Japan high school teachers walk fine line in teaching politics

JIJI

Japanese high school teachers are stumbling to find ways to teach popular sovereignty following a legal revision that lowered the voting age to 18.

In a notice issued to local boards of education and other concerns last October, the education ministry said schools, while maintaining political neutrality, should take up real political issues in classes so students can exercise their voting right based on their own judgments.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology also called for schools to conduct mock elections and parliamentary sessions for students in cooperation with organizations such as election boards.

In addition, the education ministry and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry jointly provided teachers and students with texts on the mechanics of government, parliamentary debate and other issues.

A survey of all high schools, including those for students with physical or mental disabilities, conducted by the education ministry in April and May found that 94.4 percent of them offered third-year or older students education about popular sovereignty, or the rule of the people, in the 2015 school year.

Specifically, the mechanisms of the Public Offices Election Law and elections were taught by 89.4 percent of the schools, while only 29.0 percent conducted practical activities, such as mock elections, and 20.9 percent held debates on actual political issues.

Teachers in the survey said they wondered about whether they could ensure political neutrality in mock elections, what kind of teaching materials should be used and how far they are allowed to go in explaining the political opinions of election candidates.

The education ministry plans to compile advanced examples of popular sovereignty education in order to help teachers.

Following the enactment of the revised election law in June 2015, the election for the House of Councilors in July this year was the first national poll open to 18- and 19-year-old voters.

According to a preliminary report by the internal affairs ministry, 51.17 percent and 39.66 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds cast their votes, respectively, lower than the 54.70 percent average of all eligible voters.

But with turnout among voters aged 20 in the past five Upper House elections ranging from 31 percent to less than 36 percent, some teachers in the survey said that education about popular sovereignty had worked.

Nevertheless, “education about popular sovereignty must be upgraded to raise turnout among young voters,” said Daisuke Hayashi, an assistant professor of politics at Toyo University.

“Education boards and schools should show a positive stance on such education so that teachers can promote it without hesitation,” Hayashi said.