Although the right to vote was something few 18- and 19-year-olds in Japan were pushing for or even interested in, the change is good news for the country, one educator says.
Daisuke Hayashi, 39, an assistant professor at Toyo University, who has been an advocate of lowering the voting age for nearly two decades, believes this could be an important exercise in democracy for Japan.
“It is the first time that there was this much attention” on granting younger people voting rights, Hayashi said.
As a high school senior working on a school project, Hayashi first discovered that children have a right to express their own opinions. The project, which examined the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, was a revelation for him.
“I realized it wasn’t something granted only to adults, that children, as citizens, have the right to express their opinion,” he said. “It was an eye-opener.”
For example, Hayashi said, if they don’t want to wear school uniforms or have their heads shaved, they can say no — and that could prompt others to have second thoughts.
“That’s the international norm,” he added.
The convention defines children as those younger than 18. This means those 18 and older are adults who must be afforded voting rights. So for Hayashi it was natural to begin campaigning to lower the nation’s voting age.
His push began in 2001, when he rented a car with other like-minded people to campaign for lowering the voting age nationwide.
He then planned a mock election for children the following year on the same day of a mayoral poll in Machida, on the outskirts of Tokyo.
One class of six graders at a local school agreed to participate.
The focus of the actual mayoral election was whether to introduce school lunches at public junior high schools. When Hayashi asked the student voters to write down the reason why they chose one candidate over another, many of them cited one candidate’s support for introducing the lunches.
“Obviously, they are interested in policies that would affect them,” Hayashi said. “I believe the mock election helped them realize that they can voice their own opinions (in politics).”
Since then, Hayashi has focused on conducting similar mock elections for children across the country.
“A mock election is not only about casting votes,” he said. “In an actual election, voters would need to study candidates’ campaign platforms before voting.
“The voters would then begin to read newspapers and listen to candidates’ stump speeches at stations, something that had merely been a nuisance before. That will make people start to think,” Hayashi added.
“I’m not saying mock elections are everything, but they have the potential to create change,” he said.
Critics, however, say that despite the lowered voting age, few of those now eligible to vote are likely to do so.
While Hayashi says that may prove true, the blame for such an outcome should not fall only on the young.
“At schools, teachers put priority on studies for college entrance exams, and teach little about politics and modern history,” Hayashi claims. “There is a strong mistrust and sense of resignation on the subject of politics.”
At the same time, though, more of the nation’s youth appear to be interested in doing their part for the country.
In a government survey conducted in 2013, 53.4 percent of youth in Japan said they hope to be of use to the country, the highest among seven nations surveyed.
“Children will be affected by the political choices more strongly and over a longer period of time,” Hayashi said. “I want to guarantee their rights and nurture awareness and a sense of responsibility as a citizen.”