The government is seeking to revise the Civil Code and 24 related laws during the upcoming regular Diet session to lower the age of adulthood to 18 from the current 20. Since the change will bring considerable change to various aspects of society and affect people’s lives, the government and the Diet should devote ample time to discussing the planned revisions and set aside enough time for the people to familiarize themselves with the changes. The government plans to set a notification period of at least three years and enforce the revisions in 2022.

The idea that people legally become adults when they turn 20 has defined people’s thinking and behavior since the enactment of the Civil Code in the late 1890s — more than 120 years ago. The proposed amendments, for example, will enable people aged 18 or 19 to sign contracts to purchase goods and services or borrow money without parental consent. In 2009, the Legislative Council, an advisory body for the justice minister, called for lowering the age of adulthood to 18. In 2016, a revised Public Offices Election Law went into effect to lower the voting age from 20 to 18, and a proviso for the amendment said that a similar revision should be made to the Civil Code.

Under the set of revisions, the age at which women can marry will be raised from the current 16 to 18 — the same age as men. Laws banning drinking and smoking by minors and prohibiting them from buying tickets for publicly run gambling such as horse and motorboat racing will be amended to prohibit such practices by people below 20, deleting references to “minors” to avoid confusion. The minimum age at which people with gender identity disorder can ask a family court to change their legal sex will be lowered from 20 to 18.

In its 2009 recommendation, the Legislative Council said that by lowering the age of majority, young people can be expected to play more proactive roles in society amid the declining and aging population. In the discussions at the council, however, concern was also voiced by some members that more youths could fall victim to unscrupulous business practices that target people with little real life experience. While contracts signed by minors without their parents’ consent can be canceled, those concluded by adults cannot in principle be undone. Even today, many business operators approach people who have just turned 20: The number of consumer complaints about fraudulent sales practices rises sharply among 20-year-olds compared to other ages. It has also been pointed out that lowering the legal adulthood age could increase the risk of more youths turning into multiple debtors.

Since 2014, an expert panel at the Cabinet Office has discussed ways to minimize such damage among future young adults. The panel proposed in an August report that a clause be added to the Consumer Contract Law allowing the cancelation of contracts with businesses that use questionable sales practices — such as by fanning youths’ worries about employment opportunities and leading them to take part in fee-based job seminars. The government plans to add a provision to the law allowing consumers to cancel contracts signed under circumstances in which they were deprived of the power to make a rational judgment.

Although some members of the panel also proposed allowing consumers to cancel contracts that dealers had them sign by taking advantage of the lack of knowledge or experience on the part of young adults, this proposal met strong resistances from business sectors, and the August report shelved the proposal as a subject for future consideration. Inclusion of another clause to the law obligating businesses to consider whether the goods or services they are trying to sell are really needed by the targeted consumers or match their financial means has also been postponed.

To ensure protection of young adults against unscrupulous business practices, the government needs to widen the scope of salvation measures as much as possible in the planned legal revisions. To ease public concern over the risk of new adults falling victim to questionable sales practices with the lowering of legal adulthood age, the government should put together a comprehensive package of measures, including consumer education and consultation services for young adults.

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