Young Voters Find Voice
Jul. 13, 2016
Japan's Upper House election, which produced a clean sweep for the ruling parties, was a milestone for young people -- the first national election since the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18.
The change in the law gave about 2.4 million teenagers the right to vote. The change was aimed at giving young Japanese a political voice in a rapidly aging population.
A campaign was underway a week before the election to encourage 18 and 19 year olds to vote. But enthusiasm is running low.
"I'm not interested in politics," said one young man.
The campaigners used reggae with a political message in the hopes of encouraging more young people to cast ballots.
Ryoma Harada, 19, organized the event. He thought some open-mic singing would get more young people interested in voting.
Harada is a sophomore student at college. He has a student loan of $40,000, and he's worried about his future.
"I'm not sure if I can pay back the loan even if I get a job after graduating from University," he said. "I want the government to invest in policies for young people."
Harada wants other teenagers to speak out, but he's worried they aren't interested in complex political issues. So he's trying another strategy.
"Politics is not limited to big or difficult issues. For example -- should people ride bicycles on the roads or on the sidewalks? I tell people that politics is about our daily lives," he said.
Three days to the election, Harada visited a high school -- another effort to educate young voters.
"Sixty-eight percent of the people who voted in the last election were elderly. That's why they benefit from government policies, and why young people often do not," Harada said.
Judging by the reaction, the budding activist has some political skills himself.
"I learned that the majority of voters are elderly so younger people must also participate," one student said.
"I want to convey my message to as many people as possible. And I hope they will talk to their friends," Harada said.
Harada had yet to decide who to vote for on election day. Most of the parties are promising more support for student tuition. Harada wasn't sure what other policies he should focus on.
He was still undecided as he headed for the polling station to cast his first vote.
"In the end, I went with my gut," Harada said.
The next day, he checks the results. The candidate he voted for had been elected.
"I'm glad that my vote made a difference," Harada said. "I could feel the weight of a single vote."
But another result is more disappointing -- voter turnout was low.
"I'm afraid the attention on young people may disappear now that the election is over," Harada said. "I will continue my efforts to encourage people to vote and discuss politics."
Kenneth Mori McElwain, an associate professor with Institute of Social Science at the University of Tokyo, joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.
Shibuya: The voting rate of 18 and 19 year olds was 45 percent. That's more than 9 points lower than the overall rate. What do you make of that number?
McElwain: One thing is that, in general, election turnout tends to be lower for Upper House elections since it doesn't involve the selection of a prime minister. But historically the gap between the overall rate and the youth rate in Japan is about 20 points. So in that sense, I think this eletion motivated young voters more than usual.
Beppu: So you don't think it was a total disaster for this new system.
McElwain: No, I don't think so. Often times, young people need stimulation to vote. When you're young, you maybe talk about politics with your friends but not that much. But with this election, the expansion of the franchise made so many schools and parents excited that there were more movements, mock elections in schools, as well as the social events that we saw in the video.
Beppu: There's another data that I was intrigued about. It's this one. Even among the new two years that just voted for the first time, those who were 18 voted, well almost more than half of them did. But one year older, there appears 39 percent. Why is this?
McElwain: I would say it's exactly this point -- that schools made a very strong effort. Of course, schools have to be politically neutral so the range of activities they can engage in is limited. But the fact that there were these mock elections, that they were handing out pamphlets, I think made a very big difference for first-time voters.
Beppu: When you see the behavior of young people in Japan and when you compare it to that of other countries, what do you think are the characteristics of the Japanese youngsters?
McElwain: I think voters everywhere, the first time you vote, you need some kind of impetus. That can come from parents, but that can also come from major crises or major events in a country. When President Obama was elected in 2008, 50 percent of American youth voted. The last election in 2014, less than 20 percent did. So there's a lot of fluctuation in how young people vote. I think that's true everywhere. This time I think we saw a positive trend in Japan. Hopefully that will continue.
Beppu: I was asking this question to some other colleagues even yesterday, but we do observe this trend of, how can I say, this anti-establishment trend in the youth of some other developed countries. It doesn't seem that, well I know it's not appropriate to make simple comparisons, but it doesn't seem that Japanese youth did not follow this trend. What is your view on this?
McElwain: I think one reason is that, if we look across generations, or age groups, younger people in Japan, particularly in their 20s, are more optimistic or at least less pessimistic about the economy. They don't remember the economic bubble. What they have as a frame of reference is a global financial crisis, the Lehman shock. Compared to that time, the economy now looks better. And so they don't feel that sense of crisis.
Beppu: What do you think needs to make the young people in Japan getting more involved in politics or in elections?
McElwain: One legal issue is that campaigning in Japan is strongly limited by the Public Office Election Law. So I've brought you a copy. This is my personal copy of the Public Office Election Law. This is from a few years ago, but the current version is 3,600 pages long. The American law is only 200 pages. And, importantly in Japan, for Upper House, you can only campaign for 17 days. I think that makes it hard for voters to learn about the issues, especially young people with less experience.