Political internships gaining a foothold

Hundreds of students learning the ropes every spring and summer

by Hiroko Nakata

They may not all be dreaming about making the big time as a politician, but an increasing number of students are working as interns for elected officials.

The politicians, in turn, are gradually warming to the idea of having students in their offices, learning the ropes.

Some of the interns want to find out more about politics, but others, out of sheer curiosity, just take the leap into an unknown world.

“I did not apply for the internship because I wanted to be a politician,” said Kaori Enoki, a 20-year-old student at Sophia University. “I have not yet decided what I will do in the future. But for me, knowing politics means gaining more common sense.”

Enoki is one of 619 students now taking part in a two-month summer program run by dot-jp, a nonprofit organization that arranges internships with national and local politicians.

When the organization started the program in spring 1998, only eight students participated. Today, dot-jp is the nation’s largest NPO running such a program. It provides both spring and summer internships.

Enoki did not come to the program as a complete political rookie. While in high school she joined her parents in protest activities targeting construction of a high-rise condo complex in Kunitachi, Tokyo, that resulted in a court ruling that required removal of a portion of the top of the building because it marred the cityscape.

In the case of another intern, a 21-year-old law major at Toyo University who didn’t want her name used, interest in politics had little to do with her decision to step in: “I just wanted the experience.”

She will start working at a private company in the spring.

“I want to work 9 to 5 for five days a week when I start working. But before doing that, I wanted to see a totally new community to me,” she said.

The number of students in the dot-jp program hit a record high this summer as politicians have become more open to direct contact with the public, including students.

Internships are a relatively new concept in Japan, but along with other foreign influences they are gradually catching on.

Unlike in the U.S., where many university students with political ambitions join internship programs at Congress and elsewhere, Japan’s political scene kept its doors firmly shut.

“Politicians were really closed when I first started the program,” said Daigo Sato of dot-jp. “They didn’t even know what an internship was.”

Sato, who started internship programs with private firms in 1995, said that back then, the concept was also new to the companies.

The 32-year-old began acting as an agent for internships at lawmakers’ offices in 1998 when friends asked him to introduce such a program.

Sato initially visited then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, his Cabinet members, and dozens of well-known politicians to ask if they would accept interns. They all turned him down.

So he sought out young, unknown lawmakers, who turned out to be big supporters of the idea. Step by step, support has now spread to big names like the Liberal Democratic Party’s Nobutaka Machimura and Hidenao Nakagawa, as well as Satsuki Eda, a veteran from the Democratic Party of Japan.

This summer, 251 politicians accepted interns, compared with just four in 1998, Sato said.

Yet even though the world of politics is gradually opening up to students, the younger generation is growing no less apathetic.

Voter turnout among 20- to 24-year-olds was 43 percent in the Sept. 11 general election last year, compared with more than 80 percent among 60- to 74-year-olds, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

Among individual interns, however, there is some change between before and after going through the program.

“I thought politics was more formal, such as only attending assembly meetings,” Enoki said.

She works three or four times a week as an intern for Hirotaka Motohashi, an LDP member of the assembly in Toshima Ward, Tokyo.

“Now, politicians seem more human, because I understand how they work hard to forge ties with voters,” she said.

She cited as examples how Motohashi helps a Diet member in his ward during election campaigns, attends Bon summer dance festivals and how he helped one of his supporter’s elderly mother get into a nursing-care facility.

Asked in a multiple choice survey what they have gained through the internship program, 45 of the 235 students who took part this spring said their impression of politics changed for the better, according to dot-jp.

Another 78 students said they have come to know more about politicians.

More students — 194 — said they will vote in elections, up sharply from the 133 before joining the program.