With the voting age lowered to 18 from 20, an estimated 2.4 million people, including high school students, will be allowed to vote for the first time in next summer’s Upper House election.
But as political apathy among youth runs strong, lobbyists, educators and officials are deliberating how politics should be taught in schools, which have tended to shy away from debating current political issues due to a government notice that effectively quells debate on such matters.
Although the change in the voting system will take effect immediately, that doesn’t mean the public mindset will change right away, said Ryohei Takahashi, a 39-year-old director at the nonprofit organization Rights, which encourages youngsters to get involved in the political process.
“Lowering the voting age wasn’t the ultimate goal, but it was a step forward to trigger further systemic reforms to encourage young people’s involvement in politics,” said Takahashi, who has been lobbying to lower the voting age since he was a university student 15 years ago.
The low interest in politics among young people is reflected in voter turnout. In the Lower House election in 2014, only 33 percent of people in their 20s voted, compared with 68 percent of those in their 60s, according to the internal affairs ministry.
Young people tend to think of politics as irrelevant to them, as they lack opportunities to feel that their votes actually changed their daily lives, Takahashi said.
But he also blames politicians and bureaucrats for putting politics in a “black box” that youngsters find hard to understand without proper education.
Teruyuki Hirota, a professor of education at Nihon University, agrees, saying the government has systematically steered students toward becoming indifferent toward politics through a notice issued by the education ministry more than 40 years ago.
The “nonbinding” missive from 1969 requested high school teachers nationwide to “pay extra caution” not to include their individual opinions when referring to topical political matters.
The notice was issued after leftist students at universities, most notably the University of Tokyo and Nihon University, had barricaded themselves on their campuses in the late 1960s, protesting university management and clashing with riot police.
Although not legally binding, “the notice was effective enough to intimidate teachers” who didn’t want to be labeled politically biased, Hirota said.
The notice also banned high school students from engaging in campus activities for established political parties or any political protests, saying such actions are “undesirable in terms of education.”
“High school students were educated to remain” immature about politics by not being given opportunities to talk actively on the topic, Hirota said.
As a result, he said, political science classes just involve memorizing political terms, rather than debating current issues that could nurture critical thinking toward politics.
But now with the lower voting age, which means some high school students will be eligible to vote, Hirota said the notice needs an overhaul.
He argues that schools need to start building up political understanding among young people at an early age so they will be ready to vote wisely when they turn 18.
The education ministry is aware of the situation.
It plans to revise the 1969 notice and release a revamped policy for political education this fall.
But some lawmakers are concerned that the revision may revive student movements similar to those in the 1960s.
On Thursday, a Liberal Democratic Party group on education policies submitted a proposal to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling for regulation of teachers’ political activities to maintain “political neutrality” in education and creating possible penalties for violators.
The proposal says there is a need to avoid “confusion” in schools caused by political ideologies, and that campuses must not become centers for political conflict.
Hirota, however, worries such moves may result in repeating the same mistake the government made in issuing the 1969 notice.
“Even if students were to be set free by revision of the 1969 notice, political education might remain … unfree if teachers were bound by regulation,” Hirota said. If the proposal were to be introduced, teaching political conflict at schools could be arbitrarily labeled as politically biased education and targeted for attack, he added.
“Politics is all about conflict of different values, different opinions and different interest groups,” Hirota said. “What is essential for political education is to understand the conflict and to let students think independently to reach their own decision.”