In aging Japan, 18-year-olds now welcomed into the voting booth

In the biggest expansion of the vote since 1946, teens have been courted for Sunday's vote for the legislature's upper house. A key issue: the pacifist Constitution. 

Koji Sasahara/AP
In this June 24 photo, Kensuke Harada, leader of nonprofit organization Youth Create, center, talks with high school students during a class on the election, at Denenchofu high school in Tokyo.

Across Japan, millions of 18-year-old students have been getting instruction in a brand new topic: how to vote. 

Some 2.4 million 18- and 19-year-olds are eligible for the first time to cast ballots in this Sunday's House of Councillors election. Their entree into the voting booth marks the biggest enfranchisement in Japan since 1946, when women were granted suffrage and the voting age was reduced from 25 to 20. 

In a country where more than a quarter of citizens are 65 or older, empowering the rising generation to engage in politics is seen as a possible avenue for injecting new voices into an aging electorate and perhaps even altering a moribund political landscape. And the main political parties are attempting to meet the newest voters on their own turf, churning out videos, animated messages, and online campaigns. Meanwhile, public schools have offered lessons on the electoral system and how to fill in ballot papers. 

The stakes could be high on Sunday: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which holds a majority of seats already, is predicted to further increase its seats, and a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors could allow the government to reform the pacifist clause of Japan's Constitution, opposition to which has been strong among students. 

But 18- and 19-year olds make up just a few percent of the electorate and are less likely – even with the novelty – to vote. Most notably, many of the new voters are already disillusioned with a politics that has seen the voting rate fall to a record low of below 53 percent for the 2014 election, six prime ministers in as many years before Mr. Abe took power in 2012, and uneasy alliances between parties of opposing ideologies.  

Planning to vote

Three first-year students at Azabu University, in Kanagawa, just south of Tokyo, all intend to vote.

"I think young people do want their voice to be heard," says Nasuzu Ishi, who is 19. But she sees little hope for change. "Politicians say one thing and do another. Abe didn't talk much about changing the Constitution at the last election; it was all about economics. So it's hard to trust him." 

The government passed bills that reinterpret Article 9 of the Constitution last September, allowing the military to engage in overseas conflicts. But it couldn’t change the clause due to the lack of a two-thirds majority. Many observers believe that is Abe's true political mission, rather than his so-called "Abenomics" of massive monetary easing. 

"I was shocked when Abe announced he was going to reinterpret Article 9; there was no need to do that. And Abenomics isn't really working, either," says Mizu Sekine, who is 18.

"And the government has postponed the rise to 10 percent for the consumption tax, but the national debt isn't getting paid down. It's just being pushed back on to our generation to deal with," adds Ms. Ishi. 

Japan's national debt of a quadrillion yen ($10 trillion) is around 240 percent of GDP, the highest rate in the world. Japan's young voters have seen little to let them believe that a meaningful political dynamic is possible in Japan, where the LDP has held power for all but a few years over more than half a century. 

"[Yoichi] Masuzoe seemed trustworthy, but then look what happened," says Ms. Sekine, referring to the LDP governor of Tokyo who resigned in June over a misuse of funds scandal. "But the opposition is a mess, too," she says, pointing to the merger of the center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) with the center-right Japan Innovation Party in March, leaving many voters confused as to what the new Democratic Party's ideological position is. 

Please cast your vote

Public officials, at the behest of the government, are doing what they can to encourage voting among the new segment of the electorate. Still, efforts to educate young voters are having mixed results.

"We had a class in social studies at high school about election and voting, but it was right before our final exams, so everybody was like "yeah, yeah," and just took the leaflets," says Sekine.

But at least one teacher at a public high school in a satellite city of Tokyo believes about 60 percent of his third-year students who are eligible to vote will do so by July 10. That would put their turnout in line with the average turnout in national elections since 2000.  

"We have a big baseball game on Sunday, the day of the election, and we got a call from the education board telling us to make sure the students all go and vote by Saturday. You can cast your vote up to a week early in Japan," says the teacher, who asked not to be identified as he didn't have permission to talk publicly. "I understand they want to raise the voting rate, but I don't think it is right to pressure the students, voting isn't compulsory in Japan." 

The school held a mock election in April to let students practice. "In Japan, you have to write the name of the candidate on the ballot paper yourself, so we explained how to do it and what kind of abbreviations can be used for the political parties," says the teacher. 

And politicians know these new voters will be part of the electorate for decades to come. With around 95 percent of young Japanese graduating from high school, it is an attractive demographic. Since the law was passed lowering the voting age, the teacher notes, the school has seen a sudden increase in local politicians making speeches at its graduation ceremonies.

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