Protest, voting and having a say: is the sleepy Japanese student waking up?

Protest, voting and having a say: is the sleepy Japanese student waking up?

The lowering of Japan’s voting age, coupled with Shinzo Abe’s controversial reform agenda, may see a stirring among Japanese students, write STACEY STEELE and AYA HARUYAMA.

Recent student protests in Japan against the Liberal Democratic Party’s proposed changes to constitutional interpretation have Japan watchers asking: ‘Is the sleepy Japanese student waking up?’ But what if they were never asleep; or they were just waiting for the alarm clock to go off?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s highly controversial reforms would allow a greater security role for Japan’s Self Defence Force. Criticism of Abe’s efforts has been widespread and reinvigorated by the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on 15 August 2015. The protesting students want to maintain the status quo and are demonstrating on a platform of peace. These youth are defying their disinterested stereotype in Japan.

Was the sleepy stereotype ever fair?

The voting rate among those in their 20s is below 30 per cent, but over 50 per cent of young people in Japan claim an interest in politics, according to the Japanese Cabinet office. Yet, only 30.2 per cent of respondents to the same survey answered that their involvement or contribution to politics would matter.

Remember that the Liberal Democratic Party has held majority power in the Diet for many years despite Japan’s economic malaise and challenges. The overall voting rate was only about 50 per cent in 2014. National partisanship may contribute to low voting rates, even among older generations, as results are clear before the close of any election. Some youth-led organisations suggest that internet voting may increase voting rates, particularly among younger generations.

Younger generations also express their opinions in non-traditional forms such as blog posts and social media. Japanese tapas bars (izakaya), for example, incentivise engagement through articles on their websites and tweets. The Teen’s Rights Movement and Youth Create use YouTube and Twitter to express their opinions and test younger generations’ attitudes towards politics. The Teen’s Rights Movement began with a mission in January 2013 to lower the voting age to 18 from 20 and engage youth in political discussion. Fifteen thousand high school students engaged in political discussions through the Teen’s Rights Summit.

Do students need formal education on politics in Japan?

The attitude of traditional educators towards political education is more complex, however. Civic education, including the political content of high school curricula, has become increasingly controversial as a result of political proposals to reduce the voting age.

Traditionally, teachers have been required to present an apolitical persona, particularly in light of the draconian war propaganda practised in schools before the Second World War. In March this year, a teacher from Osaka was reprimanded and dismissed from his position for not standing up to sing the national anthem at a graduation ceremony. His remaining seated stemmed from his concern about the anthem’s association with the war: he wanted to educate students about its history so that they will never make the same mistake.

The Japan Teachers Union argues that civic education should not stop at conducting mock voting or learning about the rules relating to the election system; rather, it should also include an element of social responsibility for citizens to use their voting rights in a way which fosters active involvement in societal issues.

These young advocates and older educators will have their chance to participate soon. Japan’s National Diet passed an amendment to decrease the voting age from 20 to 18 in June 2015, bringing Japan into line with the voting age of most countries. Many Western countries lowered the voting age in the 1970s, influenced by the Vietnam War: in other words, young people should have the right to vote if they may be subject to compulsory military service.

The Japanese government’s motivations for the reform are less clear, although the stated rationale is to increase interest in politics among the younger population. The amendment will increase the number of voters by almost 2.5 million people at the 2016 elections.

Sleepy students take to the streets, but will they vote?

The reforms are top-down and, for the politicians, it may be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’! Until now, the voting rate has been highest among the 60s age bracket: almost 70 per cent, which undoubtedly influences parties’ policies.

Yet, voting may be overtaken by other approaches for not just younger people. This decade has seen popular demonstrations in Japan seemingly increase, beginning in 2011 with protests against rebooting Japan’s nuclear power plants. But student voices seemed absent among many silver heads until now. The current protests in relation to the proposed constitutional reforms coalesce with the Japanese government’s decision to reduce the voting age from 20 to 18, but aren’t necessarily linked.

The potential drivers for student involvement in the protests are numerous, including those which are more Japan-specific (Abe’s controversial reform agenda, Japan’s less stable economic and global position), and those issues which are arguably common with other student movements globally (simply warmer weather/holidays and individual personalities/goals and, more seriously, a lack of life and economic opportunities for young people).

There is also the impact of recent student protests elsewhere, including Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan. How different generations interact on the protest agendas also remains to be seen.

The drop in the voting age doesn’t necessarily mean that students will turn out in greater numbers to vote next year, either. There may be no candidates that they consider worthy and there is no guarantee that younger people will vote as a collective; but it may be the beginning of something new—if not revolutionary—in Japan. Younger people may start to influence the sort of Japan that we are all waking up to.

Dr Stacey Steele is Associate Director (Japan) at the Asian Law Centre, University of Melbourne.
Aya Haruyama is a research assistant at the Asian Law Centre.

Protest in front of the Japanese National Diet. (Photo by nesnad via Wikimedia Commons).

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