Field notes

In pursuit of Japan's young voters

2.4 million young people between the ages of 18 and 20 years can vote in tomorrow's polls

It was a sweltering summer's day in July 2014 and then­high school student Shunichiro Kobayashi was meant to be cramming for his university entrance exams at home.

Instead, the 18-year-old was out on the streets in the middle of Tokyo shouting at the Prime Minister's Office, "Abe must go!", while waving a "No War, Just Peace!" placard.

Together with some hundreds of demonstrators, Mr Kobayashi was protesting against the draft Bill for a "national defence military" adopted earlier that month by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that would allow Japan to send troops overseas for the first time since World War II.

"Abe's government was making a lot of changes and there seemed to be a lot of warmongering going on," Mr Kobayashi tells The Straits Times. "I found out about the planned protest on Twitter, and though I knew I should have been studying, I felt that there must be something more that I can do. I felt like I had to be out there."

So he headed out to the Prime Minister's Office, without the knowledge of his parents or his friends. And that was the start of his political awakening.

Now a literature major at Tsuru University in Yamanashi prefecture, he involves himself in labour issues and activism for higher minimum wages in a youth movement called Aequitas, which takes its name from the Latin for equity, and another called Sealds, which stands for Students Emergency Action For Liberal Democracy. Both youth movements were formed last year.

"I've taken part in various student protests since then for a variety of causes, such as anti-nuclear demonstrations, anti-State Secrecy Act, anti-racism and human rights," says Mr Kobayashi.

High school students in Tokyo with a cardboard Instagram frame calling on the youth to vote in tomorrow's Upper House elections. Last year, Japan lowered the voting age to 18 from 20 - the first change since 1945, when the voting age was revised to 20 from 25. PHOTO: REUTERS

He adds that he has "come out" to his parents about his political activism and that his mother is particularly supportive of his participation.

Mr Kobayashi is just one of the 2.4 million young voters between 18 and 20 years of age who have been added to the electorate for Japan's Upper House elections tomorrow. Last year, Japan lowered the voting age to 18 from 20. This was the first change since 1945, when the voting age was revised to 20 from 25 and women were allowed to vote.

He describes his political leanings as left wing, and is looking forward to voting for the first time, in tomorrow's elections, for the Japanese Communist Party.

Above: Mr Kobayashi, now 20, took part in his first demonstration at 18, protesting against the then draft Bill that allowed Japan to send troops overseas. PHOTOS: YUKI SAKAZUME, SHINTA YABE

"I know quite a lot of high school students who are looking forward to casting their first vote, so it will be interesting," says Mr Kobayashi. However, he doesn't sense that much enthusiasm among his university mates about politics or the elections.

"They are more interested in affairs among celebrities," he quips. His observation about his peers is borne out by a poll by the liberal-leaning Asahi Shimbun in April, in which 62 per cent of 3,000 young people aged 18 or 19 said that they either do not or rarely talk about politics.

Some of that apathy may be due to the media. Regular television news in Japan is very domestic and tends to give disproportionate coverage to celebrity news and gossip.

Above: Mr Sakazume, who is voting for the first time, went to Hong Kong recently to interview the student demonstrators behind the 2014 Umbrella Movement. PHOTOS: YUKI SAKAZUME, SHINTA YABE

And at school, one would not be taught much about the current political situation other than the nuts and bolts of the system.

This stems from Article 14-2 of the Fundamental Law of Education in Japan, which prohibits schools from either supporting or opposing any political party. This hinders the teaching of political education in schools, say analysts.

Mr Tatsuhei Morozumi, 27, a youth policy researcher who is studying international and comparative education at Stockholm University, says: "Some teachers are too afraid to deal with these topics and have no idea how to keep political neutrality."

Things appear to be changing, however.

Anecdotally, major events such as the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster that followed, drove some young people into political activism, in particular the anti-nuclear movement. Some of the founding members of Sealds started their activism by taking part in anti-nuclear protests, says Mr Kobayashi.

Some became involved in politics through less eventful ways.

Mr Yuki Sakazume, 20, a third-year political science and economics student at Waseda University in Tokyo, who will also be voting for the first time, became interested in politics after reading a pamphlet of The Happiness Realisation Party. Formed in 2009, this party positions itself as a "third choice" beyond the ruling LDP and the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Its manifesto can be described as conservative, advocating the right to collective self-defence, nuclear capability in the event of conflict with North Korea and China, and the rejection of Marxist philosophy as it goes against the belief of God.


Some teachers are too afraid to deal with these topics and have no idea how to keep political neutrality.

MR TATSUHEI MOROZUMI (above), a youth policy researcher at Stockholm University, on why students in Japanese schools are not taught about politics

Mr Sakazume contributes to the party's youth online magazine, Truth Youth, and recently went to Hong Kong to interview the student demonstrators there who took part in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the widely­reported student-led protest against proposed electoral reforms that were deemed restrictive.

"The University of Hong Kong students reminded me how voting is a right and a responsibility. As a young Japanese belonging to a country with freedom, I hope to think and act on politics and to contribute to Japan, Asia and the world," said Mr Sakazume.

"China and North Korea are authoritarian countries that deprive their people of freedom.

"As one of the large countries in Asia, it is Japan's duty to stand up against these countries.

"Singapore, located along the Malacca Strait, is also important to Japan. Together, South-east Asian countries and Japan must strengthen ties to strengthen freedom in Asia," says Mr Sakazume, in line with the party manifesto.

However, greater political awareness may not always translate into higher voting participation. Noting that voter turnout among young Japanese has been significantly low in the past decades, Mr Morozumi says: "Although voter turnout among Japanese youth is desperately low, (the young people's) political awareness and social consciousness are not that little. The gap between these attitudes and low voter turnout could indicate a mistrust in the current political and participation system."

A disappointing government even after the LDP was ousted in favour of the DPJ in 2009 - when voting participation hit a high of nearly 70 per cent - contributed to a growing sense of political apathy, says election campaign planner Kaoru Matsuda, 36. 

Another reason for poor youth turnout at elections could be their poor view of politicians.

Politicians are not highly regarded among youth in Japan, adds Mr Matsuda.

He points to a recent media poll that asked junior high school students what they wanted to be in the future. The top choices included becoming a professional footballer, baseball player, doctor or even YouTuber, making a living by broadcasting on YouTube. Becoming a politician was nowhere near the Top 100 list.

Overall, voter turnout throughout Japan has been on the decline, with the participation rate in the 2013 Upper House elections at 52.61 per cent. The turnout among younger voters was especially low, with just one in three voters in their 20s having gone to the polls compared with two out of three voters in their 60s.

This trend is unlikely to change without a "revolution in the quality of education", says Mr Sakazume. "Very few teenagers have sufficient knowledge of politics to make an informed decision," he says.

Last year, Mr Matsuda launched a website called  www.go2senkyo. com, which literally means "Go To Vote", in a bid to raise political awareness among the youth by providing information on all the political candidates in Japan, with related news and columns explaining current events. Page views have averaged 10 million a month, making it the largest election information portal in Japan.

The site ropes in popular entertainment artists to help disseminate news and views.

"The long-term aim is to give politicians and candidates a more equal playing field, and to eventually raise voting participation to the past record of over 77 per cent in 1958. And to have a more diverse political scene with greater political participation," says Mr Matsuda.

In the run-up to tomorrow's elections, various parties have also come up with innovative ways to reach out to the youth vote, from information pamphlets in a manga (comic) format to creating game applications for smartphones, seminars involving young idols, and even public performances by rappers urging the youth to "Go senkyo!" (Go vote!).

But change needs to be deeper if young people are to be swayed.

Says Mr Morozumi: "Without a comprehensive change of government policies regarding youth, I would say it would be hard to change the situation.

"Our generation is too tired to be an observer of disappointing politics. The key is whether young people can find new means of expressing their ideas to make a difference in conventional society."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2016, with the headline 'In pursuit of Japan's young voters'. Print Edition | Subscribe