With plans afoot to lower the age of adulthood to 18 from 20, following the drop in the legal voting age last year, many Japanese, particularly those in their late teens, seem unprepared for the societal shift.
In fact, a majority of Japan’s teenagers do not appear to be keen on the idea, and many people say that 18- and 19-year-olds lack the ability to make judgment calls or take responsibility for their actions.
A Kyodo News survey of this demographic found earlier this year that a majority of the respondents are against the plan, with 68 percent opposed and only 32 percent in favor.
According to public comments released this month by the Justice Ministry, many are uneasy about the amendment plan because they think measures to help youths become independent are lacking, and that 18- and 19-year-olds are vulnerable to fraud.
As the government prepares to submit a bill to the Diet to amend the Civil Code, possibly next year, many believe the get-acquainted period, from enactment to enforcement, should be more than three years, the comments showed.
One explanation may lie with an education system that does not prepare teens to be responsible citizens.
“In my school they did teach us about interviewing for job-hunting, but no one tells you about life after that, as schools these days are like businesses, where their sole focus is on how many students they have prepared to work or pursue studies,” said Eisuke Ota, 20, a student at International Christian University in western Tokyo who said he is against lowering the age of majority.
As far as education is concerned, Japanese children and their parents usually focus all their attention on passing the high school and university entrance exams. But many believe they should be provided with opportunities to interact with a wide range of people, including the elderly, those with physical disabilities and people from abroad.
“In schools there should be more focus on civic education,” said Akira Kusuhara, professor emeritus at Kokugakuin University. “For example, kids should be taught to volunteer and help elderly people living nearby with their shopping once a week.”
A joint survey conducted last November by the University of Tokyo and the Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute on third-year high school students found that 81.2 percent spend most of their time doing activities at school and 22.3 percent participate in volunteer activities.
Political apathy among high school students is another problem, according to Nobuaki Nishihara, head of the high school department for the Japan Teachers’ Union. He traces the apathy back to restrictions put in place by the education ministry in 1969, following a political movement led by university and high school students that flourished earlier in the decade and led to riots that unnerved the government.
Teachers were asked to not delve into controversial topics, he said, adding that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party even now disapproves of “a teacher saying something against government policy.”
Shota Kurebayashi, a 22-year-old ICU student who grew up in the United States, said students in America “are mature as we are taught about government policies and are aware of the problems we may face when we are 18 or 19.”
Some of the potential problems Japanese teens could face following the age of majority amendment are outlined by Masamichi Ida, a professor at the School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University.
Since becoming adults at 18 would provide teenagers economic autonomy, such as allowing them to sign contracts and take out loans, “consumer education” at schools and from municipalities is necessary to protect them from being taken advantage of, he said.
He also pointed to the obvious effect the amendment would have on the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, the legal age for which is currently 20.
In another significant change, the amendment would end the parental right to cancel contracts signed by their 18- and 19-year-old offspring.
“Currently parents can cancel contracts with almost no conditions,” said Shinzo Nakamura, vice chairman of the consumer affairs committee at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, calling the cancellation right “a breakwater that saves them from getting trapped in possible scams.”
Nakamura argues that teens should be taught how to cancel contracts as adults and about the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, the legal system and the work of lawyers to combat the problem.
But others praise what they say would be the economic benefits of the change.
Stephen Nagy, associate professor of politics and international studies at ICU, said the amendment is required because of Japan’s current demographics.
Lowering the age of adulthood is a strategy to mobilize consumers, which is necessary to support Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies, and to sustain the current welfare system in a society with a low birthrate and rapidly graying population, Nagy said.
“Making the currently 18- and 19-year-olds into legal adults stimulates the economy by increasing the number of Japanese consumers who can legally get a credit card, rent a room without a guarantor and generally do things that previously required a guarantor.
“Not all of this group of young people will do this but a large number will be economically empowered to consume, and consumption is what the Japanese economy badly needs,” he added.
While that might be good news for the prime minister, another potential downside of the law change is that it might make it harder for cash-strapped families to pay for their children’s education.
Japanese parents find it tough to pay the high fees for private as well as public universities, said Takayoshi Egami, professor at the Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University.
The 18- and 19-year-olds attending schools or universities would be obliged to pay residential tax and money for pensions to the government, further increasing their parents’ burden, he said.
“The government is cutting on the aid and budget of the universities, leaving them with no option but to increase the fees, so if the law changes, then the government should take required measures like lowering college fees,” Egami said.
In a survey by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in September, Japan’s public spending on education was ranked second-lowest among 33 comparable member countries.