Fears that falling voter turnout may ‘threaten democracy’


“Are you only interested in Japan as far as sports are concerned?” asks a newspaper advertisement that has been running recently to alert people to the Upper House election July 11.

In the advertisement, J. League soccer star Masashi Nakayama and the popular actress Miho Shiraishi are smiling and each holding a ballot against a background picture of a packed sports stadium with the slogan displayed on its big screen.

In the choice of words, celebrities and setting, the advertisement from the Public Management, Home Affairs and Posts and Telecommunications Ministry obviously aims to appeal to younger people. In so doing, though, it highlights a sense of crisis about falling poll turnouts. The Lower House election last November, for example, posted its second-lowest turnout ever, at 59.8 percent. Even more worryingly, only about 35 percent of people in their 20s voted, while turnout among those in their 30s, which has been steadily declining for a decade, fell to around 50 percent.

This sense of crisis is shared by local election authorities, too.

In Nerima Ward in Tokyo, the ward’s election administration committee has invited local university students to volunteer to raise voting awareness among the younger generations for the Upper House election. The initiative, the first attempt of its kind in Tokyo, was prompted not just by bureaucratic face-saving, but much deeper concerns.

“Of course it’s because of the recent low turnout of voters in their 20s,” said Fumio Miyoshi, an official of the ward’s election administration committee. “In Tokyo, all wards and cities share this problem.

“We should take every possible measure to stop this tendency. Otherwise, turnout could just keep going down, and that could become a threat to democracy. This is a very serious problem.”

Although the House of Councilors election comes at a time when numerous controversial issues are making headlines — including pension reforms bulldozed through the Diet by the ruling coalition and the deployment of Self-Defense Force units to Iraq — analysts are predicting that even such issues are unlikely to spur a rise in the number of younger voters casting their ballots.

So, is it really the case that younger people are only interested in Japan as far as sports are concerned? Well, probably yes — and no.

According to the results of The Japan Times survey interviews of 145 voters in their 20s and 30s, 125 said they were “discontented” with politics in Japan, and most cited particular complaints. However, it seems that having opinions about politics does not necessarily lead to even that most basic political act of voting.

Rock-bottom expectations

A 21-year-old Tokyo student, for example, said she is angry about the government’s policies on Iraq and North Korea. She is, too, pessimistic about the future of Japan, in particular because of a lack of government transparency and matters of information disclosure.

Nonetheless, this student said she was not sure if she was going to vote on July 11, and probably wouldn’t, because she does not think her views will make any difference — and anyway, her expectations of politicians are at rock bottom.

The paradox exemplified by this student — clear views on politics but a sense of disengagement from the process — is something that greatly exercises pundits’ minds. Such young people watch political-debate shows on television, they point out, they check political discussion Internet sites and are interested in political movies by the likes of Michael Moore (“Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11”) — yet they rarely get involved in any form of political action.

Blame for this attitude is often attributed to young people’s tendency to put self-interest before that for their community or other people, as well as to failings in the education system.

Experts also point out the feeling of resignation toward politics which is dominant among young people now.

“Decades ago, young people were more enthusiastic about taking part in the political process in the belief that they could eventually change the situation with their votes,” said Rika Kayama, a psychiatrist who recently wrote a book on Japanese young people’s attitude toward their country, titled “Petit-nationalism Syndrome.”

“But recently, even if they are dissatisfied with what has been done in politics, young people often give up before taking any action because they think nothing will change once politicians have made decisions,” Kayama said.

“They do have some political opinions, but they usually end up just complaining and criticizing.”

Masahiro Yotsumoto, senior manager of the consumer data and insight department of Tokyo-based Dentsu, Japan’s leading advertising agency, tends to put the blame for younger people’s political apathy down to economic and social factors.

“They have questions about the political situation and feel anger about political decisions such as on pension reforms. They think their future is not bright in view of the current economic situation in Japan and the burden they will have to shoulder in the pension system,” Yotsumoto said.

“But they do not expect politics to change, and so they don’t take political concerns seriously.”

In addition to this, Yotsumoto also points to a bottom-line factor that may influence many younger members of the electorate. “Many of these people expect to inherit from their parents. With that expectation in mind, they have a sort of safety valve.

“They think they can survive anyhow, though their future life may not look so bright. This basic feeling allows them to be complacent about taking any political action,” he said.

Finger of blame

Yoshiaki Kobayashi, professor of political science at Keio University, on the other hand, points the finger of blame at “current Japanese politics and politicians.”

In his view, younger generations doubt that their votes are reflected in the Diet. This he says, is perhaps quite understandable, since lawmakers routinely pass laws and take important decisions on controversial issues without a full debate — such as on pension policy and the SDF’s involvement in Iraq.

“When I ask students what would they do if something unreasonable happened in the politics of Japan because so few people voted, they ask me back if something unreasonable would not happen if they did go to vote.”

Kobayashi also points out that the Japanese political parties’ traditional support bases in certain employment sectors and labor unions no longer have any relevance to the lives of many younger people. Hence, he says, it is only natural that more and more claim not to support any particular party.

Stay-at-home voters might bear the ultimate responsibility for Japan’s declining election turnouts, but in terms of the cause of their apathy, Kobayashi is clear that “the politicians who are responsible for creating the political situation should take more blame.”