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Japan lowers voting age; parties struggle to attract youth

Young Japanese attend a rally opposing recent national security legislation on June 10 in front of the parliament. Citizens aged 18 and 19 will be able to vote in upcoming national elections for the first time.

TOKYO -- Japanese aged 18 and 19 will be eligible to vote for the first time in the July 10 election for the upper house of Japan's Diet. 

A revision to the public offices election act to lower the voting age from 20 to 18 will come into force on Sunday. This is the first expansion of the voting law since 1945, when universal suffrage was adopted.

Their ranks number some 2.4 million, accounting for only about 2% of the population, but parties are bending over backward to win over these new voters.

Will the lower voting age bring about meaningful changes in Japanese politics?

Seeing an advantage

On the night of June 10, a group of teenagers opposed to the new national security legislation held a rally in front of the Diet building, which was mostly deserted because the Diet is out of session. 

Microphone in hand, a young woman was speaking. "We have just one month until the election," she said. "Let's take action for the election."

Participants responded to the call, saying, "We're gonna vote! Opposition parties, join forces!"

For several decades, the voting age has been an important political issue in Japan.

Opposition parties had been calling for lowering the age as part of political reform in hopes of expanding their support bases. In the 1980s, the Social Democratic Party of Japan first made an election promise to give younger Japanese the right to vote. The Japanese Communist Party included the step in its platform, too.

In the campaign for the 2003 lower house election, both the Democratic Party of Japan, now called the Democratic Party, and the Social Democratic Party pledged to lower the voting age to 18 in their respective election manifestos.

The change has finally been realized because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party switched from opposing to supporting the proposal, primarily because the party has its eye on pursuing a long-cherished ambition to amend the Japanese constitution. 

As the LDP tried to enact a new law to hold required national referendums on constitutional amendments, opposition parties demanded that the eligibility age for both constitutional referendums and the voting age be set at 18. The LDP accepted the demand in what it sees as a step toward the party's goal of revising the postwar constitution for the first time.

Nobody knows

Both the ruling and the opposition camps, however, are uncertain about the political implications of this change. Neither side has a clue as to how teenage voters will cast their ballots.

Last year saw the emergence of a youth political movement against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's security legislation initiative. The group, known as Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, or SEALDs, staged demonstrations around the nation.

However, that does not necessarily indicate strong support for opposition parties among young Japanese. 

In a Nikkei survey in May, 44% of the respondents aged 18 to 29 named the LDP as the party they were likely to vote for in the July upper house election. Only 11% chose the DP. 

Voicing skepticism about opposition criticism that Abe's security legislation will lead Japan to war, an 18-year-old university student in Kanagawa Prefecture, just southwest of Tokyo, said he felt no serious concerns about war or censorship. 

Issues aside, parties are having a hard time attracting the interest of young people in the first place. 

A survey of 30 countries, mostly in the developed world, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that in 27 of these nations the voting rate of people aged 35 or younger is lower than that of voters aged 55 or older.

The gap between the voting rates of these two age groups is particularly large in Japan. In the 2013 upper house election, for instance, the turnout rate among voters in their 20s was 33.37%, less than half the rate for people in their 60s.

"The ruling and opposition parties do nothing but criticize each other," said an 18-year-old college student in Tokyo. "They talk about policy measures for young people, but I can't trust them to really take action," she said.

Fits and starts

Arousing young people's interest in politics is vital for the future health of Japan's democracy. However, thus far, efforts by political parties have been ineffective. 

The DP regularly organizes events featuring teenage celebrities to attract the attention of young people. In such events, party heavyweights like Yukio Edano, secretary general of the party, stress that youths should be the driving force for change in politics.

The LDP, meanwhile, published a manga in attempts to enlighten young voters about key policy issues. In the comic, a high-school girl plots to go to the poll with her favorite boy in a ploy to get close to him. 

The manga drew a quick rebuke from Renho, the DP's acting president. "This shows too much contempt for women," she tweeted, provoking a controversy.

When asked in a June 6 press conference about how his party intends to win support from young voters, LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki said, "We will explain in detail what are the problems with the environment surrounding young people and make clear our responses to the problems." He added, "It is, however, not easy to explain these things effectively to young people."

Youths have the potential to build a significant political movement, and this is especially true in the age of social media, with so many virtually connected to each other. 

This is evidenced by the wave of support among young Americans for Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who called for a revolution to reduce the income gap and staged a surprisingly strong campaign against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination race for president.

In Japan's 2009 lower house election, in which the DPJ unseated the long-ruling LDP from power by riding a tidal wave of voter expectations for political change, nearly half of 20-somethings cast ballots.

These events show that young people will show up at the ballot box if they believe their votes count for something. 


Photo caption: Young Japanese attend a rally opposing recent national security legislation on June 10 in front of the parliament. Citizens aged 18 and 19 will be able to vote in upcoming national elections for the first time.  

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