Hiroshi Harada, a 23-year-old associate of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, better known as Matsushita Seikei Juku, gets up before 6 a.m. every day, does exercises to an NHK radio program and cleans up around the institute’s main gate with other associates.
After breakfast and a morning meeting, Harada’s study period begins. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., he listens to lectures by academics, politicians and businesspeople selected by the institute and often involves himself in discussions over Japan’s policies and future.
“Politics is critically important because it has the power to change society,” said Harada, who joined a three-year program in April at the institute in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. He hopes to become a politician one day.
People such as Harada may seem to be rare in Japan, where pundits claim political apathy is rife among the young, but signs are emerging that such a view may no longer be accurate.
With the intention of becoming directly involved in politics — as politicians, journalists or as active voters — some young Japanese are enthusiastically studying political matters.
While some are choosing to join groups of people with similar ambitions, others are applying for internships at the offices of politicians to get a feel for political life.
For example, Matsushita Seikei Juku has been a magnet for aspiring politicians since it was founded in 1979 by the late Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.
Aiming to educate them to become leaders, the institute accepts students aged between 22 and 35 as boarders; 41 of its graduates are serving as Diet members, prefectural assembly members and governors.
The institute provides lectures and seminars in the first year, but in the second and third year, students must work on research while interning at various domestic or overseas institutions.
“Here, I can meet with many people in different fields and build networks with them,” said Tomohiro Yamamoto, 24, another associate of the institute, who plans to focus his studies on diplomacy and security issues.
“I hope to change the Japanese system so politicians will have more influence in deciding policies rather than relying on bureaucrats,” he said.
Another place that has seen a surprising surge in popularity this year among young people who wish to become politicians is Waseda University’s Yubenkai, or Eloquent Speech Club.
Founded in 1902, the club has counted among its ranks many prominent politicians, including Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita.
“Nearly 250 freshmen came to the club this April,” said Hiroki Uchimura, a Yubenkai member and a sophomore of the university’s law department. “This year’s popularity is because of the two latest prime ministers.”
With nearly 60 percent of the club’s members planning to become politicians, heated discussions on policy issues are routine.
“Through speeches and discussions, we try to pursue things that we want to realize when we become politicians,” said Uchimura, who believes Japan must develop the concept of crisis management and upgrade the status of the Self-Defense Forces.
Asked how his life has changed since joining Yubenkai, Takahiro Yamashita said he has spent a lot of money and time on books to be better prepared for the discussions.
Yamashita occasionally helps out Hakubun Shimomura, a Lower House member of the Liberal Democratic Party and a Yubenkai alumni who is seeking re-election in the June 25 Lower House election. During campaigning for the poll, Yamashita said he plans to stump for Shimomura.
For others not in such organizations, there are still opportunities to learn about politics.
The nonprofit organization dot-JP, which in 1998 launched an internship program that allows enrollees to serve as politicians’ secretaries, has sent nearly 400 university students to the offices of Diet members and local assembly members.
Takeshi Imamura, 27, a Nishinomiya Municipal Assembly member in Hyogo Prefecture and one of the founding members of dot-JP, challenges political critics. Speaking to students at the group’s meeting to explain the internship program, he said, “If you say politics is crap, that’s fine. But please find out in person which part of politics is crap.”
Kazutoshi Hoshi, 24, who interned at the office of LDP member Tatsuya Ito in March, said he has learned a lot about a politician’s routine by attending various study groups of LDP lawmakers and committee meetings in lieu of Ito.
“Before I experienced the internship, I only had a negative image about politicians,” Hoshi said. “But after that, I realized there are politicians who work hard.”
While working as interns, many students do tasks such as putting up posters, answering telephones at lawmakers’ offices and looking after support group members.
Ryutaro Hashimoto, 23, who worked as an intern at the office of Yoko Komiyama, an Upper House member of the Democratic Party of Japan, said he was surprised to see bureaucrats coming to Komiyama’s office to find out questions that she would ask their minister in the following day’s Diet session.
“They came to our office to prepare a list of answers for the minister,” said Hashimoto, whose dream is to become a journalist.
According to the group, about half of the students who apply for the program want to work for corporations, while only a quarter hope to become politicians.
“Since we started this program, many students who are bright and serious-minded have shown their interest in it,” said Daigo Sato, 26, vice president of dot-JP. “It’s wrong to say only a handful of students care about politics. It’s a matter of how politics is presented to them.”
Still, even those who constantly keep an eye on Japanese politics believe that drawing young people to the polls could be hard work.
“They are the kind of people who will choose not to get a job if there is no attractive work available. Their attitude is the same toward politics,” said Yamamoto of Matsushita Seikei Juku, adding that there are not many politicians who appeal to the young.
Some also point out that, unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, which witnessed the Cold War and a movement on campuses’ against signing the revised Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, students today are not ideology-oriented.
“Many people who come to us do not support particular political parties,” Sato of dot-JP said. “Students hate to be seen as leftist, rightist or tied to a particular party.”
Shinji Tarutoko, a DPJ Lower House member before the Diet was dissolved earlier this month who accepted two interns during the last legislative session, said young people are dissatisfied with the status quo because of rising unemployment and the competitiveness of today’s society. They may feel there are no candidates who speak on their behalf.
“I don’t think young people have lost their interest in politics,” Tarutoko said. “Once they find a particular candidate who represents their voice, they will rush to vote for that person.”