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Japan election

Young voters feel unrepresented by politicians in aging Japan

Economic growth more important than social issues for people under 40

People attend a Coming of Age Day celebration ceremony in Tokyo: Youth in Japan have few opportunities to change society through their actions, experts say. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- When Prime Minister Fumio Kishida dissolved parliament in mid-October, the Shibuya ward office placed a sash announcing the lower house election on Hachiko, the faithful hound whose statue sits at the world-renown intersection. The target audience were the young adults who crowd around the popular rendezvous spot.

With two days to go until Sunday's poll, the race is tight in 40% of the 289 single-seat districts, according to a Nikkei poll conducted on Oct. 26-28, with a united opposition fielding single candidates in 70% of them. An earlier advantage in proportional districts is slipping for Kishida's Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, but the poll expects the coalition to retain a majority in the lower house.

Voter turnout across age groups has been falling in Japan since 2009, and 18-20 year olds have yet to beat their 54.7% turnout for the upper house election in 2016, the first poll after the voting age was lowered to 18. Low turnouts have historically favored the LDP.

Turnout among young voters is expected to remain low in this Sunday's election. According to the Nikkei poll, 78% of respondents between the ages of 20 and 29 said they plan to vote, while 97% of people aged 60 to 69 said they will cast a ballot. Regarding the election itself, only 58% of those in their 20s said they are interested in the contest, versus 87% of those in their 60s.

Age hierarchies hinder youth political participation in rapidly graying Japan, said Momoko Nojo, the founder of "No Youth, No Japan," a political social media account that has 70 volunteer workers and over 78,000 followers on Instagram.

"From a young age, whether at school or work, people don't have many experiences where their own actions or participation have actually resulted in change," Nojo told Nikkei Asia.

The statue of Hachiko near Shibuya station in Tokyo sports a sash to remind young people of the Oct. 31 lower house election. (Photo by Francesca Regalado)

Nojo, 23, started posting infographics about Japanese politics on Instagram while studying in Denmark, where she observed politicians campaigning on issues directed at the youth. Denmark's general election in 2019 saw a turnout of over 80%.

"I want to vote for a candidate who prioritizes young people's issues, rather than only listening to older voters," said a fourth-year economics student at Tokyo's Sophia University, who plans to vote based on individual candidates rather than by party in his home prefecture of Chiba.

His friend, a third-year law student, said he would vote for the LDP because of its educational scholarship policies and handling of Japan's recovery from the 2011 earthquake.

The LDP-Komeito coalition swept back into office in 2012 after three years outside government, riding on public disapproval of the Democratic Party of Japan -- the previous incarnation of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party. Voter turnout then was less than 60%.

After nine years in power, the LDP was in rocky waters earlier this year. Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's approval rating plummeted to 34% over the summer, as his cabinet pushed ahead with the Tokyo Olympics while COVID-19 cases soared. A switch of leadership has helped to somewhat steady the ship, with Kishida starting his term at a 59% approval rating, according to another Nikkei poll conducted on Oct. 4-5.

In that poll, 59% of respondents under age 40 said they favored growth policies over wealth redistribution, both of which are part of Kishida's economic plan. Voters over 60 who came of age during Japan's long years of deflation said policies aimed at addressing disparities in wealth distribution are as important as growth policies.

Both ruling and opposition parties have concentrated on policies for the population over 60, who are in the majority. But economic conditions under the LDP have also benefited youth employment as the country's latest unemployment rate remains below 3%, allowing many university graduates to get jobs.

"Young people feel Japanese society seems stable, so they are satisfied with it," said Masato Kamikubo, professor of political science at Ritsumeikan University, who has studied youth political participation.

Social changes that matter to young voters, such as legalizing same-sex marriage and allowing married couples to have separate surnames, tend to be secondary to economic issues.

Tokyo's Omotesando shopping district: "Things are changing but not quickly enough," says Momoko Nojo, founder of "No Youth, No Japan." (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

"You don't often see young people's issues being represented in politics," said Nojo. "These things are changing but not quickly enough, which is why the younger generation needs to get more involved."

The late age of eligibility to run for public office discourages youth participation, says Kamikubo. Candidates in Japan have to be at least 25 to run in lower house elections, whereas 18-year-olds in Australia, Canada, France and the U.K. can run as soon as they are eligible to vote. For the upper house of parliament in Japan, the age hurdle is even higher: candidates must be at least 30 years old.

"Young people who engage in political activities have to stop their activities at the age of 22 [because] when they graduate from university, they do not have eligibility for election and enter a company," said Kamikubo.

Voting in Japan is relatively straightforward with an 11-day window for early voting up to election day. Although paper ballots are used, absentee voting is allowed as long as people register in advance.

A third-year theology student at Sophia University said digital balloting would allow him to vote remotely on Sunday instead of going home to Nara Prefecture.

"I wish the government would make it easier for students living away from home to vote, or provide more information on how to do so," he said.

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