It is hoped that lowering Japan’s minimum voting age for elections from 20 to 18 — as the Diet now seems certain to approve so that it takes effect for the Upper House election next year — will encourage political participation by more youths just as Japan faces a host of long-term policy challenges that will directly affect their future. But it is ultimately up to the young voters themselves to decide whether to exercise their newly granted right to vote and have their voices heard in politics.
The revision to the Public Offices Election Law, submitted to the Diet jointly by the ruling coalition and much of the opposition camp on Thursday, is set to be enacted during the current Diet session, paving the way for the first change in the voting age in 70 years since it was lowered from 25 to 20 in 1945. Japan has been the only Group of Seven industrialized economy to keep the minimum voting age at 20. All of other G-7 countries lowered the age to 18 during the period from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s.
The push to lower the voting age under the election law originated with the move to align the age requirement with that of the procedural law enacted last year concerning a national referendum to ratify constitutional amendments. The referendum law set the voting age at 20 for the first four years before lowering it to 18. With the revision to the Public Offices Election Law, the referendum law is also set to be amended to move up the effective date of the lower voting age.
Incongruities with other laws remain — including the Civil Code and the Penal Code, which set adulthood at age 20. Whether to also lower the age for legal adulthood — which entails both rights and obligations — to 18 remains an open question that appears to still lack a national consensus.
In addition to the bureaucratic task of amending roughly 200 related laws, caution lingers within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party about granting adulthood to youths when they turn 18 — even though such a change was proposed by an advisory panel to the justice minister in 2009.
There are meanwhile calls that the Juvenile Law, which defines people under 20 as minors who should be protected in principle from criminal prosecution, be amended if youths are to get voting rights when they turn 18.
Since more than 80 percent of countries around the world set the minimum voting age at 18, it would not be convincing to argue that Japanese youths aged 18 and 19 are unique in not yet having developed the maturity to render proper judgment in casting votes. People in that age bracket are taxed just like adults if they start working after graduating from high school, and it would be irrational to deny them the right to be represented in politics. Giving voting rights to such youths can also work to raise their awareness for political participation, which in turn will hone their ability to make proper judgments on issues.
Greater political participation by youths is also important as a number of key policy issues, including the sustainability of the social security system with the accelerated aging and decline of the population, directly concern the next-generation voters. Their opinions need to be reflected more in policy decisions on such matters.
One source of concern is the generally low voter turnout among the country’s younger generations. The Lower House election held in December saw voter turnout tumble to a new postwar low of 52.66 percent overall, but the turnout among voters in their 20s was even lower at a mere 32.58 percent — far below the 68.28 percent among those in their 60s or the 70.01 percent among those in their 70s.
The turnout among voters in their 20s was roughly half that among people in their 60s and 70s in the 2012 general election as well.
Japan’s social welfare policies are often said to place greater emphasis on the elderly population than on the younger generations. Politicians tend to pay more attention to the interests of senior voters due to their higher turnout, while neglecting to heed the voices of youths, who don’t go to the polls as much. That neglect could create a vicious cycle that erodes younger voters’ interest in politics even further.
The proposed revision of the election law is estimated to add 2.4 million new eligible voters aged 18 and 19 in the next Upper House election. Those combined with the 12.5 million people in their 20s would still constitute a smaller group than the 18 million voters in their 60s.
Given that youths account for a decreasing portion of Japan’s population because of the low birthrate, the steep gap in voter turnout could exacerbate the disparity in political participation between generations.
As the voting age is set to be lowered, the government plans to beef up education at high schools to get students to understand what it means to be able to vote and to raise their awareness for political participation. In fact, little time is left if the new voting age is to apply starting in the Upper House election next year.
Model programs introduced on a limited basis so far include having students research issues in their communities by interviewing local residents as well as organizing mock polls for students to vote on a chosen topic. The education ministry will reportedly distribute reading materials on the nation’s election system to all high school students as early as this summer — since a large part of them will likely be casting their votes next year, including those still at school.
Political parties still appear to be groping for ways on how to approach the new ranks of the electorate. Some may explore greater use of Internet-based campaigns to lure Web-savvy youths.
But instead of just preparing a policy menu that sounds attractive to the younger voters, the parties and lawmakers need to stop and think why voter turnout is so low among the younger generations and how they can raise their political participation.
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