In the United States it took political activism triggered by protests over the Vietnam War to start serious debate about lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.
But for Japan, a nation where the burgeoning elderly population calls the shots and political apathy and cynicism among the younger generation abounds, simply generating meaningful dialogue about teenage voting is the real conundrum.
Japan passed legislation last month to lower the voting age from 20 to 18, starting in summer 2016, a move that will add a pool of 2.4 million 18- and 19-year-old voters to the electorate and place the country in line with other developed nations.
The move, the biggest shake-up to Japan’s election laws since 1945, when the voting age was lowered from 25 to 20 and the process of enfranchising women began, followed a similar revision to the national referendum law passed in June last year, to take effect in 2018.
That change, which lowered the minimum age for voting in national referendums to 18, was seen as a step aimed at helping Prime Minister Shinzo Abe accomplish his long-held goal of revising the 1947 Constitution. Constitutional revisions require endorsements by national referendums as well as the legislature.
But given that younger voters even in their 20s have been avoiding the polls in recent years, expecting change in how Japan votes overnight is a stretch. About a third of people aged from 20 to 24 voted in the 2014 Lower House election, significantly below the overall turnout of 52 percent, according to random surveys from voting districts.
In a recent interview with Kyodo News, Osaka Ohtani University professor Chieko Sakurai said Japan’s democracy is failing today’s youth, who feel frozen out of politics.
“Japanese children and young people have really been robbed of enthusiasm; you could say they have been made to feel indifferent to politics and society. So the first necessity is a reform of this tendency for lack of critical thinking in the field of education,” said Sakurai, who specializes in education and children’s studies.
Sakurai said today’s students are burdened by schoolwork, rote memorization and club activities, leaving them little time to study citizenship, take an interest in politics or think critically about the issues facing them in society.
“They become 18 before they know it, busy with club activities and schoolwork, so it’s silly to tell them all of a sudden to take an interest in politics,” Sakurai said.
Kento Kuroe, 21, an undergraduate engineering student from Yokohama National University, agreed.
“I would think the numbers of people who are excited by (lowering the legal voting age) are few. For one thing, 18-year-olds, people who have just graduated from high school, don’t have much knowledge about elections,” Kuroe said.
Yoshiaki Sakurai, who is in his 60s, said he doubted lowering the voting age would do much in the way of getting today’s youths to vote.
“Just because the law states you can vote when you’re 18 now, I don’t think the number of voters will increase that much. Yes, there are kids who are extremely interested in politics, but that’s not everyone. Even if it does increase, it will be slowly, not drastically,” he said.
“This is the biggest change since 1945, yet everyone is acting very nonchalant about it. It was in all the newspapers, yet not many people are talking about it. I talk more about soccer with my friends than this topic,” he added.
Roughly a quarter of Japan’s population of 127 million is 65 or older, a result of low birthrates and an aging society over the past few decades.
Based on data released by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan’s population is expected to fall by about 1 million every year in the coming decades, which will leave the country with a population of 86 million in 2060 — 40 percent of whom are expected to be over 65.
Thus welfare has become a priority as politicians aware of the voting power of the elderly continue to cater to this huge base, while issues facing future generations take a back-row seat.
Social security costs continue to rise at a time when the workforce is falling.
Professor Sakurai pointed out that in Germany, the opinions of youth are actively solicited by the social affairs ministry to reflect in policy. Youth naturally take a strong interest in politics because the policies reflect their opinions.
“The main point here is for adults not to be afraid of handing power over to the youth. Can you treat the young with the same respect as you treat adults? Adults need to recognize the youth’s positive influence on communities and the economy, respect them and invite them for policy decisions in local elections. It’s not looking down on them and saying, ‘You should do this’ but instead, ‘Can we think about this together?’ ”
Miyu Tada, 18, a recent high school graduate, said she is hopeful the new law will stimulate political debate among the young. She said she would like to consider voting in next summer’s Upper House election.
“(Politicians) have gotten away with (not appealing to the young) because the young population isn’t active. Japanese policies aren’t influenced by youth opinion at all because there are no youth protests, unlike in other countries.”
During the Vietnam War, most Americans subjected to the draft were too young to vote or consume alcohol in most states.
Indeed it was the contradictions of young people willing to risk their lives for their country in war without the franchise or the ability to legally consume alcohol that largely pressured legislators to lower the voting age nationally.
It remains to be seen whether a similar fire will be found in the bellies of the Japanese youths who head for the polls next year.