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With the Upper House election results now serving as a baseline, it will be interesting to see if what happened in the United States once 18-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1972 has predictive value for future elections in Japan.

Expectations were high in 1976, which was the first nationwide election allowing young people to cast their ballot. Although 18- to 24-year-olds comprised 18 percent of all eligible voters in the U.S. at the time, only 13 percent actually exercised their new right. That was an underrepresentation of one-third.

Analysts said the low turnout was an aberration. But the next election in 1978 refuted that explanation when youth were underrepresented by 50 percent. In 1996, the situation was even worse, when 7 out of 10 young people did not vote in the presidential election.

Yet in a way, the disappointing data are not at all surprising. Overall voter turnout in the U.S. is among the worst of nations in the world with advanced economies, according to the Pew Research Center. Despite such innovations as same-day registration and voting by mail, little has changed. Growing cynicism has permeated the electorate.

Why that should be so among youthful voters is unclear. They have been the ones most vociferous in fighting for the right, and yet they have paradoxically been the ones least likely to cast their ballots.

The jubilant atmosphere in Japan today is reminiscent of that in the U.S. 44 years ago. But it didn’t last. It’s likely that it won’t last in Japan either because of what is known in social science as the Hawthorne effect. People often behave differently at the beginning of any innovation than they do later on. The novelty eventually wears off.

While it’s true that certain issues in elections can entice voters of all ages to the polls, the turnout is ephemeral. For example, student protest against the Vietnam War in the 1960s was seen as evidence that if young people were ever given the right to vote, the turnout would be striking. After all, if so many young people were willing to stage sit-ins and other forms of protests, then surely they would flock to the voting booths in equal numbers. That never happened.

Whether schools in Japan can accomplish what schools in the U.S. have not is also debatable. The issue is not maintaining teacher neutrality as required by law in Japan but inculcating in students their responsibility as citizens to join the electorate. The sheer newness of being able to vote too often fades unless it is underpinned by deep civic duty.

It’s here that teachers in Japan have set a bad example. In 2003, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara mandated that teachers in public high schools and other institutions stand up, face the flag and sing the national anthem during school ceremonies. When about 400 teachers joined a class-action lawsuit against the enforced patriotism, it sent a confusing message to students about their duty to their country.

Their action may partly account for youthful disdain about voting. If so, it would cause voting strategists to rethink their calculations. The sheer size of the youth population has always been an irresistible prize. But time has shown how risky it is to bet on this segment. The lesson is that fiery rhetoric, strident demonstrations and initial excitement do not translate to voter turnout.

In light of the evidence to date, some observers have urged making voting compulsory. Belgium has the oldest compulsory voting system, dating back to 1892 for men and 1949 for women. Those who do not vote face a moderate fine, and if they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years. They also face obstacles landing a job in the public sector.

But making voting compulsory is no assurance that young people will change their behavior. They would probably show up to avoid being penalized but then abstain from marking their ballot, since the voting booth is private.

Let’s hope that the newly enfranchised young in Japan prove they are different from their peers in the U.S. Suffrage is too precious.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the United States.

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