With a pivotal national election due by fall, University of Tokyo student Kensuke Harada feels compelled to raise political awareness among young adults, who have consistently ignored their right to vote.
Harada, 23, is concerned low voter turnout among the young has been allowing lawmakers to pursue policies that solely address the needs of elderly people and ignore the financial burden that will one day fall on the shoulders of his own generation.
“If our voter turnout stays low, politicians will continue to advocate policies that only please voters above 60,” Harada said. “Our voices are not being reflected in current politics.”
But he added that young voters, who obtain the right to go to the polls at age 20, are too indifferent about politics and unaware of the power each single ballot wields.
He thus founded a student organization dubbed “ivote” in April last year to help lift turnout among voters aged 20 to 29, and launched an e-mail project in February to remind registrants to go to the polls on election day.
After tumbling below the 50 percent line in the 1993 House of Representatives election, turnout among people under 30 has hovered at around 30 to 40 percent, compared with 66.7 percent in the 1967 election.
In contrast, turnout among those in their 60s has essentially stayed at around 70 percent to 80 percent over the past three decades.
Keio University professor Yoshiaki Kobayashi said his studies indicate people in their teens and 20s doubt their involvement in society will change it for the better.
Kobayashi, who teaches political science and specializes in research on voting rates and behavior among young adults, blamed the single-seat constituency system.
“The weight of one ballot has weakened compared with under the multiseat system,” he said. “In the system to choose only one candidate, we can easily predict who will win and tend to think that one ballot will not change the course of the race.”
In fact, Norihisa Tsue, a student at Shizuoka University, said he never voted in a national poll when he had the opportunity in his hometown in Kyoto Prefecture because he knew that Sadakazu Tanigaki, a Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight, would win anyway.
Tsue, 23, was in Tokyo late last month to attend a party at an inn organized by ivote to deepen exchanges with Diet members.
The party held in the Shibuya district drew about 50 voters under 30 and six lawmakers, including Ichita Yamamoto, an LDP member of the House of Councilors.
Afterward, the event also apparently gave the lawmakers a chance to think about why turnout among under-30s remains so low.
“The key to improving voter turnout seems to be increasing the number of ballot boxes,” Yamamoto said afterward, noting some participants said they would vote more if polling stations were more convenient.
Representative Nobuto Hosaka of the Social Democratic Party, part of the opposition camp, said he thinks the voting rate among young people has been low because the half-century-old Public Offices Election Law puts too many restrictions on campaigning.
“We’re supposed to be able to connect with voters through campaign activities, but what we’re allowed is far removed from the interests and culture of youth,” he said, noting that staging events like rock concerts are largely restricted under the law.
Sho Takahashi, a 24-year-old musician from Tokyo, agreed.
“If we’re able to join a rock concert or other fun activities like we often see in U.S. presidential election campaigns, we’ll be more motivated to vote,” he said.
Experts also blame the problem on the dearth of appealing young lawmakers and a political landscape populated with lawmakers who inherited their constituencies from relatives or came from privileged families.
With such a narrow group of politicians representing the public, it’s no surprise young voters feel alienated, Takahashi said.
“How can we relate to politics? It’s a totally different world,” he said.
Another student group, Ring, has organized debates and interviews with lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties since November and uploaded them onto the Internet for public viewing.
“It’s not that young people don’t have an interest in politics, they just don’t know how to get involved,” said 24-year-old Meiji Gakuin University student Takehiko Nishino, the founder.
Both groups, however, face one big problem: They are failing to persuade those who don’t pay attention to politics to get involved.
Harada of ivote is considering forming tieups with companies and offering them incentives to cooperate by, for example, handing out novelty items to e-mail registrants who actually go vote.
His idea has not been fully supported, however, because Nishino and others argue it could cause too much interference and curtail individual freedom.
Yet, experts caution that the consequences of youth’s indifference to politics will be serious, given that politicians have only come up with stopgap, pork-barrel measures and let the national debt snowball beyond an estimated ¥800 trillion. “That figure is the result,” Keio University’s Kobayashi said.
“I know we can’t bring about a revolutionary change,” Harada said. “I just want (more young adults) to have politics in the back of their minds.”
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