The July 10 Upper House election will welcome some 2.4 million people aged 18 and 19 to the electorate as the minimum voting age has been lowered from 20. Whether these new voters will make much of an impact on the outcome of the race is unclear. They make up a mere 2 percent of the nation’s 106 million eligible voters, and turnout has been notoriously low among young people in recent national elections. Younger citizens need to realize that policies affecting their own futures will be determined by the outcome of the elections, so they should make their voices count.
The first lowering of the minimum voting age since it was changed from 25 to 20 in 1945 comes just as a declining portion of younger voters are going to the polls. In the 2014 Lower House general election, turnout among those in their 20s was 32.58 percent — far below the national average of 52.66 percent (the lowest ever in itself) and less than half the 68.27 percent for voters in their 60s. The situation is little different in Upper House elections, with a turnout of 33.37 percent among voters in their 20s in the last 2013 race trailing far short of the overall rate of 52.61 percent and 67.56 percent for those in their 60s.
Turnout has historically tended for be lower for younger voters even as the average across generations rises and falls. With the rapid aging of the population, older generations now account for a larger proportion of the electorate, and the sluggish turnout among young people suggests their votes will account for even smaller portion of the total than the demographics dictate.
The rapid graying of the population was highlighted in the government’s latest summary report of the 2015 national census. People aged 65 or older accounted for a record 26.7 percent of the population, up 3.7 points from the 2010 census and grabbing more than a quarter of the total for the first time since the survey began in 1920.
Those younger than 15 accounted for a record low 12.7 percent, and they are now outnumbered by the elderly in all 47 prefectures. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates that the proportion of the elderly population will hit 31.5 percent in 2030 and nearly 40 percent in 2060.
While the demographic trajectory highlights the tough challenge of sustaining the nation’s social security system — with fewer people of working age supporting retirees, it also points to the declining share of youths in the electorate — a trend that will be exacerbated by eligible young voters staying away from the polls.
A Kyodo News poll taken as the campaign for the July 10 election began last week gives a hardly promising assessment of the attention paid to the race by 18- and 19-year-olds. Only 45 percent of the respondents in that age bracket said they are interested in the election — the lowest across all generations. Just like the turnout in recent elections, the younger the pollees’ age, the less interest they show.
A PR campaign by the government encouraging more people to vote won’t be sufficient to halt the falling turnout. What can be done to show younger voters that their ballots can make a difference?
The recent referendum in Britain on whether the country should exit the European Union exposed a clear gap between generations. Analyses of the results show that people aged 18 to 24 voted overwhelmingly for Britain to remain in the EU, whereas more than 60 percent of voters 65 or older voted for Brexit. But as the nation voted 52 percent to 48 percent to pull out of the EU, the turnout appears to have been generally lower in areas with a younger population — the same trend as seen in the 2015 general election. Comparison between a single-issue referendum and a Diet election may be irrelevant, but the Brexit vote appears to be a case in which voters’ age and the disparity in turnout across generations mattered.
Though this problem is neither new or unique to Japan, the steep gap in voter turnout between generations is unhealthy for a democracy, and its effects can be magnified in a rapidly aging population like Japan’s. The nation’s younger citizens, including those newly enfranchised 18- and 19-year-olds, should be aware of the consequences of not bothering to make their voices heard.