HIMEJI, Japan -- Campaign truck. White cotton gloves. Facebook.
Yoshitada Kounoike, a Japanese parliamentary candidate, has a new tool in his campaign toolbox -- and he's embracing it with gusto.
In recent weeks, Mr. Kounoike has posted Facebook photos of himself merrily devouring ice cream, marveling over his new Roomba and cheering on his grandchildren during field day.
In a running series called "My Lunch," Mr. Kounoike, a veteran lawmaker from the governing party, chronicles meals from his favorite haunts: yakisoba, katsu sandwich, a juicy steak. "I've totally got the hang of it!" Mr. Kounoike, 74, gushed in the sleepy western town of Himeji on Thursday, the first official day of campaigning for the July 21 elections. "Did you know I tweet, too?"
A rewriting of Japan's rigid election laws has brought about a sea change in electioneering customs here, previously limited to sound trucks, pamphlets and good old handshakes on the street. (The white gloves stand for clean government.)
For the first time in Japan's history, candidates for public office are allowed to use the Internet and social media for campaigning. The elections, for seats in Parliament's upper house, are seen as an important referendum on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic policies, and opinion polls are forecasting major gains for him.
The governing Liberal Democratic Party, previously known more for its stodgy stump speeches than for any tech savvy, has emerged as an unlikely front-runner in the social media game.
Led by Mr. Abe -- who has 145,000 followers on Twitter and 373,000 "likes" on his Facebook page -- the conservative Liberal Democrats have unleashed a social media blitz, training all of their 78 candidates to use iPad Minis and urging them to get on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The party's elders have not been spared from the online drive, sending candidates like Mr. Kounoike scrambling to get used to posting Twitter messages and Facebook updates on the go. They have also been enlisted to appear in live broadcasts streamed almost daily from the party's new recording studio at its Tokyo headquarters.
The Liberal Democrats have even released a smartphone game -- named Abe Pyon, or Abe Jump -- that features a cartoon version of Mr. Abe somersaulting his way through the sky. Players unlock facts about the party as Mr. Abe jumps higher, eventually earning a superhero cape.
"We see it as a way to reach a new generation of voters," said Takuya Hirai, who heads the party's 30-member Internet media team and is the brains behind the Abe Pyon game.
Mr. Abe underscored his love of social media in his first official campaign message to the nation, broadcast on Nico Nico Live, a local live-streaming site. "I hope you'll shower our candidates with lots of 'likes,' " he said, alluding to the Facebook button.
Japanese candidates are coming late to the social media party. Even though Japan has been holding elections for over a century, and is an early adopter of social media in other spheres of public life, it has lagged behind less developed countries in using the Internet for political campaigning. Candidates in Egypt and Tunisia, which held their first democratic elections only in the last two years, made extensive use of social media.
The change in the law, political experts and lawmakers hope, will inject much-needed transparency into the murky world of Japanese politics by giving voters direct access to lawmakers, and reverse chronically low voter turnout among young Japanese. In the last two parliamentary elections, in 2010 and 2012, turnout among voters in their 20s was less than 40 percent, compared with an almost 80 percent turnout for voters in their 60s and 70s, whose numbers are growing.
Japan's archaic election rules seemed designed to keep things that way. A 1950 law, meant to level the playing field between rich and poor candidates, lays out in painstaking detail what candidates running for public office can and cannot do during the official campaign period. Leaflets are permitted, but only up to 70,000 sheets per person. TV ads promoting individual candidates are banned. So are free meals for supporters, though tea and refreshments are fair play.
And though the law predated the digital era, it was long interpreted to exclude any activities online during the official campaign period. So politicians who started to experiment with Facebook and Twitter as they gained in popularity found that they had to shut down their accounts during election time, when they needed to reach out to voters the most.
A bipartisan push to bring the law more in tune with the times led to a revision of the law in April.
"My name is Yohei Miyake," one incredulous opposition candidate said in a Twitter post on Thursday. "Please vote for me! Starting today, this is not illegal."
Now, social media experts like Suguru Takahata, chief executive of a Tokyo consultancy, say they are being inundated with requests from politicians who want to start social media campaigns. His company charges about $3,000 for advice on setting up a social media presence, including a Facebook page, plus a monthly $450 consultancy fee. More detailed advice -- on individual posts, for example -- costs extra.
"I tell politicians to lighten up, to keep difficult talk about politics to about 20 percent of their posts," Mr. Takahata said. Sixty percent of posts should be on light topics, like moments from their day or what they had for lunch, he said. And the remaining 20 percent should be posts that "show off a different side of their personality, that prove they're actually human -- a hobby, for example."
The biggest social media push has come from the Liberal Democrats, who ruled Japan for half a century with old-fashioned pork-barrel politics. The party started building its social media strategy in desperation after its historic 2009 electoral loss to the Democratic Party.
Now, the Democratic Party, previously seen as the party of savvy city folk, is struggling to catch up. Its leader, Banri Kaieda, has posted a Twitter message only once and started his Facebook page less than two months ago.
Still, it is foolish to assume that an aggressive Web strategy will immediately translate into votes, said Ryosuke Nishida, an expert on Internet technology and public policy at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
He pointed to the December 2012 elections for the lower house of Parliament. Despite a strong antinuclear bent on social media throughout the campaign period, voters handed the pro-nuclear Mr. Abe a landslide victory.
"It's still unclear how much being popular online will win you votes," Mr. Nishida said. "But if we assume social media's influence will continue to grow, the parties are wise to want to get in on it early."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.