Students strive to lift turnout of young voters ahead of election
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Posted 8/6/09 , edited 8/6/09
Students strive to lift turnout of young voters ahead of election


With a national election due on Aug 30, a University of Tokyo student, Kensuke Harada, has felt compelled to help awaken political consciousness among Japanese young adults, whose voting rate has been persistently low.

Harada, 23, is concerned that low voter turnout among the youth has been allowing politicians to adopt policies that solely address the needs of elderly people with little concern that the financial burden will one day fall on the shoulders of his generation.

‘‘If our voter turnout stays low, politicians will continue to advocate policies that only please voters above 60 (whose voting rate has been high),’’ Harada said. ‘‘Our voices are not reflected in current politics.’’

But he added that young voters are too indifferent about politics and are unaware of the power every single vote has.

He thus founded a students’ organization dubbed ‘‘ivote’’ in April last year in an effort to lift the voting rate among people aged 20 to 29, and launched an email project in February in which registrants will receive a message on election day urging them to vote.

In Japan, citizens aged 20 or over have the right to vote.

After falling below the 50% line in the 1993 House of Representatives election, the turnout of voters under 30 has been hovering at around 30 to 40%, compared with the 66.7% marked in the 1967 election.

In contrast, voter turnout among those in their 60s has stood at around 70 to 80% with no significant change over the three decades.

Keio University Professor Yoshiaki Kobayashi said his studies have indicated that people in their teens and 20s ‘‘are skeptical that any of their involvement in society will change it for the better.’’

Kobayashi, a political science professor who specializes in research on voting rates and young adults, also blamed the low voter turnout on Japan’s single-seat constituency system.

‘‘The weight of one ballot has weakened compared with under the multi-seat system,’’ he said. ‘‘In the system to choose only one candidate, we can easily predict who will win and tend to think that one ballot will not change the course of the race.’’

In fact, Norihisa Tsue, a Shizuoka University student, said he never voted in a national poll when he was in his hometown in Kyoto Prefecture as he knew that Sadakazu Tanigaki, a heavyweight in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, would win anyway.

Tsue, 23, was in Tokyo late last month to take part in a party at an ‘‘izakaya’’ Japanese-style bar restaurant organized by ivote, an event designed to deepen exchanges with Diet members.

The party held in Tokyo’s Shibuya district drew about 50 voters under 30, and six lawmakers including Ichita Yamamoto, an LDP member of the House of Councillors.

The event also seemed to have given the lawmakers the chance to think over why the turnout among under-30s remains so low.

Yamamoto told Kyodo News afterward, ‘‘Key to improving voter turnout seems to be increasing the number of ballot boxes,’’ referring to comments by some participants that they would vote if they could vote anywhere or at more convenient locations.

Nobuto Hosaka, a lower house member from the minor opposition Social Democratic Party, said he thinks the voting rate among youth remains low because the half-century-old Public Offices Election Law puts a spate of restrictions on election campaigning.

‘‘We’re supposed to be able to connect with voters through campaign activities, but what we’re allowed is far removed from the interests and culture of youth,’’ he said, noting that such events as a rock concert are largely restricted under the law.

Sho Takahashi, a 24-year-old musician from Tokyo, agreed.

‘‘If we’re able to join a rock concert or any other fun activities that we often see in campaigning for a U.S. presidential election, we’ll get more motivated to vote,’’ he said.

Experts also blame the low voting rate among younger people on the dearth of appealing young lawmakers and a political landscape that has been occupied by those who inherited seats from family members or who come from privileged families.

Looking at these politicians, ‘‘how can we relate to politics? It’s a totally different world,’’ Takahashi said.

Another students’ group, called Ring, has also organized debates and interviews with lawmakers from both ruling and opposition parties since its establishment last November, and put them on the Internet for online viewing.

‘‘It’s not that young people don’t have an interest in politics, but they just don’t know how to get involved,’’ said Takehiko Nishino, 24, a Meiji Gakuin University student and the group’s founder.

Both groups, however, are faced with one big problem—they can hardly reach out to those who pay no attention to politics, and who the groups truly hope to get involved in politics.

To address this, Harada of ivote is even considering tie-ups with companies and offering some incentives in cooperation with companies, such as giving out novelties to those email registrants who actually went to vote.

His idea has not been fully supported, however, with Nishino and some others arguing it could be too much interference and curtail individual freedom.

Yet, experts caution that the consequence of youth’s indifference to politics will be serious, given that politicians have only come up with stopgap, pork-barrel measures and as a result Japan’s debts have snowballed to top an estimated 800 trillion yen. ‘‘That figure is the result,’’ Keio University’s Kobayashi said.

‘‘I know we can’t bring about a revolutionary change,’’ Harada said. ‘‘I just want more young adults to have politics in the back of their minds.’’
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