Why Japan’s youth don’t vote

October 29, 2021 People's Journal 146 views

AFP — Shoma Motegi will vote for the first time in Japan’s general election on Sunday, but the 19-year-old is a minority in his age group — something he wants to change.

Veteran leaders who cater to a greying population, archaic campaign tactics and a lack of political education have led to chronically low turnout rates among young people, voters and campaigners say.

Voter turnout in Japan, where the ruling party has held power almost continuously for decades, is the fifth lowest among 41 developed economies surveyed by the OECD.

The age gap in voting patterns was stark in the country’s last general election, with just a third of people in their twenties casting their ballot compared to 72 percent among people aged 60-69.

“It’s a waste of the right to vote in elections that determine our future,” Motegi told AFP.

If younger people don’t turn up, “policies will favour the current working generation, or the elderly,” added the economics student from Yokohama.

Analysts say the election’s outcome is largely predictable, with the new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, 64, widely expected to win.

After becoming leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, he unveiled his cabinet this month: its average age is 62, with just three women.

To Misha Cade, a 24-year-old student who also plans to vote on Sunday, “it doesn’t look very inspiring”.

Cade regularly posts about feminism and other social issues in English and Japanese to her 46,000 followers on TikTok, and says young women in Japan often don’t feel represented in mainstream politics.

“They think it’s a man’s world — like it’s not really something they can step into,” said Cade, who is of dual heritage and grew up in the US before moving to Japan as a teenager.

Would she ever go into politics herself?

“I could never do it… There’s a lot of sexual harassment and just blatant sexism, and I don’t think that’s something I could really tolerate on a daily basis.”

‘Awkward atmosphere’

To try and engage the next generation, the government lowered the voting age to 18 from 20 five years ago.

But Motegi says some of his friends still shy away from political debate — especially on divisive topics like nuclear power or national security.

“I think they don’t feel ready to discuss the issues, as they don’t know much about current policy,” he said.

They may also “fear that disagreement could lead to an awkward atmosphere”.

He is a member of Japan Youth Conference, an NGO that recently held two debates at which younger voters asked lawmakers about issues important to them, from working conditions to education costs and gender policies.

“Japanese young people have a high interest in social issues, including gender equality, the income gap and climate change,” said Yuki Murohashi, one of the group’s organizers.

But “often students don’t even know the difference between political parties,” the 32-year-old said.

This is partly due to a lack of voter education at school, or because “parties don’t make enough effort to reach out to young people”.

Threat to democracy?

Digital petitions and social media have helped drive change in Japan in recent years, but old-school campaign tactics like speeches at train stations are still widespread.

To persuade more people to exercise their rights, a group of film industry workers launched the Voice Project, which rallied actors and singers to make a video urging members of the public to vote.

The three-and-a-half minute clip, viewed on YouTube more than 600,000 times, does not take a political stance and is centered around the slogan #I’mVotingToo.

Kosai Sekine, 45, an award-winning film director who is one of the project’s leaders, said some viewers had told them it had helped them decide to vote.

If the non-voting trend continues, it could even threaten the functioning of Japan’s democracy, Sekine warned.

“Young people not going to ballot stations means decision-making will be done by elderly people, leading to a society with little consideration towards youth — which is scary.”