When young Japanese people talk with enthusiasm about a general election, they are far more likely to be talking about the annual “general elections” held for the popular girls group called AKB48 than about government elections. In fact, just as the average age of the Japanese population is rising, the voting rate of younger Japanese is declining. For example, only 49% of all people aged 20 to 29 voted in the Lower House elections in 2009, the lowest turnout for all age groups. At the same time less than one out of five eligible voters belonged to this group.
What is more, no one in Japan believes that the young Japanese of today would be capable of taking direct political action, even in order to improve their own situation. By contrast, since March this year, students in Quebec have been holding demonstrations against planned rises in tuition fees. It is clear that Japanese students must somehow break through their apathy, but this is easier said than done. In order to understand the causes of the present apathy, and find a way of changing the situation, we interviewed first Tamotsu Hikita , who was a student activist in the 1960s , and a student association called ‘ivote’ which is aiming to increase the turnout of young Japanese voters.
The Importance of Critical Thinking in an Affluent Society：Tamotsu Hikita
Student protest used to be a powerful and active force in Japan. In the 1960s, the Japanese student movement played a leading role in demonstrations opposing military cooperation between Japan and the United States, organized student strikes, and even set up barricades within university campuses. Mr. Hikita thinks that two main reasons why young Japanese today exhibit low levels of political engagement are the high degree of social atability, and the inflexibility of the political system. “After defeat in WWⅡ, anti-war and anti-U.S. feeling developed as a result of the Allied Occupation pf Japan. In addition, until the period of high economic growth in the 1970s, many people faced economic hardship. Dissatisfaction expressed itself in the form of political unrest. I guess that this overall social atmosphere supported students’ actions.”
Mr Hikita also referred to a tradition of collectivism and obedience to authority throughout Japanese history. When the feudal Tokugawa regime which had governed Japan for over 250 years came to an end in 1868, this was not because of a popular revolution, but because power had been restored to the Emperor. After defeat in WWⅡ, the new political system was introduced while Japan was under the control of the Allied Occupation Forces rather than being chosen by the people. This means that in the modern era, Japanese citizens have never been able to bring about radical changes in government by themselves. Such conditions imply Japanese lack of actions to change their lives.
Finally, Hikita urges the younger Japanese of today not to allow their pleasant life style to stop them from examining what is happening around them with critical eyes.
One Solution: Voting Via the Internet
Student Association “ivote” suggests that the educational system is partly to blame for young people’s lack of interest in politics.“Although we learn facts about politics, such as the number of politicians, and the length of their terms of office, we rarely learn how to vote at college in Japan.” Indeed, courses on politics at university are hardly designed to awaken interest in the actual political system.
However, ivote also points out that there is a growing number of young people who are interested in politics and who express their opinions on Twitter or in comments on the blogs of politicians. Moreover, academic research has shown that eight out of ten young people who usually do not participate in elections say that they would do so if they could vote via the Internet. At present, the Public Offices Election Act prohibits the use of the Internet for either campaigning or casting votes. As a result, during election campaigns politicians cannot make any posts on either their blogs or on Twitter, and members of the public cannot get direct information from politicians or their parties from the Internet. ivote is therefore promoting a campaign for legalizing the use of the Internet in elections.
In society today, many young people get information via the Internet. If Internet election campaigns are permitted, they will have more opportunities to find out about the issues that are being discussed, and about the arguments that are being made by the different candidates. Campaigning via the Internet should also nourish a sense of ownership . For Japanese students in particular, it should present a first opportunity to step into the world of politics.
Written by Marina Seto, Ayano Watanabe
Thanks so much for this article. I find that many of the young Japanese I know are deeply disappointed by the quality of political leadership yet have no idea of how to bring about change. To be sure, the problem is rooted in major differences between democracy in Japan and democracy in other developed countries. (In other developed democracies, one finds two parties, each with a very different vision/ideology, so the voter sends a real message with his/her vote; in Japan, parties seem to be based more on personalities than on strong [and differing] vision for the country’s future; thus, it’s hard for voters to get excited because they’re not given a clear choice. Also, as I understand it, most of the proposed legislation is written by bureaucrats. In other countries, the legislation is actually drafted by elected politicians and their staffs, thus giving them much more power. Voters can effectively appeal to elected legislators but not to bureaucrats–another reason for Japanese voters to remain uninvolved.)
. . . So, with such a system, how can a young Japanese push for positive change? I’m sure you’re right in identifying the internet as a potentially powerful tool, not just for the act of voting but for identifying which issues are of real importance to young voters–and then finding the exact stands of political candidates on these issues. (That’s done a lot in the U.S. and seems to both educate and energize young voters.)
Thanks for raising this issue and helping to explain the minds of young Japan to the world!