More Japanese youth get to vote but they feel 'powerless'

A member of the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) holds a placard calling on youths to vote on June 26, 2016.
A member of the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) holds a placard calling on youths to vote on June 26, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Despite lowering of voting age to 18, young voters are outnumbered by their elders

TOKYO • From a shrinking population and a social welfare system creaking under huge ranks of retirees, to a stagnant economy that is all they have ever known, Japanese youth have plenty to gripe about.

But despite lowering the voting age from 20 to 18 ahead of a national poll this month, few see hope for a youth-driven movement like the one that energised United States Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic nomination.

"Young people feel terribly powerless," said college student Kosuke Furui, 21, a member of a non-profit group who is trying to educate youth about politics.

"Today's politicians have become politicians with the support of the elderly. If a different sort of politician could emerge, as happened with Sanders, those who have shunned politics might go to vote."

Reflecting their minority status in Japan's fast-ageing society, voters aged 20 to 34 made up just 19 per cent of the electorate last year, compared with the 55 per cent who were 50 or older.

Lowering the voting age to the international norm will add about 2.4 million eligible voters, but Japan's youth are not only outnumbered by their elders, but also they are outvoted. Turnout for twenty-somethings in the last national election was less than half the 68 per cent for those in their 60s. That reflected a perceived lack of credible policy options, weak political outreach to youth, and an image of political activism still tainted by violent student protests in the 1960s.

On the surface, political parties, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), are targeting youth, especially teens, ahead of the July 10 Upper House elections.

The LDP created a "manga" called "Kuni ni Todoke" (Notify the Country) about a female high school student who gets interested in voting to attract the attention of a cute male classmate. The opposition Democratic Party has a VOTE18 website featuring, among other things, interviews with teenage models in school uniforms.

Surveys show that young Japanese are more likely than their elders to support Mr Abe's conservative LDP, echoing a risk aversion that runs through mainstream Japanese society.

LDP policy chief Tomomi Inada said Japan should shift from a social security system that overburdens the young to one where the wealthy of all ages pay more than those with less income. "Those who can bear the burden should, without regard to age," she told Reuters.

Political parties have included generation-specific pledges in their platforms, ranging from grant-in- aid college scholarships to more daycare for the child-bearing cohort.

None, however, is very clear about how to pay for all this without cutting elderly benefits, especially after Mr Abe postponed a rise in an unpopular sales tax.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'More Japanese youth get to vote but they feel 'powerless''. Print Edition | Subscribe