Three 18-year-old high school students at Shinagawa Joshi Gakuin in Tokyo said they were excited to cast their ballots in Sunday’s Upper House election, being among the nation’s first teenagers to join the electorate.
“Just the thought of having a chance to possibly change the future (of this country), and the prospects of seeing more policies addressed to younger generations makes me excited,” said Rena Yamaguchi, a third-year student at the school, while her two fellow students nodded.
“It’s a historic event, and I’m proud to be among the first 18-year-olds to vote,” agreed Mizuki Inoue.
The students also admitted, however, to being slightly bewildered, and were not exactly confident about selecting a party or a candidate.
They have studied campaign pledges and followed media coverage. But rather than making things clear, the long lists of policy pledges have left the girls uncertain about how to make the best decision.
“We want to know what we are supposed to look for before casting our votes,” Inoue said.
Now that the voting age has been lowered from 20 to 18, the nurturing of political literacy among young people is becoming increasingly important to overcome the strong sense of apathy and inertia that has characterized them in recent decades.
Observers naturally see this as an opportunity to get younger generations more involved in politics.
Educators, however, are caught in a dilemma, trapped between cultivating students’ political literacy and maintaining political neutrality as required by law.
Education ministry guidelines require teachers to maintain this “neutrality” by refraining from expressing their personal political views.
“It’s easily said. But in reality, it’s hard to maintain that neutrality,” said Shigeyuki Yamane, a social studies teacher at Kokugakuin Kugayama High School in Tokyo.
In light of the new minimum voting age, the school held a special class about the importance of voting and the basic rules of an election. It also conducted a mock election last year, hoping to raise student awareness.
But when it comes to teaching students about contentious political issues, it can get difficult, he said.
“Even just nodding when a student expresses an opinion about a certain political party may give the impression that I support that party,” Yamane said.
When discussing contentious issues such as the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces, he made sure to introduce the different stances of political parties to ensure neutrality.
“It makes us nervous,” Yamane said. “Political neutrality, after all, is to introduce both sides of an argument.”
In Japan, political education had long been almost a taboo topic, observers say.
Shigeo Kodama, a professor of education at the University of Tokyo, said the taboo originally functioned to keep certain ideologies from manifesting themselves in school education.
From the late 1950s to 1970s, the Japan Teachers’ Union (Nikkyoso), which was a strong supporter of opposition parties and mainly leftist-leaning, staged strikes to fight the conservative government’s education policies, particularly the textbook screenings and rating system for teachers.
To prevent ideological confrontations, schools gave short shrift to political issues, Kodama said.
Also, university student movements in the 1960s against issues such as Japan’s security alliance with the United States were rife, later spreading to high school students, with some setting up barricades to close schools in protest.
In response to those events, in 1969, the education ministry issued guidelines banning high school students from engaging in political activities.
“With the guidelines, politics were put on a par with alcohol and tobacco,” Kodama said.
Rather than cultivating students’ social awareness, schools put weight on nurturing their ability to pass high school and university entrance exams, though that focus has been changing slowly in the past two decades, he said.
One recent change was the education ministry’s scrapping of the 1969 guidelines last year, lifting the longtime ban on political activities by high school students.
“Schools avoided exposing young people to politics for a long time,” Kodama said. “Considering that, it’s not something that can be changed overnight.
“Japan is still struggling to transform the educational system it adopted during the period of rapid economic growth (between the 1950s and 1970s),” Kodama said.
One lingering concern is that educators are still refraining from raising political issues in class due to fears of violating neutrality. But teachers need to understand, Kodama said, that ensuring political neutrality means teaching students about both sides of contentious issues, and explaining why political parties are fighting over them.
“Otherwise students may never understand,” Kodama said. “The teacher’s role is to fully explain a current situation without taking sides, and to think together with students.”
Shigeo Kawaguchi, a social studies teacher at Denen Chofu Gakuen High School, agreed, saying teachers must provide students with many different points of view on current political issues.
He attempted to stimulate students think about such issues by introducing several newspaper articles in his classes.
He has also shown a placard used in a rally to oppose the security legislation to expand the scope of overseas operations of the Self-Defense Forces. Kawaguchi was among the participants in the rally .
“I don’t think I’m violating political neutrality,” Kawaguchi said. “I’m showing them that adults should have opinions on (political issues).
“I believe children won’t form political opinions unless teachers say what they think,” he said. “I always tell students it is OK to have different opinions from mine.”
Shiori Ito, 16, one of Kawaguchi’s students, said his introduction to current political issues helped deepen her understanding of what was going on in society.
“I think it has given me the chance to gain more knowledge about society,” said Ito, a second-year student who will be speaking in the United States this summer about the voting age change on a travel-abroad program.
Although Ito is not eligible to vote in Sunday’s election, she welcomed the change. “It is a great opportunity for society to hear the voices of teenagers. We could change society.”
Kawaguchi also said it is important for adults to discuss social issues to cultivate political awareness among young students.
“Their parents and their grandparents need to discuss politics in front of them,” Kawaguchi said. “But sadly, many don’t.”
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