In what is being billed as the most significant change to Japan’s electoral system in the postwar era, the revised Public Election Offices Law that grants the right to vote to 18- and 19-year-olds takes effect Sunday.
The revision is an attempt to encourage younger people to be more politically active.
After the minimum voting age is lowered from the current 20 to 18, youths eligible to vote will cast their first ballots at the national level in the July 10 Upper House election.
On the local level, mayoral polls on July 3 in Ukiha, Fukuoka Prefecture, and the Shiga Prefecture town of Hino will be the first tests of the new system.
According to the internal affairs ministry, about 2.4 million voters ages 18 and 19 will be added to the electorate, totaling about 2.3 percent of Japan’s 104 million voters.
Universities and high schools are gearing up for the Upper House poll. Earlier this month, about 150 students at Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama attended a special class intended as a guide to politics.
The primary focus of the class was to teach young people how they can take part in democracy by exercising their voting right.
During the class, which was specially designed to be youth-friendly, a lecturer showed those in attendance how to research the policies and political beliefs of candidates by using various online resources such as social networking services.
Among the students, however, the reactions were mixed.
“Am I entitled to cast my vote even though I don’t know much about politics,” said one.
“I want to go to a polling station, so I’m doing research by watching news,” said another.
Hidetoshi Kawaguchi, an associate professor at Jumonji University in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture, who has been involved in efforts to educate young voters, emphasized that it is wrong to say political apathy predominates among the group.
“Indeed, young people have certain levels of interest in politics,” he said. “The problem lies in schools and families, where politics rarely become a topic of conversation.”
The government says there has been progress in educating young voters.
On June 13, the education ministry released a survey that asked the country’s high schools and schools for children with special needs whether they provide special classes to 18-year-old students. Valid responses were received from 6,322 schools.
Up to 94 percent of the schools said they had devoted more time to providing instruction on the country’s election system and had held classes with mock votes.
Still, despite the progress touted by the ministry, some regions are struggling more than others.
Aomori Prefecture, for example, has logged the lowest voter turnout among the country’s 47 prefectures in the past two national elections.
This year, it is trying to improve voter numbers for the July 10 poll.
The voter turnout in Aomori Prefecture came to 46.25 percent in the previous Upper House election in July 2013.
In the December 2014 Lower House poll, that number stood at 46.83 percent — a slight improvement.
To help raise public awareness of the importance in voting, especially among the region’s young people, the Aomori Prefectural Government has produced television commercials and made posters based on ideas submitted by high school and college students.
In addition, a group of people in their 20s is collaborating with the prefectural government and employing social networking services to get out the youth vote in the summer poll.
“I hope the upcoming Upper House election will become the first step for young people to think about politics,” said Kazuto Soma, the 20-year-old Aomori Chuo Gakuin University student who leads the group.
However, merely urging young voters to go to polling stations, even when they are insufficiently informed, is far from the long-term goal of fostering responsible citizenship.
In this regard, a high school in Kanagawa Prefecture is focusing on training and teaching its students how to weigh facts and sort out opinions.
Yosuke Kurosaki, 28, who teaches social studies at the Kanagawa Prefecture-run Shonandai High School in Fujisawa, is experimenting with ways to focus on the issues relevant to the current political climate.
While the upcoming Upper House election highlights immediate economic issues such as the consumption tax hike, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party are trying to keep the emphasis off moves to revise the country’s pacifist Constitution.
“While many in the opposition urge for protecting the Constitution, the LDP view is Japan was forced to adopt the current Constitution” by the Allied powers following the nation’s defeat in World War II, Kurosaki said, during a recent class where he was seeking the opinions of his students.
One of the students raised a hand and said, “I think it is the pacifist Constitution that has made Japan what it is today.”
Another said, “The Constitution needs to be revised in line with changes in society, such as environmental rights and privacy rights.”
In terms of constitutional revisions, the upcoming poll could play a pivotal role. To hold a national referendum on revising the Constitution, the ruling camp must command a two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers.
Currently, the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition holds a two-thirds majority in the 475-seat Lower House and a simple majority in the 242-seat Upper House. If the ruling bloc gains 86 seats in the Upper House election, it will be able hold a national referendum.
After the discussions, Kurosaki said his class is not aimed at eliciting perfect answers on difficult issues.
“Students don’t need to understand the issues completely,” he said. “What’s important is to interact with others and build his or her own opinions through the process.”