Politicians failing to engage youth

For young people it's a wired world but candidates are only skirting cyberspace


One of the oldest rules in politics the world over is that young people stay away in droves.

Japan is no exception.

Some experts are warning that if the voice of today’s young people isn’t reflected in politics, it could have a serious impact on society.

Several factors are contributing to political apathy among younger people, they said, including a lack of effort by politicians to engage them in the Internet age.

“If they don’t vote and don’t have any interest in voting, they won’t gather political information and they will not want to go vote,” said Takeshi Kohno, a political science professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

Young people are playing into politicians’ hands because indifference equals no resistance to whatever lawmakers have up their sleeves, Kohno said, calling it a vicious circle.

“Taxes could be raised before people even know it,” he said.

Yuya Watase, a policy planner and board member of the Policy Process Institute in Tokyo, said that if the opinions of the young are not reflected in politics, they may inherit the burden of the snowballing budget deficit.

Looking at the most recent national election, the 2007 Upper House poll, voter turnout among people in their 20s was a mere 34.33 percent, whereas the overall rate was 58.64 percent, according to the Association for Promoting Fair Elections, an incorporated foundation that promotes fair elections and political participation nationwide.

Compare that with turnout for the 1962 Lower House election, where 66.69 percent of 20- to 29-year-olds cast votes.

In the 2003 Lower House election, turnout by the young was 35.62 percent.

But even Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the most popular leader in recent history, could only muster 46.2 percent of 20- to 29 year-olds for the 2005 poll.

Politicians focus more on policies that affect older people — no surprise given that their turnout rate is higher.

This reinforces older people’s interest in politics and alienates younger people at the same time, said 27-year-old Watase, who has researched young people’s political interests.

One effective way to get young people more involved is to use the Internet, and political parties are finally poking their heads into cyberspace.

For instance, the parties have video channels on YouTube they use to upload all sorts of footage, including “soft” content.

Some lawmakers in charge of public relations for the major parties say this is a way to get their foot in the door with young people.

Prime Minister Taro Aso and Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa have their own channels on Nico Nico Douga, a Web site much like YouTube.

Many lawmakers are even blogging.

Watase, however, said that Internet use still hasn’t spread widely among politicians, and that their Web sites need more detailed policy information and more frequent updates.

He also said that the election law, which does not allow politicians and their parties to use the Internet for promotion during campaigns, should be changed.

The law prevents them from updating their official Web sites, which is where many young people could be expected to start gathering information before deciding to vote, he said.

“The Internet is not yet utilized well in terms of law and management,” Watase said.

Katsuhiko Tochinai, an election adviser who has helped several politicians, places much of the blame for the apathy at the feet of politicians.

He said politicians have gone overboard in playing up their entertainment value, such as Aso does with his “manga” (comic books).

At the same time, many TV celebrities have become politicians, nudging voters toward populism.

Tochinai said that young people have tired of this trend and may now be disinclined to take political issues seriously.

The revolving door in the prime minister’s office only reinforces their distrust in politics, Tochinai said.

Voter turnout usually increases as people grow older. Keio University’s Kohno said this phenomenon is called the “life-cycle effect,” in which people have more interaction with society and are increasingly exposed to politics as they age.

However, he worries that the current generation of young people may never show up, given their propensity to shy away from society.

For example, portable video games, which they can play alone, have helped them stay disconnected starting from childhood.

Kohno said one thing that can be done to increase turnout is lower the voting age to 18 from 20, considering that about half of high school graduates opt to start work instead of going to college.

“When people start working, they begin to see connections with politics,” he said.

However, at 18, they can’t vote when they start seeing this connection, he said. For the next election, which will happen within a year, the experts think turnout will once again be low, regardless of Aso’s popularity with younger people, particularly “otaku” (geeks), due to his passion for manga.

When it comes to polls, the determining factors are the big issues of the day and who the party leaders match up with those issues. So no matter how much play is given to Aso’s love of manga, it won’t draw people to the ballot box, Watase of the Policy Process Institute said.

But while most young people may not be interested in politics in general, “they seem to share a vague frustration, so the magma is boiling,” Watase said. “If lawmakers or parties can dig through to that frustration, it’s possible that it will explode.”