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Activist seeks to tap power of youth for political change

Yamato Aoki wants teenagers to take interest in nation's future

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

The world’s top economies and financial watchdogs have repeatedly warned Japan to take action against its snowballing debt, but it’s the younger generations of Japanese who stand to be most affected by the repercussions as a shrinking and rapidly aging population bleeds social security dry.

Teenagers continue to go unheard by politicians because they constitute a smaller proportion of the population. But Yamato Aoki, 21, is one of a small group of young Japanese who are trying to get teens more involved in political discourse to shape government policies.

While other organizations, such as ivote and Teen’s Rights Movement, have tried to raise political awareness in high schools by holding mock elections, Aoki has created a forum that allows high school students to actually exchange opinions with Diet lawmakers.

In 2012, Aoki organized a conference at which some 100 high school students and 50 national politicians from every political party, including LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba and Goshi Hosono, then-secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Japan, discussed issues ranging from Japan-China relations to welfare.

During the same year, he launched the political organization Our One Step Will Change Japan (Bokura no Ippo ga Nippon wo Kaeru).

All this while he was still in high school.

Aoki and his comrades are concerned about the gulf between what they pay into social security and what they can expect to receive from it when they retire at 65.

According to a 2009 survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 24-year-olds today can expect to get only 2.3 times what they pay into “kosei-nenkin,” the public pension system for corporate workers, by the time they turn 85.

In contrast, 74-year-olds will have received 5.1 times more by the time they reach the same age.

The ministry says the gap is due in part to different living standards, wages and prices across the generations, but Aoki feels the problem has been brushed aside by politicians who have little incentive to listen to youths.

“We really have to change the system but we do not have any politicians to take action because they count on votes from the older generations,” said Aoki. “But younger generations should also be held accountable because many of us do not vote, and I would like to change that.”

The 2012 Lower House election, which the LDP was widely expected to win, drew the lowest voter turnout from 20-somethings, at around 38 percent. But the turnout rate for voters over 65 — who are eligible for pension benefits — was as high as 68 percent.

A Japan Youth Research Institute survey in 2009 found that more than 80 percent of the 1,210 high school respondents thought they were powerless to influence the government, compared with just 44 percent of 1,003 American high school students polled.

Aoki caught the politics bug while an exchange student at a high school in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in 2008, when President Barack Obama was making his first run for president.

Now a Keio University sophomore, Aoki said he was surprised by how freely his young American friends talked about politics, something he had never experienced at his high school back home.

“I thought Americans believed that their opinion and vote could influence the direction the country is going in,” said Aoki. “I thought politicians must feel pressured by voters, making them more committed to serve voters’ interests.”

Aoki said he believes many Japanese youths aren’t politically engaged because they simply don’t know how to take political action.

Right before the 2012 Lower House election, he asked about 800 high school students in 11 prefectures what they would do if they were prime minister. Some answered they wanted to rebuild the welfare system, Aoki said.

Although many Japanese high schoolers don’t have the chance to openly discuss politics in everyday life, when asked about it, they often give him thoughtful answers, Aoki said.

Aoki’s campaign to raise political awareness among teens comes as the Diet prepares to enact legislation to lower the voting age in referendums from 20 to 18, meaning that within four years, some high school students will be eligible for the first time to cast ballots in referendums on amending the Constitution.

While the public in general seems tired of the revolving door to the prime ministership, there is also discontent with the lack of viable opposition parties to keep the long-dominant LDP in check.

The apathy among youths is especially notable.

Aoki said he has dreamed of becoming a politician since he was 12. To achieve this, he plans to launch this year a political party called Zero Party.

Aoki said the party’s membership will be under 25 years old to reflect the needs of younger-aged voters.

“Why zero? Because people under 25 have zero right to run for public office in the National Diet (Lower House) in Japan,” said Aoki. “If more people under 25 join our party, we can express our opinion via the Internet.”