On 17 June 2015, the Japanese Diet passed a bill to lower the voting age to 18 from 20, adding 2.4 million new potential voters to the nation’s current voting population of 104 million and to the country’s rapidly greying electorate.. Japan last changed its voting age in 1945 when Japanese women gained the right to vote, when it lowered the requirement from 25 to 20. This is the first extension of suffrage in Japan since then. Japan’s decision is in conformity with the world’s trend of empowering the youth in the process of governance as 90 % of nations across the world have a voting age of 18. However, it is a matter of concern that Japanese youths are not particularly active in exercising their franchise. For example, less than a third of 20-something voted in the last general election. With 26% of the country over the age of 65, Japan has the world’s fastest aging population.
The legislation will come into effect when elections are held for the Upper House in the summer of 2016, unless the more powerful Lower House is dissolved first for a snap election. It may be remembered that a similar law was passed in 2014 lowering the voting age to 18 in 2018 for national referendums on the Constitution. In an ageing society, politicians have often courted older voters with generous pension benefits, which have led to ballooning the national debt as Japan rapidly ages. In contrast to the voters’ turnout in the younger age category, those in their 60s and over 70s were 68 % in the last general elections.
The latest enactment of law of 17 June is the biggest reform of the nation’s electoral laws in 70 years. The intention behind the law is to encourage younger voters who have remained politically inactive so far. After the Lower House approved the bill to revise the Public Offices Election law, the Upper House unanimously passed it. Hereon, the “voices of young people will be more reflected in politics”, observed the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. This new law gives added responsibility to the teachers in senior high schools and universities to educate their wards the importance of exercising their right to vote. The promulgation of the revised law shall apply to both national and local elections whenever they are held.
Earlier a survey made by the National Diet Library in 2014 had found that over 80% of the 198 countries in the world have set their minimum voting ages at 18. The lower of the voting age would also mean that political parties need now to revise their electioneering strategies targeting not just the elderly but also take into consideration the aspiration and expectations of the younger lot. Drawing the younger voters to participate at the electioneering whenever they are held by discarding their lethargic attitude will be a new challenge because the elderly segment are more responsive whenever elections are held to cast their franchise. What this author has observed during his several visits to Japan is that the younger generation of the Japanese are least interested in the country’s politics and the governance process. Therefore drawing this segment into the political process cannot be taken for granted. It is likely that the 2.4 million new voters shall remain relevant for only statistical purposes as not a higher percentage from this segment is expected to exercise their franchise. That seems to be a short-term scenario.
The question that arises is that given the apathy of the younger generation if there was no popular demand for lowering the voting age, what was the provocation for the Abe administration to do this at this point of time? Prime Minister Abe seeks to amend the war-renouncing Constitution for the first time since it took effect nearly 70 years ago. The minimum voting age for national referendums on constitutional amendments is already set to be reduced to 18 from 20 in 2018, under a revision to the national referendum law that was enacted in 2014. Simultaneously, the statutory age of adulthood may also be reduced from 20 and the maximum age covered by the Juvenile Law from 19. This could be a tricky issue as the issue of lowering the age ceiling in the Juvenile Law is controversial. There is no consensus on whether 18- and 19-year-olds should be punished in the same manner as adults. A related issue that too needs to be resolved is whether the minimum age for eligibility to run for public office lowered. At present, the minimum eligibility age to run for Lower House elections is 25 and 30 for the Upper House seats. There are other issues too. Empowering the youth in the age group of 18-20 in the category giving the right to vote would also mean empowering them to engage in election campaigns. But what happens if they are accused or suspected of committing serious violations of electoral laws, such as vote buying. Will they be prosecuted for such violations? There is no clarity on such issues at the moment.
There are some students who are in the new eligible voters’ list upbeat at the new opportunity to exercise their responsibility. Though some of them are disenchanted with the entire political system, they are also sceptical that much would change with the change. The young voters are critical of the most aging politicians and yet are unwilling to take up responsibility. That is basically the problem of the present Japanese society. Too much of materialism has insulated the youth from taking serious decisions as their perspective of life does not go beyond personal comforts. This lot has little interest in national affairs. This is a new challenge the Japanese society is facing. While many say that there are not many politicians with policies who deserve to be elected, they are not prepared to offer any alternatives. Many of this empowered youth lack enough knowledge about getting involved in public affairs. This issue needs to be addressed while they are either in the senior high schools or at universities so that political awareness is cultivated.
Greater involvement of young people in the political processes would strengthen democracy. Though 18 is the standard voting age as is the case in other parts of the world, Japan is late in joining the international mainstream. Though the lowering of the voting age accounts for a mere 2 per cent of all voters nationwide, the induction into the political processes of the young voters may induce important changes in society. With low birth rate and Japan being a greying society, the government faces huge fiscal deficits and increased social security expenditures. The induction of the youth into the political mainstream could bring in new perspective to tackle this situation.
In order to achieve this objective, an element of activism into the nation’s educational system needs to be introduced to create awareness among the youth about their political responsibility. The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry plans to distribute supplementary materials explaining the election system and election law violations to all high school students this year, in cooperation with the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry. Holding mock elections that simulate the experience of going to the polls could be another means to educate the youth. However, care needs to be given that such exercises do not drift towards political indoctrination and ensure that political neutrality is maintained. The extension of suffrage “should be regarded as an opportunity to increase youths’ interest in politics and to implement more policy measures in which more importance will be attached to younger generations, who are the bearers of Japan’s future”.
As said, the youths need to take seriously the importance of exercising their franchise. It is a matter of concern that the voter turnout in the Lower House elections at the end of 2014 hit a post-war low at 52.66 per cent, and the turnout for those in their 20s was 32.58 %, less than half the figure for those in their 60s at 68.28 %. Therefore, increasing awareness at the school and university amongst the youth about participatory democracy is needed. This does not mean to suggest that any political indoctrination should be done; on the contrary explaining to respect different views and deepening their opinions on various issues through debate will help students learn the rules of democracy. At the same time, students must not be discouraged to discuss specific policy measures under the name of political neutrality. Greater participation in politics could mean injecting a new force to change track. The revised law offers a good opportunity to the new eligible voters to scrutinise the policies of political parties and individual candidates before casting their ballots in public office elections.
The revised law has different implications from the point of view of increased life expectancy in Japan. Japan is a country full of elderly people and has the highest life expectancy of any major country, with women averaging 87 to men 80, compared to 81 years for Americans and 76 for American women. Diet has been a major factor contributing to the longevity of Japanese people. It is amazing that being a stressful place with immaculate sense for punctuality where being late is frowned upon, Japanese still manage to live long amidst stress. Cuisine could be a major factor contributing to this.
The current legislation takes a long term perspective of what the Japanese society would be in the coming years as there shall be serious imbalance in the age category and therefore empowering the youth is in the right perspective. According to projections made by researchers, Japan will have no children under the age of 15 in 999 years if the current trend continues, which means Japan faces ‘extinction’ in 1,000 years. Japan’s under-15 population fell to 16.6 million in 2012 from 16.9 million in 2011 and if this trend continues, Japan’s demographic situation is a matter of worry. Besides the economics of ageing, Japan’s population clock suggests that the child population of Japan shall drop one every 100 second and going by this rate, Children Day 3012 (May 5) will never come. The overall trend is towards extinction and this started in 1975 when Japan’s fertility rate fell below two per women. Japanese law makers hope, and rightly so, that empowering the youth and getting them involved in the process of governance, shall address to some of this impending problems that Japanese society is going to face in the coming years.
Dr. Panda, former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, is a leading expert on Japan from India, based in New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]