Young voters want business pros, not heirs to political dynasties

by Mayu Yoshida

Kyodo News

It may be time to alter the stereotypical view of young people being apathetic to politics as many of them appear to want concrete changes in the country, calling on business professionals to shore up the flagging economy ahead of Sunday’s Upper House election.

Random interviews of people in their 20s in Tokyo’s Shibuya district and university campuses indicated a political preference that may be unique to this generation, although younger voters still lag behind older age groups in terms of turnout.

“The Lehman shock definitely lifted political and economical interests among voters in their 20s,” said Kensuke Harada, 24, referring to the bankruptcy of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September 2008 that triggered a global financial meltdown.

“They felt betrayed by the lack of changes brought about by the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan,” although it drew high expectations in last year’s general election, when it wrested power from the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled for most of the postwar era, he said.

Harada devoted his efforts last year to raise the turnout of young voters in the Lower House election, and founded the group ivote while attending the University of Tokyo.

The turnout for the 20-29 age group was 49.45 percent in last August’s poll, the highest for a national election since single-seat electoral districts were introduced for Lower House elections in 1996.

Interest in the Upper House election by this group is believed to be also rising, registering 66.7 percent in a recent Kyodo News survey, up from 62.6 percent before the previous Upper House poll in 2007, and 51.9 percent in 2004, although still the lowest among the age groups.

Against the backdrop of growing interest, young adults who gathered at a drinking party in mid-May chatted about an unusual topic for them — the kind of people they want to take charge of state affairs.

“I’m really hoping for experienced business managers, as they might make a breakthrough in the current economy,” said Ayuko Mizutani, a 22-year old-student of Keio University who was job-hunting at the time.

“Who can manage the country without any business experience and poor IT knowledge? This is a growing industry,” said Mizutani’s friend, Junichi Sakaguchi, who started working at an IT firm in April.

Similar opinions were heard among the 20-something eligible voters interviewed on the streets in Tokyo, seeking business professionals rather than senior politicians to run the country.

“Business professionals are way better than second-generation politicians. I feel much closer to them,” said Atsuhiro Furukawa, a 20-year-old student of Komazawa University who was listening to an outdoor speech by Kota Matsuda, a Your Party candidate known for bringing the Tully’s Coffee chain to Japan.

Your Party, a relatively new force advocating small government, has fielded several key candidates from the business world. The two major parties, the DPJ and the LDP, have fewer candidates with prominent business experience. Half the 34 second-generation candidates, meanwhile, are running on the LDP ticket.

People in their early 20s want a change in the way the government steers the economy, weary of the economic stagnation since Japan’s “lost decade” started in the early 1990s, when they were still in compulsory education, ivote’s Harada said.

Also, anxiety about the future has spread among young people amid what he calls “the employment slump.” He noted only 91.8 percent of university graduates got jobs in April, the second-worst level on record in the aftermath of the collapse of the Wall Street giant a year and a half earlier.

The increasing voice of young people seeking business experience in politicians might boost their turnout in this weekend’s election.

“I shouldn’t complain (about the government) unless I vote, right?” said 20-year-old student Tomomi Sasaki at Waseda University in Tokyo. “It’s my duty to vote.”

But still, some young adults seem indifferent to politics.

“I won’t cast a ballot next year,” Hiroshi Miyanami, a 19-year-old student who was killing time in Shibuya, said in a resigned tone, although he will have the right to vote when he turns 20. “Nothing will change anyway, and every candidate looks the same.”

Tomonori Morikawa, 54, a political science professor at Waseda University, said voter turnout for those under age 35 is “not enough” to change the fact that political parties ignore their group when making policy pledges.

Intended to attract many votes, their policies tend to cater to the interests of older generations, as people over 60 consistently record high turnouts, he said.

Morikawa said he is deeply concerned that in the near future the majority of voters will consist of retired people, if the working generations continue to go to the polls at low rates, calling such a situation “a crucial matter that would shake the foundation of democracy.”

But young people are the ones who will bear the burden of the growing public debt, which is expected to reach ¥1 quadrillion in two years, he stressed.

“The main point is to vote, to demonstrate that people in their 20s actually voted,” Morikawa said, urging young people to cast their ballots with enthusiasm Sunday.