Legislation now before the Lower House seeks to amend the Civil Code and related laws to lower the legal age of adulthood from 20 to 18. Like the earlier amendment of the Public Offices Election Law to allow 18- and 19-year-olds to vote beginning in the 2016 Upper House election, this policy measure is aimed at promoting social participation by more youths as the nation’s population shrinks and rapidly ages. Since the age of 18 is defined as the threshold of legal adulthood in many other countries, the proposed lowering of the age of adulthood does not appear to face strong public objections. Still, it marks a change in the legal definition of adults that has continued for more than 140 years since the early Meiji Era, and sufficient steps should be taken to avoid any social confusion resulting from the amendment.

Once the legislation is enacted, the government plans to implement the new law in April 2022. Meanwhile, a governmental liaison council comprising officials from the Justice Ministry, the education ministry and the Consumer Affairs Agency will try to identify potential problems that the lower age of adulthood could give rise to and spell out possible countermeasures.

The proposed Civil Code revision lowers the adulthood age to 18 and raises the minimum age at which a woman can marry from 16 to 18 — on par with men. As a result, the provision mandating parental consent for the marriage of a minor will be unnecessary and eliminated. There are 22 related laws to be amended with the change in adulthood age. While people can start applying for a 10-year passport and be eligible to become judicial scriveners and certified public accountants at the age of 18, the ban on the purchase of alcohol, tobacco and tickets for publicly run gambling such as horse racing by people under the age of 20 will be maintained on the grounds of preventing health damage and gambling addiction among youths.

What’s been highlighted as a major concern over lowering the adulthood age is the risk that young adults with little social experience might fall victim to unscrupulous business practices. With the amendment, 18- and 19-year-olds will be able to sign loan contacts and apply for credit cards without their parents’ approval. Currently, contracts signed by 18- and 19-year-olds without parental consent can be revoked because they are minors, but the rights to revoke such contracts will disappear when they become legal adults.

According to the National Consumer Affairs Center, young adults with little experience in life tend to be easy targets of those problematic business practices. Consumer complaints over troubles concerning contracts filed by 18- and 19-year-olds annually number around 5,000, but the figure shoots up to 8,000 to 9,000 among those between the ages of 20 and 22. Some businesses reportedly target young adults who have just turned 20.

To address such concerns, the government has readied an amendment to the law on consumer contracts to add provisions that permit the revocation of contracts that had been concluded in an unfair manner, such as by businesses that fuel anxiety in consumers to get them to buy their goods or services.

Some experts have voiced the opinion that contracts concluded by taking advantage of consumers’ lack of proper judgment should also be made revocable, but this proposal was turned down during the discussions on the issue at a Cabinet Office panel on the grounds that such a provision could hamper free economic activities. There are also views that even when the legal adulthood age is lowered to 18, people under the age of 20 should continue to hold the right to revoke contracts they signed without parental consent. Whether the proposed measures will provide enough protection for young adults should be reviewed in the Diet.

Aside from such protective measures, efforts must be made to make young people fully aware of the responsibilities that accompany their rights as adults. To this end, consumer education at high schools should be beefed up.

Along with lowering the legal age of adulthood, the Legislative Council at the Justice Ministry is discussing a review of the Juvenile Law — with an eye on amending the law to lower the age at which its provisions are applied from under 20 to under 18. The law, which puts priority on correction and education for juvenile offenders, refers offenders under the age of 20 to family courts, although those 16 or older who have committed grave offenses will in principle be sent to prosecutors to face criminal trials. Proponents of amending the law say the age of the people covered by the Juvenile Law should change in accordance with the legal adulthood age. Given the purpose of the law, however, a hasty conclusion should be avoided.

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