The lowering of the minimum voting age enfranchised 2.4 million people aged 18 and 19 to vote in the Upper House election held on July 10. But sample surveys show that only 45.45 percent of them cast votes — roughly 9 points less than the overall voter turnout of 54.7 percent.
Still, the figure was higher than turnout among voters in their 20s in Upper House elections over the past 24 years. This indicates that classes designed to rouse students’ interest in politics — given at high schools and universities following the change in the minimum voting age last year — have had some success. Government authorities and educators should continue efforts to help youths understand important political issues, including how to make constitutional democracy work properly as well as particular issues that concern them, and express their opinions through voting.
Based on sample data from the nation’s 47 prefectures, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry found that turnout for 18-year-old voters was 51.17 percent while that for 19-year-olds was 39.66 percent.
Upper House elections have seen particularly low turnouts for young voters, such as 33.37 percent for those in their 20s in the preceding election in 2013. While turnout among 18-year-olds in the July 10 election was about 18 points higher than that figure, turnout among 19-year-olds was just 6 percent higher.
The gap between 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds may be explained by the difference in their circumstances. Since many 18-year-olds still attend high school, they are likely to have taken part in classes that dealt with the election and politics. Most of them are believed to live at home with their parents — a setting that may lead to greater discussion about the election.
On the other hand, many 19-year-olds are already living away from their parents, either to work or to attend university. Many of them may not have been given sufficient information on the options of absentee voting or early voting. Local election management committees need to consider how to better inform youths who are newly living on their own about these opportunities.
In conjunction with the change in the minimum voting age, the education ministry scrapped a 1969 notice that banned high school students from taking part in political activities both inside and outside school. Its new notice to schools allows students to take part in political activities, including campaigning for political parties and candidates, outside school but continues to ban such activities on school premises. It also calls on school authorities to ban such activities if they are deemed to be causing serious political confrontations among students that may hamper school operations.
All of the public high schools in Ehime Prefecture now require students to notify their school in advance if they are taking part in political activities — a step that may discourage students from engaging in such activities. The education ministry should make it clear that boards of education and school authorities should refrain from any moves that hamper students’ political activities.
In a related move, the education ministry and the internal affairs ministry distributed 3.7 million copies of supplementary material for use by high school students to help them learn about politics and elections. The material — 100 pages worth — is designed to enlighten students on key points of the democratic process and the importance of exercising the right to vote.
Its guideline for teachers meanwhile calls on them to take up concrete political issues in classes and present to students differing opinions when they exist on such topics. But an overemphasis on the importance of teachers maintaining political neutrality and a ban on teachers expressing their own views on particular issues make it difficult for teachers to carry out effective education on this subject. In the first place, there cannot be strict neutrality on divisive political issues, such as whether Japan should abolish the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution and should have a full-fledged military — as proposed in the Liberal Democratic Party’s draft amendment to the Constitution.
It is also impossible to clearly define what is “neutral.”
The government should learn from what is practiced in Germany, where the voting age was lowered to 18 from 21 in 1970 and voter education for students has been actively carried out. The government should drop the requirement of neutrality and instead should allow teachers to express their own views on issues on the condition that they also present other viewpoints and do not express their views in ways that could prevent students from forming their own opinions.
The government should also have teachers help students develop the ability to think for themselves and express their thoughts — a foundation of the democratic process. In short, teachers and students alike should be encouraged to express their opinions and discuss concrete issues while refraining from imposing their views on others.
Germany’s voter education appears to be working satisfactorily. In the federal parliament election in 2013, 64.2 percent of voters aged 18 to 20 and 60.3 percent of voters aged 21 to 24 cast ballots.
Political parties for their part should work out policy measures that address the problems confronting the younger generations and present them in convincing ways, so that young voters will be more eager to exercise their right to vote.
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