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Tepid turnout: Voter apathy looms over yet another election in Japan

Ryutaro Sato won’t be going to the polls on Sunday when Japan holds a general election. In fact, he’s never cast a ballot since reaching voting age five years ago.

“It seems pointless,” says the 25-year-old office worker based in Tokyo’s neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture.

“The ruling Liberal Democratic Party will probably win anyway, since there aren’t any strong opposition parties,” Sato says. “It seems as if it has always been like that. What’s more, I don’t feel that the policies being put forward are going to impact me in any significant way.”

Sato is part of a generation of politically disenchanted voters in Japan, essentially a one-party state where the LDP has held power almost continuously since its founding in 1955. Despite prolonged economic stagnation, rising job insecurity and sluggish wage growth, voter apathy remains stubbornly high, especially among younger voters.

The age group Sato belongs to has been seeing the lowest voter turnout among all age groups for decades. During the last Lower House election in 2017, for example, only 33.85% of those in their 20s voted, less than half of the 72.04% recorded among those in their 60s. More broadly, voter turnout among those age 18 to 39 was 40% compared to 65% for those age 60 and older.

Demographics do play a large part in these numbers, especially since Japan is the nation with the oldest population in the world. Nearly 1 in 3 Japanese, or 29.1% of the nation’s population, are 65 or older and, naturally, they represent a sizable portion of the electoral pie.

Overall voter turnout in 2017 was 53.68%, the second lowest in postwar Japan despite being the first election after the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18. | REUTERS
Overall voter turnout in 2017 was 53.68%, the second lowest in postwar Japan despite being the first election after the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18. | REUTERS

Still, the dismal showing among younger voters is a cause for concern, as it gives older voters a far larger voice in politics, a phenomenon described as “silver democracy” that has seen policies concerning welfare measures and the pension system, for example, prioritized over those targeting the working age population, such as financial aid for families with children.

And if past elections are any indication, Sunday’s poll will likely result in similar numbers. Voter turnout in 2017 was 53.68%, the second lowest in postwar Japan despite being the first election after the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18. The lowest ever was the general election before that in 2014, when 52.66% of eligible voters showed up at the polls.

The low turnout is also believed to work toward the LDP’s advantage, since it means unaffiliated voters who tend to support the opposition would have less influence on the result, and bloc votes mobilized by the ruling party’s vote-gathering machine tend to play a key role in determining the outcome.

Meanwhile, the rapid fall in daily case counts of COVID-19 in recent weeks is seen to favor Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the ruling coalition as it could curb potential protest votes against the government’s handling of the pandemic.

“Call it political instincts, but Kishida is clever to decide to hold the election earlier than speculated while reported infections are low,” says Ryosuke Nishida, an associate professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology who specializes in politics and the media. “Another spike would have created new headwinds for him going into battle.”

With the state of emergency lifted and bars and restaurants serving alcohol again, many are relieved at the sense of a return to normalcy, Nishida says. That, however, also means they may not feel inclined to exercise their voting rights.

Difficult comparisons

Where does Japan stand in terms of voter turnout?

There are 21 nations in the world where voting is compulsory, including Australia, Belgium and Greece, though they vary in degree of enforcement. These countries typically enjoy high turnouts. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, for example, 16.4 million people were enrolled to vote in the 2019 federal election, of which 91.9% did.

Meanwhile, voting isn’t mandatory in other countries such as the United States and Japan. The 2020 presidential election in the U.S., for example, saw 66.8% of citizens 18 years and older cast their vote, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This, however, was the highest figure in the 21st century, with the previous election in 2016 seeing around 56% of the voting age population cast a ballot.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Tokyo in October 2017. | REUTERS
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Tokyo in October 2017. | REUTERS

A 2018 Pew Research study found that the highest turnout rates among nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development were in Turkey, Sweden, Australia, Belgium and South Korea. Switzerland had the lowest turnout in the OECD, with barely 36% of its electorate voting in the 2019 federal elections.

“It’s difficult to compare voter turnout between nations because of the various differences in rules and regulations, and calculations could vary depending on which measuring stick you use,” Nishida says. “But what we’re seeing in Japan is how turnout has fallen to levels where nearly half of the population isn’t voting. In fact, that’s already the case among the younger generation.”

At the 1967 general election, for example, 66.69% of those in their 20s cast their ballots, meaning turnout among that age group has slid by half over the past half century. Those were very different times, however, with student movements flourishing around the world, and those receiving higher education expected to be well-versed and vocal about current events and politics.

Younger voters now appear to face pressure against openly conveying political views and tend to avoid taking strong positions on issues, Nishida says. One reason may be the LDP’s near-continuous dominance of the political landscape.

“While the Democratic Party of Japan briefly took the helm of the government between 2009 and 2012, I don’t think most people in their early 30s or younger remember that,” Nishida says. “For them, it has always been the LDP in power, and presumably always will be.”

Mandate lacking

The lack of interest in politics and elections is problematic, since it doesn’t keep lawmakers in check, says Yumiko Watanabe, who heads Kidsdoor, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization that offers free education to children from single-parent families or those on welfare.

In August, Watanabe and a group of experts from various fields and organizations launched a project called “Mezase! Tohyoritsu 75%” (Go for it! Voter Turnout 75%) aimed at boosting the election turnout of those in their teens, 20s, 30s and 40s to 75%.

The group has highlighted 13 core campaign issues based on an online questionnaire answered by 44,629 people — around 75% of whom were in their 20s and 30s. They then sent surveys based on the results to candidates ahead of the general election to ask for their take on the topics raised, which include LGBTQ rights, reducing education fees, allowing different surnames for married couples and providing financial support for those affected by the pandemic.

“The point of our project is to clarify what issues are considered important among younger voters and to inform them of the campaign promises being raised by candidates and political parties in an easy-to-understand manner,” Watanabe says.

Yumiko Watanabe is working to offer free education to children from single-parent families or those on welfare. | COURTESY OF KIDSDOOR
Yumiko Watanabe is working to offer free education to children from single-parent families or those on welfare. | COURTESY OF KIDSDOOR

Decisions made by a democratically elected government are more legitimate when a higher proportion of the population participates, but for that to happen younger voters need to let their presence be known at the polls.

“Otherwise, lawmakers could take their jobs for granted,” Watanabe says. “They need to understand that unless they listen to us and offer solutions to the myriad problems our society faces, they may not be elected or able to serve another term.”

Watanabe says the number of poverty-stricken households — often single-parent families — has soared amid the pandemic, with many of those employed in part-time or temporary positions losing their jobs.

According to a survey Kidsdoor conducted in late June and early July, more than 60% of 1,469 low-income households that responded said their annual income was below ¥2 million ($17,550), while over half said their savings fell below ¥100,000 ($877).

“I know households that are so poor they can’t provide meat or fish for their children,” Watanabe says. “I’ve been talking to lawmakers and asking them to lobby for special cash payments to such families, but while they are sympathetic, there’s been no concrete action so far.”

The LDP’s election manifesto, for example, makes no reference to a plan to enhance financial support for families with children to cover housing and education costs, which was once a pillar of Kishida’s wealth redistribution measures.

The low voter turnout in Japan is believed to work toward the Liberal Democratic Party’s advantage, since it means unaffiliated voters who tend to support the opposition would have less influence on the result. | REUTERS
The low voter turnout in Japan is believed to work toward the Liberal Democratic Party’s advantage, since it means unaffiliated voters who tend to support the opposition would have less influence on the result. | REUTERS

Meanwhile, LDP’s coalition partner, New Komeito, has pledged ¥100,000 cash handouts to those under 19, while the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan promised to provide ¥120,000 in cash a year to low-income earners as an emergency measure to deal with the pandemic.

While some pundits have criticized these promises as last-minute policies to buy votes, Watanabe welcomes the issue being raised.

“During the race for LDP president, all four candidates including Kishida vowed to double spending on children,” she says. “I think leaders are realizing that with the population aging and shrinking and the nation suffering from a low birthrate, our future is at stake unless something is done to help struggling families.”

Debate rare in schools

One reason behind lackluster interest in politics is a lack of political discourse in classrooms, says Tomohiro Niwa, a second-year student at the University of Tokyo and a member of iVote, a nonpartisan group comprised of 20 or so university and high school students who are trying to boost youth turnout rates at elections.

Unlike the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, political debate is rare in Japanese schools.

Article 14 of the Basic Education Act stipulates that schools should refrain from political education or other political activities for or against any specific party. That means many teachers impose self-censorship and discuss only the nuts and bolts of the political system without delving into specific parties or campaign manifestos.

So when iVote visits schools to host mock elections, they need to steer clear from using real party names.

“Last time, we had students vote for three candidates we elected belonging to three imaginary parties on policies such as immigration and whether to allow married couples choose separate surnames,” Niwa says. “But it’s difficult for them to understand that elections have real-world consequences and will impact our well-being when they’re not encouraged to discuss politics at school.”

Niwa, 20, says he works part time teaching at a cram school, but topics related to politics rarely surface during chats with colleagues.

“There’s this sense that talking politics is unfashionable and could potentially alienate you from your peers,” he says.

 The lowest voter turnout for a general election in Japan was recorded in 2014, with 52.66% of eligible voters showing up at the polls. | REUTERS
The lowest voter turnout for a general election in Japan was recorded in 2014, with 52.66% of eligible voters showing up at the polls. | REUTERS

Social media has been emerging as a primary means to get across to younger voters without being too preachy or in-your-face like the election soundtracks that blare candidates’ views at street corners come election season.

Momoko Nojo, a 23-year-old student of economics at Keio University’s graduate school, heads No Youth No Japan. Founded in 2019, the social media initiative has around 77,000 followers on Instagram, where the group breaks down complicated political issues using colorfully illustrated slides.

Nojo made headlines back in February when Yoshiro Mori, former president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, quit his post after making sexist remarks.

Prior to Mori’s resignation, Nojo and other activists gathered support for a petition against him under the #DontBeSilent hashtag campaign, garnering more than 150,000 signatures.

“When I was an undergraduate student I spent a year studying in Denmark, where election turnout among the younger voters is around 80%,” she says.

Thinking back to the Japanese political landscape in which lawmakers are mostly older men, Nojo was also surprised when Denmark chose Mette Frederiksen, a woman in her 40s, as prime minister.

“People I met firmly believed that they could make a difference in politics,” she says. “That was a wake-up call for me.”

In the runup to the general election, hashtag campaigns aimed at promoting youth turnout have been making the rounds on social media. One of them is “Watashi mo Tohyo Shimasu” (“I’ll Vote Too”), a nonpartisan campaign launched by a group called The Voice Project: Your Vote is Your Voice.

Officials count votes during the Lower House election in October 2017. | REUTERS
Officials count votes during the Lower House election in October 2017. | REUTERS

On Oct. 16, the group released a 3½-minute video in which 14 well-known Japanese celebrities — including Taka, lead vocalist of rock band One OK Rock, actress Fumi Nikaido and actor Ken Watanabe — called on younger voters to go to the polls. The video has so far been viewed almost 630,000 times on YouTube and retweeted around 45,000 times on Twitter.

Toward the end of the clip, all 14 celebrities take turns promising to vote at Sunday’s election. Will other Japanese follow suit?

During the last general election in 2017, the prefecture with the lowest turnout among 18- and 19-year-olds was Tokushima, which saw only 31.59% of teenagers casting their ballots.

To get an idea of voting behavior this time around, the Tokushima Shimbun, the prefecture’s local daily newspaper, asked 100 high school and university students to take a survey.

According to results compiled between Sept. 23 and Oct. 5, just 39 said they plan on exercising their voting rights this time around.

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