OSAKA — Candidates who intend to run from the Osaka No. 9 constituency in the June 25 general election spoke before 280 people at a “kokai toron kai” policy forum held recently in Ibaraki Ward.
“In order to deal with the current fiscal deficit, taxes need to be collected from more people by lowering the minimum income-tax threshold,” said Nobumori Otani, a 37-year-old member of the Democratic Party of Japan.
“Well, it will be really difficult when you actually try to introduce it,” argued Takeshi Nishida, a Diet member from the New Conservative Party.
“We oppose the idea, and we also oppose raising consumption taxes,” said Kuniaki Fujiki, a lawyer and a member of the Japanese Communist Party.
This is one of 222 such forums being planned or already conducted by local citizens’ groups out of the country’s 300 single-seat constituencies. While policy debates organized by prefectural administration committees before an election, called “tachiai enzetsukai,” used to be held, they were banned in 1983 because they were often disrupted by jeers.
The citizens’ group Global Citizen Forum in 1996 launched a policy forum project and introduced rules requiring panelists to make speeches within a certain time limit and refrain from slanderous statements.
The audience is also required to refrain from heckling and applauding unless encouraged by the organizer.
Since the first debate was held for the 1996 Kyoto gubernatorial poll, more than 160 similar ones have taken place nationwide up to April.
The Global Citizen Forum does not organize every event but gives knowhow to a group of local residents who then organize the debate forum.
Political apathy among young people is the highest among all age brackets. In the 1996 Lower House election, only 32.58 percent of 20-to 24-year-olds voted. This year, however, some students in the Kansai region have taken the initiative to organize policy forums.
“The aim of the forum is to help voters choose candidates by actually listening to and looking at them,” said Kanako Otsuji, a fourth-year student at Doshisha University. She organized the debate in the Osaka No. 9 constituency together with 19 other students. “The discussions among the would-be-candidates help the audience understand them better. It helps narrow the gap between the local people and politicians.”
Otsuji learned from her own experience in organizing the forum for the Ibaraki gubernatorial election in April and she also has some knowledge of politics after an internship at the office of an Ibaraki municipal assembly member in March.
“I feel that becoming a politician requires not much for ability but connection to those in power,” Otsuji said.
Those organizing forums, however, are not always as knowledgeable as Otsuji. In the Shiga No. 2 constituency, a group of Shiga Prefectural University students is working hard to make the June 11 debate a success.
“We don’t know much about politics or politicians, but we try to make the debate interesting to even ordinary people like us,” said Hitomi Matsuo, 20, who represents the group, which usually works on environmental and community issues.
“We’ve decided to organize the debate because it is our responsibility as citizens to carefully select our representatives to make our community a nicer place to live, which is also our group’s ultimate goal,” Matsuo said. “Also, because many of us organizers are 20 years old, it is a good opportunity to be more interested in politics as we now have suffrage.”
The group plans to ask questions about fiscal policy, education, welfare and environmental issues to the would-be candidates.
The Ibaraki forum received praise both from the panelists and the audience although many wished it would have lasted longer.
“I think we heard quite a good debate tonight. It’s a pity that we had run out of time,” said Kyoko Masuda, a Mino municipal assembly member and first-timer at such a debate.
Otsuji said organizing a policy forum suits students best because they are free from any “shigarami,” or moral obligations.
“I want to tell my generation that being indifferent to politics will not bring any benefit to us because politicians only reflect the interests of a certain segment of voters. But it is our generation that will have to bear all the burden of the current fiscal deficit and social welfare problems,” Otsuji said.
She also said that not all young people are indifferent to politics, but they find there is no place to express their views. A policy forum, she said, is one event that might trigger such interest.
Otsuji said she wants to make it a start for a new relationship between ordinary people and politicians.
“While many of us tend to expect our representatives to do us favors or forget about them after an election, we should follow our representatives’ activities to check if they are really reflecting our voices,” she said. “We should be more engaged in politicians and their activities to create a better society.”