power but suffering from an image problem. They expanded the scope of their work with Dentsu in the 1990s. Opposition parties followed suit; in one famous example, rival PR firm Hakuhodo began advising Katsuya Okada and other opposition party leaders on fashion. The LDP further ramped up their media campaign in 1994 in response to the implementation of the single-seat constituency system. Dentsu also played a key role in forming Junichiro Koizumi’s image – although described as a rather subdued character in person, he was made into a reform-pursuing maverick with the attention-grabbing catchphrase “crushing the LDP”. This was also the era in which Japanese Prime Ministers first began to receive one-on-one coaching on how to present themselves to the media. The expansion of Dentsu’s role in the LDP’s messaging did not go entirely smoothly; the company was strongly criticised when it was caught stuffing town-hall meetings on the LDP’s postal privatization measures with paid performers masquerading as ordinary citizens.
Allegations of bribery in the 2020 Olympics bidding process, and a high-profile karoshi scandal, have been road bumps for the relationship
Since the Second Abe Cabinet (2012), the Prime Minister’s Office (the Kantei) has been more generous in its public relations budget – the beneficiary of this, naturally, being Dentsu. With the lifting of the ban on Internet use during election campaigns in 2013, Dentsu was tapped to help establish the LDP’s “Truth Team” – an unfortunately named group, at least for any reader of Orwell, whose role in that year’s House of Councillors election was to filter through and analyze blogs and chat rooms, sending daily faxes to trusted campaigners with advice on topics for the day or key phrases to use in communication. The establishment of this group was more fodder for conspiracy theorists, some of whom embarked on some quite remarkable flights of fancy – speculating that the LDP has access to every Japanese voter’s Internet connection and sends constant subliminal advertisements of Shinzo Abe’s face to computer screens.
In the past few years, two road bumps have unsettled the LDP and Dentsu’s relationship – though by no means to the extent of breaking down the bond between the organisations. The first problem was the public connection of Dentsu to unscrupulous activity in the bidding process for the 2020 Olympics. The Guardian’s reported in May of 2016 that the advertising giant funneled bribes worth 2 million USD for an all-encompassing global sponsorship contract with the International Association of Athletic Federations that runs until 2029. Despite the high-profile nature of these claims, Japanese officials did not launch any deep investigation into the matter – prompting further speculation about the nature of the relationship between the advertising agency and the political party.
Five months later, the mass media in Japan and abroad widely reported the story of an allegedly overworked 24-year-old woman employee at Dentsu who threw herself off the fourth floor balcony of her dormitory on Christmas. This high-profile case of karoshi – death by overwork – forced the LDP to commit to further initiatives in changing labor culture and laws, and also prompted concerns within the LDP that its close relationship with Dentsu might reflect badly on those efforts. LDP leaders reportedly decided to take a step back and rethink their partnership – but the party’s contracts with Dentsu have remained unharmed.
While the United States has led the way in terms of adopting highly marketing-led, “big data” style approaches to election campaigning, Japan’s democratic systems may not be very many years behind. The LDP is rumoured to be considering further changes to electoral laws, following 2013’s legalisation of Internet campaigning, which would open the door to political marketing playing a bigger and more powerful role in elections. Although these changes would not take effect in time for any potential election this year (such as the snap election rumoured to be possible ahead of September’s LDP presidential election), advertising agencies such as Dentsu will eventually have the ability to hire psychologists and data scientists to churn through big data and conduct voter outreach and communication strategies on a level thus far unprecedented in Japan. Should that come to pass, the tough time Dentsu has faced in the media in recent years will likely be an irrelevance – the company’s long-standing relationship with Japan’s conservatives will continue to be one of the foundational relationships at the heart of Japanese politics