YOKOHAMA, Japan – A 19-year-old Japanese college student joined others casting a historic first ballot at a polling station earlier this week. Then he wondered if he had spent enough time looking into the candidates.
Kouki Nozomuto, who used an early voting system in Yokohama for those who are busy on election day, is among 2.4 million newly eligible voters for Sunday’s race for the upper house of parliament, the first national election since Japan lowered the voting age last year from 20 to 18.
“I thought I’ll just go in between classes, so I think maybe I should have spent more time (to prepare),” he said afterward, saying he came because he thinks it’s a citizen’s duty to vote and he wants his voice to be heard. “On reflection, that’s what I think I should have done better.”
The government and political parties are using various strategies to motivate 18-and 19-year-olds to vote, but it remains unclear whether they will — and whether they are prepared to do so. Some experts say they aren’t, at least for this election, citing reasons such as growing up in a society that emphasizes conformity over individuality, few opportunities to learn about and debate the issues and a perception that the opinions of young people are not reflected in policies.
Half the seats in Japan’s 242-member upper house are up for election Sunday. At issue are Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic revitalization policy, which the opposition says has failed to improve the lives of ordinary people, and the Abe government’s reinterpretation of the constitution last year to allow the military to play a greater overseas role.
In a public opinion poll taken by the Asahi newspaper in June, 11 per cent of the newly qualified voters said they were “greatly interested” in the election, lower than the 29 per cent overall. In addition, 49 per cent responded they would be voting “for sure,” versus 68 per cent overall.
Mikio Hashimoto, director of Yokohama city’s electoral administration division, said 18-and 19-year-olds made up only 41 out of the 2,299 people who voted during two days of early voting at the site where Nozomuto voted.
Another 19-year-old voter, Izumi Funatsu, said she was nervous as she put her ballot in a box at the temporary polling site set up on a university campus. “I thought, ‘Now I can deliver my voice and I am no longer a child,'” she said.
Tomoaki Ikeya, a political science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, said that expressing one’s own opinion can be difficult in Japan, where obeying parents and teachers is considered a virtue. Pressure to conform means stating a differing opinion can be seen as disturbing the surrounding atmosphere, possibly leading to alienation, he said.
“In the end, from an 18-and 19-year-old point of view, they cannot get information on what are the issues and the arguments regarding a particular issue unless they actively go to a rally on their own,” Ikeya said. “That creates a hurdle for them to go to vote.”
Candidates, political parties and the government are using comics and celebrities to try to reach young voters. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has a website featuring a six-minute animated film targeting young voters, a video message from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the new voters and Q&As about the election and 18-year-old’s suffrage. The opposition Democratic Party has posted videos of party members talking with teenage fashion models on its website.
In a classroom at a high school in Tokyo, about 35 seniors role-played different characters on a recent afternoon, such as a mother with a small child or an elementary school student, to provide feedback on creating a hypothetical park. Toward the end of the class, they were asked to choose one of three fictional candidates whom they think best reflected their given roles’ points-of-view.
Yoji Masamori, an 18-year-old student, said he used to think politics was for adults, but the class helped him understand how to think when choosing a candidate.
Kensuke Harada, a leader of the non-profit organization YouthCreate who taught the class, said more needs to be done.
“Now 18- and 19-year-olds have gotten the vote, and everyone tends to pay attention to how they will vote or what kind of attitude they have as a member of society,” Harada said. “But what need to be changed are the adults, the whole society, the education and politics, all of which have shaped the current 18- and 19-year-olds.”
Lowering the voting age is aimed in part at increasing falling turnout among young people in general. In the previous upper house election in 2013, a little more than a third of those in their 20s voted, down from 47 per cent in 1989, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
Not only is their voting rate low, so is their share of the population. The population aged between 0 and 14 dropped from 22.5 million in 1990 to 16.2 million in 2014. Meanwhile the population older than 65 doubled from 14.9 million to 33 million over the same period, according to the internal affairs ministry.
The low birthrate and a population skewed toward the elderly create a negative spiral that depresses young-voter turnout, said Hiroshi Shiratori, director of the Institute of Policy Sciences at Hosei University in Tokyo.
Issues relevant to young people, such as a shortage of nursery school places, are not debated enough, because older voters dominate, he said.
“This makes child rearing more challenging. That means the birthrate stays low. That makes it harder for policies for the young to be reflected,” he said. “That further facilitates a trend that policies are prioritized in favour of seniors. Because of that, the young remain indifferent about going to vote.”