BEPPU, OITA PREF. – On June 13, the Diet passed a revision of the Civil Code lowering the age of adulthood to 18 starting in April 2022. The current age of adulthood — 20 — was introduced in 1876. The amendment represents the first change of Japan’s age of majority in 142 years.
Even with the revision, the minimum legal age for activities such as drinking, smoking, and various forms of publicly run gambling will be kept at 20. It was also decided to raise the age at which women can marry from 16 to 18, the same age for men. Raising the marriageable age for women had been recommended by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in 2003.
The Public Offices Election Law was revised in 2015 to lower the minimum voting age from 20 to 18. The Legislative Council, an advisory body for the justice minister, is to continue discussions of the pros and cons over a revision of the Juvenile Law.
Much of Japan’s mass media expressed apprehension over lowering the age of adulthood, mainly concerning the risk of adults younger than 20 years getting into financial trouble. They wondered, for example, won’t the young adults be duped by consumer loan companies? Will there be problems if they buy expensive items such as cars? Will it be OK to let them own and use credit cards?
I wonder if these worries are well-founded, and I rather doubt the media’s wisdom on the matter.
Let us take a cool-headed look at what’s happening in the world. According to the Justice Ministry, among the 187 countries for which relevant data is available, 141 have set the age of adulthood at 18 or lower. Naturally, most advanced countries are included in this group. The improved nutritional situation has led to remarkable improvements in young people’s physical condition. Shouldn’t we think it unreasonable to have kept the age of adulthood at 20 for 142 years? It should be remembered that in Japan’s past, the ritual to celebrate coming of age was held at different ages depending on the era, and was usually observed when someone reached 12 to 16 years of age.
Also, are consumer issues a problem linked to the legal definition of adulthood? Since slightly more than 50 percent of high school graduates go on to university, about half of Japanese youths start working after graduating from either junior high or high school. One of the goals of education should be to equip young people with the tools to succeed on their own in society. That is to say, education concerning personal finances is indispensable. Just giving a general explanation about the meaning and importance of money is far from satisfactory.
Practical education on savings, credit, securities, real estate, currency exchange and insurance is crucial. If one becomes a member of the working population, one cannot help dealing with the financial instruments on sale. It goes without saying that one needs knowledge about interest rates and loans. Instead of making a big fuss about the risk of consumer issues, the media should be insisting on improving financial literacy by taking advantage of the Civil Code revision. That’s the role that the media should be playing as a public organ. Consumer issues have nothing do with lowering the age of adulthood. Rather, they concern the question of whether education has been adapted to changes in a contemporary society flooded by financial products.
Similarly, young people who have started working cannot avoid the issues of elections and taxes. This boils downs to the question: What is government? As in the case of financial education, youths must be educated sufficiently and in a concrete manner on the mechanisms of government, elections, taxes and social insurance premiums, which are closely linked to social security benefits, so that they can properly handle them.
This is the biggest issue that Japan’s junior high and high schools must tackle. The media need to rouse public opinion so that lowering the age of adulthood will provide a catalyst for education reform.
Some members of the media cited concern that the adulthood age of 18 will cause an overlap of the coming-of-age ceremony and the university entrance exam season, thus creating confusion and making it difficult for students to concentrate on preparing for their exams. Is this really an issue worth being reported by newspapers and television? Enjoying their Coming-of-Age Day may instead give the students a chance to relax, which may have a positive impact on their exams.
Any change in any system or scheme can cause one problem or another. Both merits and demerits will arise from it. But it is necessary to judge things by looking at the bigger picture. It is unhealthy of the media to exaggerate points of apprehension. In view of the improvement in young people’s physical condition and global trends, I see no problem in lowering the age of adulthood to 18.
I pointed out that the minimum marriageable age for women was raised in response to a recommendation by the United Nations. There are additional problems that must be addressed. The introduction of a system to allow married couples to have different surnames is one of them.
Couples having different surnames was the principle rule in Japanese tradition. To use an example from history, the wife of Minamoto no Yoritomo, who started the Kamakura shogunate, was named Hojo Masako. The system of having couples use the same surname was one of the customs newly created by the Meiji government in the latter half of the 19th century as part of its attempt to quickly establish a nation-state in order to catch up with the great powers of Europe and North America.
As I recall, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommended three times that Japan rectify the current system that forces the same surname on couples. Except for Japan, no other OECD member imposes the same surname rule as a condition for legal marriage. According to a Cabinet Office poll released in February, a majority in all age brackets — except those over 70 — favored allowing different surnames for couples.
It is worth noting that public opinion has matured. The only thing remaining is the government’s decision.
Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 30 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.
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