As the government seeks to lower the legal age of adulthood from 20 to 18 by revising the Civil Code, concerns have been expressed about the risk of consumer-related problems and other issues that could affect these new adults, who have relatively little social and economic experience. Both the government and other relevant parties need to make sufficient preparations to protect them from the dangers inherent in commercial transactions and other matters.
A relevant bill is set to be submitted to next year’s regular Diet session at the earliest, following the revision last year of the Public Offices Election Law that lowered the voting age from 20 to 18. It will be based on a 2009 recommendation by the Legislative Council, an advisory body to the justice minister, that called it appropriate to lower the age of majority to 18 but also underlined the need to take steps to deal with possible problems that could arise from the change.
The 18- and 19-year-olds who will be treated as adults if the planned amendment takes effect will have a range of financial circumstances. Some won’t be working at all, while others will be earning money via part-time jobs while attending high school or university, or be employed full time. Since many of these youths already earn their own money, some say that legally treating them as adults may help them become more economically independent as members of society. There are quite a few pitfalls, however.
People in this age group tend to lack sufficient knowledge and experience in matters related to contracts. The Civil Code has a provision to protect minors from unfair contracts by allowing their parents to cancel deals that their children have concluded to buy products and services without parental consent. But once 18- and 19-year-olds become legal adults, they will no longer be afforded this protection.
The National Consumer Affairs Center points out that because of that protective provision in the Civil Code, many businesses with malicious intent target consumers who have just turned 20 — some start soliciting their prospective customers while they are still minors and then get them to sign the contract as soon as they come of age. The center says that from fiscal 2011 to 2015 it received calls for advice from an average of 11,000 people aged 18 and 19 each year, while the corresponding figure for those aged 20 to 21 surged 1.6 times. The average annual amount of the purchases over which they had a problem was ¥160,000 among 18-year-old males and ¥210,000 among those aged 19 — the figure jumped to ¥390,000 for males in the 20 to 22 age bracket.
Most of the nearly 200 public comments sent to the Justice Ministry by such organizations as the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, the National Association of Upper Secondary School Principals and consumer groups expressed concern over problems that could arise from the planned Civil Code revision, including exacerbated consumer damage such as fraud and the risk of young people incurring debts from multiple sources.
If the legal adulthood age is lowered to 18, it is believed that some 200 laws would need to be revised. However, legal measures that prohibit youths under 20 from smoking, drinking alcohol and gambling at publicly run establishments such as horse and motor boat racecourses are seen as likely to be kept in place. The government and the Diet should also consider retaining the protection extended to teenagers over such matters as contracts and loans. They should also maintain a provision in the Labor Standards Law designed to protect young workers that allows parents and labor offices to cancel labor contracts deemed disadvantageous to minors.
Since there will be wide-ranging repercussions from lowering the age of adulthood, ample time should be set aside between the legal amendment and its enforcement so that the government and the Diet can fully discuss revisions to related laws from the viewpoint of shielding youths aged 18 and 19 from the possible adverse effects.
Whether the legal adulthood age is lowered, local governments and school authorities are urged to make serious efforts to improve consumer education for young people so they will not become victims of malicious business practices. Such education is particularly important given the ease with which consumers engage in online transactions. Teachers need to receive appropriate training and class hours should be set aside for consumer education.
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