In Japan, electoral campaigning in plurality districts often appears strangely ineffective to observers. In their explanations, political scientists have so far fallen back on the proximate cause, namely the strict Public Office Election Law (Kōshoku senkyo-hō), claiming that it is this law that prohibits different and more effective campaigning. This study, however, is based on the assumption that such an explanation could be insufficient since even those campaign tactics legally allowed are often executed and/or selected in an apparently ineffective way in terms of their appeal to voters. Especially when looked at from the perspective of structural learning theory, which assumes that actors adapt their behavior within stable structures by learning what works well and what does not, these observations invite further investigation.
As a first step, participant observation was used to identify types of apparently ineffective campaigning. In the second step, these types were discussed in qualitative interviews with candidates and other practitioners. The results show that next to appealing to voters there are other campaign goals that can determine the choice of electoral instruments: motivating campaign staffers, maintaining good working relationships with external helpers, presenting political convictions and personal determination. This explains part of the assumed ineffectiveness, but not all of it. When seen through the lens of structural learning theory research findings suggest that the lack of clear feedback regarding the impact of campaign activities on voters inhibits the learning processes of candidates. In combination with constraints regarding time, place and/or resources, these factors shape election campaigning to a considerable degree. Consequently, this study suggests that explanations need to take more factors into account than just the Public Office Election Law in order to solve the puzzle of ineffective campaigning in Japan.