Charles T. McClean is a Research Associate for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Japan’s future is the subject of headlines these days, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s victory in the latest election has focused attention on his policy agenda. Yet much remains uncertain about what this summer’s election means for Japan’s future. The decade-long experiment in political reform in Japan seems to have come to an end, and many read the return to power of the Liberal Democratic Party as a mandate for stability and a return to the political practices of the past.
But recent voter behavior in Japan tells a more complex story. Voter turnout in the July 21 Upper House election was 52.61 percent, the third lowest in the postwar period. Turnout among Japanese voters in their 20s hasn’t yet been released, but historically it has been much lower than other age groups. Over the last five Upper House elections, far fewer Japanese in their 20s (34 to 36 percent) have shown up at the polls than voters in their 60s (66 to 69 percent) or over 70 (74 to 76 percent). While turnout has been higher for Lower House elections—it was 37.89 percent in last December’s election, which was average, but reached as high as 49.45 percent in 2009—the disparity between age groups has persisted.
As Japanese society ages, the dominance of older voters in elections means that the interests of younger Japanese are under-represented. One group trying to reverse this trend is Dot JP, a non-profit organization that seeks to get more young Japanese engaged in politics. Dot JP’s president, Daigo Sato, explains that given the demographics of Japan’s aging population, turnout would have to increase to over 90 percent for voters in their 20s to balance out those in their 60s. Dot JP puts young high school and college students in direct contact with politicians through internships. Over its fifteen year history, Dot JP has arranged more than 15,000 internships with both national and local politicians in an effort to transform youth attitudes about public service and politics. Although a daunting challenge, Mr. Sato stressed the importance of bringing Japan’s younger generation into the political process, exposing them and those politicians they work for to their talents as well as their vision for Japan’s future.
I visited the Tokyo headquarters of Dot JP, and spoke with a group of former interns (now part-time staff) to learn more about how younger Japanese view their politics, parties, and politicians. Many of these students had little interest in politics prior to their internships, and so their experiences gave them a unique perspective into explaining how they felt today’s youth views politics.
My conversation revealed some interesting insights into how these young Japanese viewed their political choices. First, in the Upper House elections, the students based their decisions entirely on the individual candidate and not the political party. They saw little difference between parties in terms of policy issues, and instead chose the person they believed most likely to effect change in the Diet. One student even admitted that he left the proportional representation section of his ballot blank because he saw no reason to support a particular party, and the others didn’t seem to find this too surprising.
Second, while each student talked about specific issues they cared about, these younger Japanese had a very personal take on politics. Many spoke of listening to stump speeches outside of train stations and of their attempts to gauge which candidates were the most sincere in their campaign pledges. While many students shared the same basic political views as their parents, they often didn’t vote for the same person. Instead, without allegiance to a particular party the students felt free to evaluate candidates across a wide variety of issues to find the one that best reflected their views.
Third, despite the introduction of Internet and social media use during this summer’s Upper House campaign, the overall consensus among the Dot JP staff was that Japan’s first Internet election (netto senkyo) had no real impact on voter turnout. The Internet reform bill was enacted by the Diet just a few months earlier in April, and many surmised that the change would increase voter turnout—especially among younger, more tech-savvy voters—by making it easier for the public to gather information about candidates and interact with them on policy issues. However, the students argued that rather than reaching out to new voters, social media seemed only to attract those already interested in politics. When I pressed them to explain, they offered several reasons. For some, the vast majority of information available really wasn’t that exciting; others thought that politicians primarily used Facebook and Twitter to let supporters know about their upcoming events rather than to stake out positions on issues. The students also seemed very cautious about expressing their opinions online for fear of being criticized by their peers or by anonymous commentators on the web.
The group did, however, see the potential for social media to be used more skillfully by politicians in the future. One student pointed out that as more and more people use cell phones and iPads rather than newspapers to consume political news, social media would naturally become a powerful tool for candidates. Another student pointed to the example of Taro Yamamoto, a former actor, who, after losing in the December Lower House election, successfully used Twitter to gather over 200,000 followers—more than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (150,000)—to win an Upper House seat in Tokyo. The students hoped social media might go a long way to combatting the negative image many of their friends held about politicians—an image they said stemmed largely from political coverage by traditional media outlets.
At the end of our discussion, I asked if the students were considering becoming politicians themselves in the future. The response I received was that everyone on staff at Dot JP considers running at one point or another. About fifty of Dot JP’s alumni have gone on to begin careers in politics.
Interestingly, the group thought that running for local office was much more enticing than national politics. Part of this has to do with the high barriers to entry for the Diet: students said running a campaign was prohibitively expensive and difficult to win if you weren’t famous or a second-generation politician. However, students also said that local politicians had greater freedom, and could spend less time campaigning and more time helping out their communities.
To be fair, low voter turnout among young people is a problem that is not unique to Japan. In the United States, turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds reached 45 percent during the presidential election in 2012, but it was only 24 percent during mid-term elections in 2010, and in both cases trailed the turnout of voters over 65 by 30 to 35 percent—numbers which are very similar to Japan.
Statistical data on the Upper House election won’t be released for another month or so, but I expect that the trend of lower youth voter turnout will continue. To date, electoral data has clearly shown that older Japanese are more willing to express themselves in elections.
But the numbers only begin to tell the story of whether Japanese youth will engage in their political future. New organizations like Dot JP are trying to bring a younger voice to the table by helping students connect directly with the political process. As the complex issues of Japan’s politics, economy, and relations with its neighbors unfold, fresher voices will be absolutely necessary. Japan can’t have a future unless its younger voters join the conversation.