TOKYO -- Japan's 18- and 19-year-olds will be voting in their first general election on Sunday since the voting age was lowered from 20, though surveys suggest they are generally conservative and uninterested in politics.
Younger voters tend to be relatively strong supporters of the Shinzo Abe government. In a Nikkei Inc. poll conducted last week, 52% of 18- and 19-year-olds said they supported the cabinet while 32% did not. This compares to the national average of just 37% approval and 48% disapproval.
They also leaned conservative in the upper house election last year, the first national election after the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18. An exit poll by the Kyodo news agency showed that the ruling coalition would have won 71 of the 121 seats among 18- and 19-year-olds and 81 among those in their 20s, compared with the 70 seats it actually won.
"The younger generation feels a strong longing for the Showa era" that ended in 1989 "when stay-at-home moms and lifetime employment were the norm, so they connect more with conservative parties," said Yohei Harada, head of the youth research center at Hakuhodo Brand Design, a unit of Japan's second-largest advertising agency.
"The job market has improved and they have fewer concerns about finding a job, so they are probably pretty satisfied with the status quo," he added.
Teens were also the least interested in voting on Sunday out of any age group. Just 79% of 18- and 19-year-olds said they intended to go to the polls, compared with over 90% among those 40 and above.
According to one study, the 18- to 20-year-olds who skipped the upper house election last year most frequently cited a lack of interest as the reason for not voting, at 40.3%. Meanwhile, older generations were much more likely to blame a failure to turn out on work, or unhappiness with the candidates and parties.
Roughly 30% of Japan's current voters are 65 or older. That percentage is projected to rise to 40% or so by 2040, which would further skew policies to benefit the elderly. Although lowering the voting age was supposed to counter this trend, low turnout among younger generations could undermine the effort.
A number of schools across Japan are working to raise political awareness among students. But many have shied away from voter education, wary of violating legislation requiring schools' political neutrality.
Tamagawa Academy in Tokyo held a mock vote on Tuesday to prepare its students for the upcoming election and get them thinking about the importance of voting. Sixteen of the students also took part in a debate, drawing on the candidates' records and platforms.
Most participants were particularly interested in campaign promises for free education, as well as the debate over a consumption tax hike planned for October 2019. They raised some tough questions, like whether the candidates could really deliver on their pledges, or how parties that opposed the tax hike planned to make up for the shortfall. "I have a much better understanding of each party's position," one 18-year-old student said. "I want to go vote on Sunday."
But less than half of Japan's schools have conducted mock elections and other hands-on exercises, according to a 2016 study by the education ministry, with most just sticking to lectures on how elections work. Supplementary teaching material distributed by the government to high schools also instructs teachers to refrain from voicing their own political opinions.
"When it is considered desirable for people to not voice their opinions, we end up with a society that does not welcome political discourse," said Ryukoku University professor Kimie Tsuchiyama. "This turns voting into a responsibility."