A 19-year-old Japanese college student joined others casting a historic first ballot at a polling station earlier this week. Then he wondered if he had spent enough time looking into the candidates.
Kouki Nozomuto, who used an early voting system in Yokohama for those who are busy on election day, is among 2.4 million newly eligible voters for tomorrow’s race for the upper house of parliament, the first national election since Japan lowered the voting age last year from 20 to 18.
“I thought I’ll just go in between classes, so I think maybe I should have spent more time [to prepare],” he said afterward, saying he went because he thinks it is a citizen’s duty to vote and he wants his voice to be heard. “On reflection, that’s what I think I should have done better.”
The government and political parties are using various strategies to motivate 18 and 19-year-olds to vote, but it remains unclear whether they will — and whether they are prepared to do so.
Some experts say they are not, at least for this election, citing reasons such as growing up in a society that emphasizes conformity over individuality, few opportunities to learn about and debate the issues, and a perception that the opinions of young people are not reflected in policies.
In a public opinion poll taken by the Asahi newspaper last month, 11 percent of the newly qualified voters said they were “greatly interested” in the election, lower than the 29 percent overall, while, 49 percent responded they would be voting “for sure,” versus 68 percent overall.
Mikio Hashimoto, director of Yokohama city’s electoral administration division, said 18 and 19-year-olds made up only 41 out of the 2,299 people who voted during two days of early voting at the site where Nozomuto voted.
Another 19-year-old voter, Izumi Funatsu, said she was nervous as she put her ballot in a box at the temporary polling site set up on a university campus.
“I thought: ‘Now I can deliver my voice and I am no longer a child,’” she said.
Tomoaki Ikeya, a political science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, said that expressing one’s own opinion can be difficult in Japan, where obeying parents and teachers is considered a virtue.
Pressure to conform means stating a differing opinion can be seen as disturbing the atmosphere, possibly leading to alienation, he said.
“In the end, from an 18 and 19-year-old point of view, they cannot get information on what are the issues and the arguments regarding a particular issue unless they actively go to a rally on their own,” Ikeya said. “That creates a hurdle for them to go to vote.”
In a classroom at a high school in Tokyo, about 35 seniors role-played different characters, such as a mother with a small child or an elementary-school student, to provide feedback on creating a hypothetical park. Toward the end of the class, they were asked to choose one of three fictional candidates whom they think best reflected their given roles’ points of view.
Kensuke Harada, a leader of the nonprofit organization YouthCreate who taught the class, said more needs to be done.
“Now 18 and 19-year-olds have gotten the vote, and everyone tends to pay attention to how they will vote or what kind of attitude they have as a member of society, but what needs to be changed are the adults, the whole society, the education and politics, all of which have shaped the current 18 and 19-year-olds,” Harada said.
Lowering the voting age is aimed in part at increasing falling turnout among young people in general. In the previous upper house election in 2013, a little more than a third of those in their 20s voted.
A low birthrate and a population skewed toward the elderly have created a negative spiral that depresses young-voter turnout, said Hiroshi Shiratori, director of the Institute of Policy Sciences at Hosei University in Tokyo.
Issues relevant to young people are not debated enough, because older voters dominate, he said.
“This makes child-rearing more challenging. That means the birthrate stays low. That makes it harder for policies for the young to be reflected,” he said. “That further facilitates a trend that policies are prioritized in favor of seniors. Because of that, the young remain indifferent about going to vote.”
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