Japan’s recent Upper House elections had special significance—it was the first time 18 and 19-year-olds were allowed to vote
For the first time in a Japanese national election, 18 and 19-year-olds voted on 10 July 2016 in the 24th Upper House election, which saw the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Kōmeito, returned with an increased majority.
Reversing the tide of decreasing voter turnouts—a problem for liberal democracies globally, especially among younger generations—was one of the aims of supporters of lowering the voting age from 20 to 18 years. The process of reform to lower the voting age was not sudden and commenced during Shinzo Abe’s first term as prime minister (2006–07). The lower age threshold added approximately 2.4 million voters, but there was no guarantee that these new eligible voters would vote at elections or how they would vote.
Because interest in the impact of the reforms was so high, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications published its data on youth voter turnout the day after the election. Between 2004 and 2014, an average of 61 per cent of eligible voters exercised their right to vote in Japanese Lower House elections, and 56 per cent in Upper House elections. Voting rates among younger people have been even lower than the national average, as demonstrated by Tables 1 to 3, which are based on data from the ministry.
Last month, 45.45 per cent of 18 and 19-year-olds voted. Accordingly, the lowering of the eligible age could be said to be a success when comparing this turnout with traditional average voting rates for people in their twenties over the past decade (see Tables 1–4). In the last national election, for example, only 35.3 per cent of 20 to 24-year-olds voted and 40.25 per cent of 25 to 29-year-olds voted.
Table 1: Overall percentage of voter turnout at Lower and Upper House elections in Japan over last decade
Table 2: Percentage of voter turnout at Lower House elections in Japan over last decade by age
|Year of Lower House election
Table 3: Percentage of voter turnout at Upper House elections in Japan over last decade by age
|Year of Upper House election
*The voting rate for other age groups for the 2016 Upper House election had not been released at the time of writing.
Table 4: Percentage of 18 and 19 year old voter turnouts for the Upper House election held on
10 July 2016
While the problem of low turnout rates may have been partially addressed in light of these comparisons, the quality and extent of participation is still in a state of flux and cannot be judged on the basis of one election result. Many Japanese proclaim a lack of interest or understanding of politics or key issues.
Further, civic education is a vexed issue given the position of teachers’ unions and the government, and the Ministry of Education’s stance on political participation at schools. Education and links to school appear to be an influencing factor in a young person’s decision to vote.
The voting rate for 18-year-olds was noticeably higher than for 19-year-olds last month at 51.17 per cent and 39.66 per cent respectively. Eighteen-year-olds are typically still at high school. They were more likely to have heard about their right to vote, undertaken classes about voting at school and been encouraged to vote last month. They are also more likely to attend polling booths at their own schools with their family.
Whether Japan will also amend other aged-based legislation to conform with the lowering of the voting age, such as the age at which a person will be treated as a juvenile for the purposes of criminal justice (currently typically 19), or drinking and smoking (currently 20), is still a matter for further debate and has been referred to a parliamentary committee. Consideration is also being given to lowering the eligible age for running for public office, which is currently 25 years for the Lower House and 30 years for the Upper House.
At a minimum, it appears that the lowering of the voting age has begun to increase awareness among young people of the importance of voting at a time when parts of Japanese society are becoming active in different ways and for a variety of reasons
The voting age was legislatively lowered to 18 years in 2014 for national referendums held after June 2018. This reform was flagged in 2007 when the Abe government passed its Law in relation to a procedure for amending the Japanese Constitution. Some commentators argue that the amendments and lowering of the voting age must also be read in the context of the Abe government’s push to amend the constitution, because young Japanese may be more likely to support constitutional change.
Constitutional change has been a key Abe policy initiative since his first term as prime minister. Surveys, such as one by NHK in late 2015, suggest, however, that the majority of 18 and 19 year old Japanese people do not consider revision of Article 9 renouncing war necessary: only 15.9 per cent of respondents considered revision necessary, while 56.9 per cent considered it unnecessary. Like their seniors, the youth of Japan hold many different views.
At a minimum, however, it appears that the lowering of the voting age has begun to increase awareness among young people of the importance of voting at a time when parts of Japanese society are becoming active in different ways and for a variety of reasons.
The overall voter turnout in the Upper House election was only about 55 per cent. In Japan, voter participation may have just as much to do with the political process and reality than a person’s age. Unless those contexts change dramatically, Japanese voters are still just as likely to stay at home on any election day as to vote, no matter what their age.
This is an abridged version of a paper presented at UNSW on 12 August 2016.
The Diet of Japan in Tokyo: many Japanese proclaim a lack of interest or understanding of politics or key issues. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.