On Voting in America in Japan

The Most Important Election of Our Lifetime resurrects itself every four years like partisan cicada swarming into otherwise peaceful offices and family dinners. But I’ve finally silenced the chirping brood: If you want to get away from American politics, move to Japan.

While it’s certainly weird to see pictures of Obama and Romney on the TV in a Japanese gym, it’s hard to imagine that anyone here cares.

None of my coworkers have mentioned the election. They like Obama. They thought his slogan was cool and the kids shout “Yes we can!” if they see a Caucasian when they’re bored. But few know or care about the policy differences between candidates. In that regard, it’s almost like being at home.

I’ve watched the election unfold in detached reports about statistical data, far from the paranoid prophecies emerging from mouths and keyboards of voters whose personal Armageddons are all but assured should the other guy win. The clacking of a roommates keyboard “changing minds online” isn’t keeping me up at night.

I don’t get to watch biased television coverage, or hear complaints about biased television coverage. Political comedy is out of reach: No Daily Show, no Colbert Report. No talk radio or NPR. No outrage and no reassurance.

In other words, I’m not having any fun. I haven’t read a single anonymous Web comment about the election, so I haven’t wasted hours arguing with them. Clint Eastwood debating with an empty chair looked like a good time, but I’ve had a proper 7.5 hours of sleep every night since the primaries. Boring!

I miss having a bumper sticker and belittling others on their competing bumper sticker selection. Now I don’t know who to cut off in traffic.

I used to love visiting the barber in election years, as he’d slowly bait me with 30 minutes of complaint that everyone who disagreed with him was swindled or hoodwinked, or themselves swindling. I miss the drama of the awkward revelation that I was one of the hoodwinkers. It added a surprise to an otherwise humdrum trim. Now I get my hair cut in ten minutes of silence by a guy holding a vacuum tube to catch the debris.

I used to have a job that should be reserved for political bloggers when they go to hell: As the online editor for a daily newspaper, I was responsible for reading every inane comment made by every angsty 13-year-old boy who hated gays, and then arguing with them about what Freedom of Speech meant and how I wasn’t a Nazi. It is a task that brought me infinitely diminishing joys.

My first election year abroad has been my karmic reward of peaceful tranquility. But without publicly performing my politics, I’ve lost my election-year identity. I got a ballot in the mail and marked it as my patriotic duty – you can e-mail your absentee ballot! – but I did it without knowing the derisive in-jokes and catchphrases I’m supposed to be making about the other candidate.

I don’t get to shake up my routines. The udon guy down the street isn’t flying a giant banner showing me his political values like a giant middle finger to 50% of his clientele, so I’ll never get to indulge in the self-aggrandizing political gesture of boycotting his restaurant.

I often find myself defending the American system to other expats. “Casting your vote directly for the president is so odd,” I’m told by commonwealth parliamentary types. “You only have two parties?”

“Do people really get that excited by a dorky white guy saying ‘Walk with me?'”

Yes, some of us do, but Americans are a notoriously excited people. And the American election and campaign financing system, under God and indivisible, is really a profoundly stupid way to decide who we all want running the thing. We vote for people who vote for people for us. Recount rules are needlessly complicated. We spend so much time arguing about philosophy that we never actually talk about policy.

Based on the polling numbers that have held for my voting life, America is a split nation of unpersuadables. Why even have a campaign season? I knew who I’d be voting for in this election 10 years ago, and my guess is, so did you.

Politics isn’t about persuading people to vote for anything, it’s about persuading people to vote against the stupids, and so we spent 2012 demonizing everyone who doesn’t agree with us so we can use them to terrify the people who do.

The campaigns get shriller as we start getting emotional about our party brand, culminating in election day. If you’re an American, go into the fray, vote, scream a little. Give an angry shout to the parents bringing their kids out to hold up campaign signs. Especially if the kids are holding positions unrelated to candy or monsters, the only issues kids have any business caring about.

Even the non-voters seem passionate about their apathy, transforming their neglect of civic involvement into an evangelical crusade in the name of tearing the system down or whatever. From my perspective abroad it’s nice to see that Americans are even enthusiastic about their lack of enthusiasm.

So, hug the day, America! Flip some enemy campaign volunteers the bird while holding down your car horn! Embrace the unseemly ritual of partisan bickering and complete contempt for opposing ideologies that makes America great and election years unbearable! It’s America’s Mardi Gras, only with anger instead of sex and Lee Greenwood instead of bossa nova.

In Japan, the political process was anti-climactic. I scanned a printout of an e-mail that I’d marked with black ink and hit “send.” I didn’t even get the satisfaction of licking an envelope. I did it at work, surrounded by coworkers who were oblivious to ideas of free staters and soccer moms, the history of death panels, or the definition of swing states. Nobody in my office would understand why everyone suddenly cares about Ohio.

My vote was neat and tidy, with no emotional fanfare. A peaceful, sane, calm, drag.

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8 Responses to On Voting in America in Japan

  1. kamo says:

    U! S! A! U! S! A! U! S! A!

    I think that just about covers everything, no?

  2. ebbr says:

    Love your writing Eryk, no matter the subject.

    eB Salt Lake City (ain’t no Mormon, tho…or anything else.)

  3. spartan2600 says:

    “Based on the polling numbers that have held for my voting life, America is a split nation of unpersuadables.”

    I think you’ve been ignoring the majority of people who feel marginalized by the two parties, the election process, and the media coverage. Apparently voter turnout is almost *twice* as big in Japan as it is in the US.


  4. Josh says:

    Heh, I know the feeling. Being in Italy it was weird. Nobody cared and I didn’t either. Bigger more important things in Italia. Like the prime minister!

  5. NyNy says:

    I would have never thought children would shout that in Japan but I think a lot of people worldwide did not care much :/ Even in the UK to be honest.

    • Archana says:

      I agree – little kids in UK only know it’s election time if something happens at their school (a lot of state schools keep away from talking about politics – the democratic system and the role parliament plays is usually taught as an aside in secondary school). or if their parents talk about it. Because we have a 2 party system, unless the child’s mummy or daddy is a councilor/ MP or their job is directly related to the political process, most people dont really discuss candidates and voting. Kids are more aware of bad politicians because of all the criticism.

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