For high school student Aine Suzuki, the Lower House’s move on Thursday to pass legislation that would reduce the voting age to 18 from the current 20 was akin to a dream come true.
The 16-year-old says she has always yearned for the right to vote — so much so that whenever an election is approaching she scours newspapers and TV shows to decide which candidate she would vote for, were she eligible to do so.
In only two years — Suzuki said with excitement — her opinion will count at the ballot box.
“I hope the lowered voting age will encourage more young people to pay attention to politics and make efforts to get their messages across. Only then can Japan turn into a real democracy,” said Suzuki, who is the youngest member of a pro-democracy youth group called Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs).
The move to lower the voting age — the first in 70 years — gives an estimated 2.4 million people aged 18 and 19 suffrage at both the national and municipal level. They will get their first chance to vote next summer, when an Upper House election is slated to take place.
In a nation where the voices of the elderly tend to be prioritized by politicians over those of young voters, politically active students like Suzuki herald an opportunity to empower youths in society. Some even welcome it as a chance to put an end to what they call a “silver democracy.”
“I feel like today’s politics are overly short-sighted because all they cater to is the elderly,” said another high school student, 17-year-old Aoi Momose, who heads the Tokyo-based Teen’s Rights Movement, a group pushing for greater youth involvement in politics.
Momose says with a tinge of indignation that his outlook seems bleak, or even “hopeless” — with snowballing tax burdens or a mammoth cut in pensions likely.
“I know this is not the nicest thing to say, but should we really continue to spend money for people whose days are numbered? Shouldn’t we instead invest more in people like us who are the driving force of our nation’s future growth?”
That view is echoed by Megumi Nakajima, 18, the group’s previous leader.
The defeat of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s long-held goal of reorganizing the city into a larger metropolitan entity in a recent referendum, she said, was a sobering reminder of how easily the voices of the elderly can drown out those of younger generations.
Hashimoto’s ambitious plan was voted down by a slender margin due to staunch opposition by those aged 70 or older. A majority of younger voters are believed to have supported the plan.
In this regard, Momose and Nakajima say they are all for lowering the voting age, as they believe this will increase young people’s say in the nation’s policymaking process.
But not everyone who may benefit is thrilled about the move, as found in a poll of passers-by on the streets of Tokyo’s pop-culture mecca in Shibuya.
University student Yoshiki Sato, 18, said he is underwhelmed by, or even indifferent to, the move to lower the voting age.
Sato also said he doubts he will bother to vote in the Upper House election next year because “no matter who wins, I don’t think anybody is capable of changing the status quo of our life.”
Tensei Takashima, a 17-year-old high school student, said he was taken aback, saying the move to lower the voting age was too abrupt. To him, it does not seem real that he will be able to vote next year.
“The whole thing kind of came out of the blue. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do yet,” he said.
Political apathy among youths is nothing new in Japan. Turnout among voters in their 20s for a Lower House election in December, for example, hit a record-low 32.58 percent, the lowest among all age groups, an internal affairs ministry survey shows.
Underlying such a widespread sense of indifference, student Momose says, is that politics tends to be shunned by teens as lame — or even taboo.
“There seems to be this tacit understanding among many teens that they should stay away from politics as much as possible, because they often see on Internet forums like 2channel extremists on the right and the left ranting at each other over politics,” Momose said.
This aversion to politics translates into lower voter turnout among youths and their abysmal electoral literacy.
In order to break the status quo, Daisuke Hayashi, an assistant professor at Toyo University who specializes in citizenship education studies, has for years spearheaded a mock-election initiative, in which schoolchildren are encouraged to cast a ballot for real-life politicians in a simulated election setting.
Hayashi, who also serves as secretary-general of a group called the Network for Promoting Mock Elections, says about 45,000 children and students nationwide have so far participated in the project since its launch in 2003.
The impending drop in the voting age, Hayashi said, points to the greater need to overhaul social issues education in school, which prioritizes book-learning and memorization of facts. Such a method, he said, does little to ignite interest in politics among youths, let alone to foster their abilities to think critically and make a judgment about political affairs.
“Japanese schools need to spend more time training students to think actively such as through discussions and debates. All eyes are on how educators in Japan will achieve the goal in a year’s time, until the summer Upper House election.”