In Greying Japan, Youth may Turn Out to Rock the Vote

by VR Sreeraman on Aug 27 2009 11:48 AM

Politics in Japan, where lawmakers mostly curry favour with silver-haired voters, often draws yawns from youths, but activists hope that this Sunday youngsters will rally to the ballot box.

In Japan's elections over the past 15 years, between half and two thirds of voters aged 20 to 29 have not bothered to cast their vote, allowing electoral outcomes to be determined by their elders in the fast-greying nation.

This time, things may be different, said Kensuke Harada, a student and founder of ivote, a group that has campaigned for young people to exercise their democratic right and plans to send text message reminders on polling day.

"With the current economic crisis, the youth are interested in what the government can do," said the 23-year-old, pointing to high unemployment and a growing sense of social insecurity. "The number of voters should rise."

Harada predicted that more than half of Japan's twenty-somethings will vote in an election expected to oust the conservative party that has ruled Japan since their grandparents dug the nation out of the rubble of World War II.

Surveys indicate that many young people feel disillusioned with a system that offers them none of the job security their parents enjoyed but will soon leave them with the burden of supporting a vast army of elderly.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has campaigned on a promise of change and offered policies that may appeal to young people, from more help for young families and struggling students to a higher minimum wage.

Whether the DPJ can energise young voters remains to be seen -- some experts say many of them have long ago tuned out of mainstream politics that have been focused on the needs of older citizens, most of whom happen to vote.

"Youngsters have no hope that politicians can change society," said Kenzo Fujisue, a legislator in charge of the DPJ's youth department.

Experts have pointed to many reasons for the low turnout among young voters.

Some blame the education system, arguing it is more focused on cramming young minds with facts than teaching them to develop civic awareness.

Others fault the mass media for sensationalist reporting of scandals and political skirmishes at the expense of explaining issues in depth.

Activists like Harada have also deplored a ban on political campaigning on the Internet, a key gateway to reaching the youth.

But many say a key reason for the disillusionment has been that Japanese politics have been made by old people for old people.

Parties have tended to build support through organisations whose members are usually of a riper age -- farm groups for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Soka Gakkai Buddhist sect for its partner New Komeito, and labour unions for the DPJ.

Three-quarters of those aged 60 and above have voted in previous elections -- making the grey vote all the more crucial in a country with a low birth rate and the world's highest life expectancy.

"Naturally, candidates have been more interested in attracting their votes than young votes," said Tomonori Morikawa, a political science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

"Issues like health and pensions have become central in politicians' policy platforms. The LDP has rolled out policies for the old, creating a massive budget deficit at the expense of the young."

Manabu Shimasawa, a statistician at Akita University, has compared the taxes and social security fees that Japanese pay throughout their lives with the total value of social benefits they can expect in return.

He concluded that a 70-year-old taxpayer today would make an average "profit" of 15 million yen (158,600 dollars) over their lifetime -- while a person in their 20s would incur an effective loss of 25 million yen.

One party that has reported rising interest from young people is the Communist Party, which has pushed for a higher minimum wage and greater labour rights and security for Japan's many young temporary workers.

"I have noticed that more than ever young people are stopping to listen to my street speeches during my campaign," said party chief Kazuo Shii. "I hope this positive change among the youth will lead to a good result for us."