In the heated election four years ago, young voters who normally skip the polls jumped on then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s reform bandwagon and helped his Liberal Democratic Party race to an overwhelming victory.
Now that a change of administration is on the table, they may well show up again Aug. 30, more likely this time in favor of the Democratic Party of Japan though not necessarily out of enthusiasm for the main opposition party, according to young advocacy group leaders.
“This will be, in my view, the most crucial and meaningful election in postwar Japan. I’m excited,” said Kensuke Harada, a 23-year-old student at the University of Tokyo who was below the voting age of 20 in the previous Lower House election in 2005.
“Whether or not the administration will change or Japan will be better for it, I don’t know, but I’m expecting some sort of change in trends. I’m lucky to have reached an age when I can cast a ballot,” he said.
Yotaro Kobayashi, a 28-year-old researcher at a private think tank, and Daigo Sato, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, said people in their age bracket want change and must have learned through the 2005 election that their individual votes can help sway the outcome.
Sharing a sense of crisis that the low turnout of younger voters is a major reason why the political world falls short on addressing their interests and instead tends to serve the elderly, the three are campaigning to boost the participation rate in different nonpartisan groups.
Harada is spearheading a project to have young voters register with an e-mail reminder service of the voting date at the Web site of his student group ivote, by taking to the streets with fellow students and visiting other student circles.
As a key member of the group Rights, which has called for lowering the voting age, Kobayashi and like-minded young experts in other areas drew up a proposed platform for young people in the hope of influencing political parties.
Sato has helped college students take an interest in politics through his nonprofit organization dot-jp, which runs an internship program and has arranged for more than 9,000 students in the last decade to work in the offices of lawmakers and assembly members.
“The reason many young people don’t go to the polls is not because they are indifferent to politics. They have their own opinions, discontent and things to say,” Sato said. “If they think something would change, they will take action.”
In the 2005 election, turnout of people in their 20s and 30s jumped around 10 percentage points to 46.20 percent and 59.79 percent from 2003, though still a far cry from the 83.08 percent of voters in their 60s and 69.48 percent of those aged 70 and older, internal affairs ministry data show.
While admitting their preference to see a change of government, however, neither Kobayashi nor Harada expressed all-out support for the DPJ and are rather skeptical about its campaign platform.
“Having discussed the manifestos released by parties with other members, not a few of them preferred the policies of the LDP, to my surprise,” Harada said. “The mood was that after all, they don’t think the DPJ will make Japan better, but nothing will change unless power is once given to it.”
Sato added: “Young people are more responsive to change. Although they have had a hard time and policies to take care of them are again not an issue, they always side with the call for change.”
They hope a higher turnout by young voters will help draw the political spotlight to the problem of the unfair burdens being placed on the younger segments of the population, such as the snowballing public debt and social security costs, as society rapidly grays.
“Young people all know that we will have to pay the price for such ‘dole-out’ policies as the cash handout” that the government distributed earlier this year to each household, Kobayashi said. “Unless we raise our voices, Japan will become unsustainable.”
As a reason to expect a relatively high turnout for this election, he said, “The previous election showed that under the single-seat district system, even a slight gap of say 51 to 49 can affect the end result so much, while voting or not voting had made no difference before.”
The young, however, only have a little more than five years left to change the situation and have their voices heard in politics, warned Waseda University political science professor Tomonori Morikawa.
Morikawa argues that as a result of the low youth turnout, policies have been formulated in such a way that people aged 24 to 34 will suffer a roughly ¥25 million deficit in their lifetime balance of tax and social security duties to benefits, while people in their 70s enjoy a ¥15 million surplus, meaning a maximum generation gap of ¥40 million.
He had thought the problem might be solved if more young people went to the polls but recently found that the window of opportunity will close in 2015, when the whole population from age 20 to 35 will be outnumbered by voters aged 70 and older, as long as their voter turnout stays around 70 percent, he said.
“The coming five years is the last chance. Unless young people make a move, Japan will not change forever,” said Morikawa, who has felt particularly alarmed since Prime Minister Taro Aso turned his back on Koizumi’s fiscal austerity, which he said would have helped reduce the pain for future generations.
Belonging to the last age group not to lose much in the lifetime balance of public payments, the 53-year-old professor said he now wants to encourage seniors to turn their eyes to the bill for the benefits they now enjoy that will be passed on to their offspring.
Sato said the strict and complex Public Offices Election Law is also to blame for the low turnout of young voters, having himself bumped into extensive restrictions in organizing activities to boost the rate.
“If the law only controls such corrupt practices as vote buying and liberalizes all other efforts, candidates can do every kind of thing out of the box to make their campaigns attractive to citizens,” he said.