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The education ministry is expected to send a new notice that allows high school students to take part in political activities under certain conditions to each prefecture’s board of education and other parties concerned by the end of this month. The move is reasonable since the minimum voting age has been lowered from 20 to 18 and some 2.4 million 18- and 19-year-olds will join the nation’s electorate beginning with the Upper House election next summer.

In a related move, the education ministry and the internal affairs ministry have jointly disclosed supplementary material designed to help high school students learn about politics and elections in concrete terms. The government plans to distribute 3.7 million copies of the material to high school students for use in civics and other classes by December.

It is hoped that the notice and the supplementary material will facilitate young people’s participation in the political process in a healthy manner, since a low voter turnout for people in their 20s has been a problem for decades, and it has been said that Japanese high schools take up political issues in classes less frequently than in other countries. In the Lower House election last December, turnout for people in their 20s was 32.6 percent and that for people in their 30s 42.1 percent — much lower than the 68.3 percent among voters in their 60s.

In the notice and the guideline for teachers concerning the use of the material, the education ministry emphasizes the need for teachers to keep a neutral stance on politics when conducting classes. The ministry and boards of education should realize that too much emphasis on neutrality can have an intimidating effect on teachers. The education authorities should take utmost care so that the notice and the guideline will not impede teachers’ efforts to carry out meaningful voter education in the classroom.

The notice will allow high school students to take part in political activities, including campaigning for particular parties and candidates, outside school but prohibits such activities inside school, citing the Fundamental Law of Education, which calls for political neutrality in school education. The notice also calls for teaching students the Public Offices Election Law to help prevent them from violating the law. It calls on school authorities to ban students’ political activities if such activities create a serious political confrontation among students to the point of hampering school operations.

The notice represents a departure from the one the ministry issued in 1969, which banned high school students from taking part in political activities both inside and outside of school. It was issued after students at some high schools, influenced by the radical university student movement in the late 1960s, set up barricades to close off their schools. The forthcoming notice will be an appropriate step because it is impossible to nurture voter consciousness among students as long as they are prohibited from taking part in political activities.

The roughly 100-page supplementary material is laudable in that it enlightens students on basic and key points of the democratic process and the importance of exercising the right to vote. For example, it says that if people stop participating in the political process, policy will be carried out based on the thinking of a small segment of society and that reflecting various people’s opinions in politics requires bringing together the knowledge, experience and expertise of all segments of society. It also says that making a majority decision meaningful and effective requires exhaustive discussions involving diverse opinions, comparing the majority and minority views and incorporating the minority opinion if it is reasonable.

Along with the teaching of such principles, the material guides students on practical ways to learn political participation — such as how to debate, how to find out about problems facing local communities, holding a mock policy discussion, a mock election and a mock assembly session, and filing a mock petition with a local government.

In an apparent effort to encourage students to become interested in politics, the notice and the guideline both call on teachers to take up concrete political issues. When there are conflicting views over certain issues, teachers are urged to present those different opinions. The guideline also says that since politics consists of reaching an agreement through discussions among people with different views, teachers should guide students on the importance of the process of cool-headed and rational discussions to reach a conclusion. In concrete terms, the guidelines suggests using more than one newspaper or the official records of Diet proceedings as reference materials when dealing with a divisive political issue. It even suggests seeking cooperation from politicians for education designed to cultivate political literacy.

But the guideline time and again stresses the importance of teachers maintaining political neutrality and refraining from expressing their own views on particular political issues. For example, if teachers are asked by students to give their views on political issues, they are urged to act prudently. While the supplementary material appears useful in helping raise students’ consciousness as voters, the guideline’s instruction to teachers on political neutrality may have the effect of discouraging them from taking up divisive political issues such as nuclear power or the Abe administration’s security legislation. This would run counter to the aim of voters education.

The education authorities should respect the autonomy of teachers and give them support so that they can try various ideas in classes. For example, they should consider allowing teachers to express their own opinions if asked to do so by students on the condition that they do not try to impose their views on the students and they also cite and objectively explain opposing views.

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