Young Japanese activists try to break down barriers | Way of life


TOKYO – They flooded Instagram and Twitter with voting information. They’ve designed great posters, run hashtag campaigns, filmed celebrity videos. They even offered discounts at trendy stores.

But in a country with a stubbornly low turnout among young voters, political activists in Japan face unique hurdles. Simply talking about politics and voting defies cultural norms for young Japanese people.

The reasons are varied. Some have cited an age gap with the massively older Japanese political leaders. Others cite laws that have banned political organization led by students. The end result, analysts say, is an atmosphere in which young people often feel they have no say in the country’s future.

“In Japan, the basic problem is the real lack of diversity in politics,” said Momoko Nojo, 23, a graduate student who heads the activist group No Youth No Japan. “There are very few young politicians out there, so it doesn’t really seem like they’re thinking about young people.”

The relative silence around elections and voting among Japanese youth stands in stark contrast to the increasingly divided and hyperpolarized atmosphere in its allied countries, including the United States and parts of Europe.

Ahead of the October 31 general election, activists staged a wave of voter mobilization efforts around Tokyo and online. The hope was that the coronavirus pandemic had boosted civic awareness and social media engagement among voters in their 20s.

Such campaigns aimed at young people are a relatively new trend, and these activists are trying to normalize voting – or even just have open discussions about voting.

But they face an uphill battle. The participation rate in Japan has consistently remained at the bottom of the scale among developed countries.

Just over half of eligible voters voted in this year’s general election, the third lowest in postwar Japanese history. The United States, which also lags many developed countries in terms of voter turnout, saw a slight uptick in the last election. In 2020, two-thirds of eligible voters voted. The 2018 midterms attracted the highest midterm attendance rate since 1914.

Youth turnout in Japan has remained low, with around one-third of eligible voters in their twenties participating in the 2017 general election. The United States has seen the opposite trend, with voters under the age of 30 breaking records participation in 2018 and 2020.

Motivating young people and first-time voters to vote is difficult in any country, but activists say it is especially difficult in Japan.

Among the 465 politicians elected to the House of Representatives last month, the average age was 55.5. Just under 10% of the leaders elected to the lower house were women.

Online campaigns and digital awareness are relatively new to Japan, unlike the United States and many other countries, where hyperpartisan online campaigns have become a staple of political life. However, it also opened the door to misinformation and conspiracy theories.

No Youth No Japan, which launched in 2019, is made up of teenage and 20-year-old members. It operates primarily on social media, answering questions from young voters about elections and educating nearly 100,000 subscribers about parties, their positions and how to vote. The group has seen greater interest on its social media platforms for this year’s election, Nojo said.

“Covid has played a big role in showing us how much politics is interconnected with our daily lives, so definitely more people have signed up,” she said.

A coalition of social activists gathered for the first time during this year’s general election campaign to submit a questionnaire on 19 social issues, asking parties on issues such as climate change and the response to the pandemic . The activists of the group met on Twitter, and they decided that there would be strength in unity.

“We have all felt ignored and forgotten on various issues,” said Ayaka Machida, 26, a graduate student and organizer with Minna no Mirai 2021, or 67 Questions for Our Future.

As a teenager, Machida advocated lowering the voting age to 18, a 2016 change designed to encourage civic engagement among young people. Now she is a women’s rights activist.

“I was hoping that young people were actually seen by the government, so that they would talk to them and create policies with them in mind,” she said.

In Japan, asking people about their politics is still seen as a social faux pas. Such feelings continued to speak of any sort of election activity – even voting.

This makes the work of these activists especially important in changing the public’s perception of civic engagement with young people, said Kensuke Suzuki, associate professor of sociology and online youth engagement expert at Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya.

“Since the 1970s there has been a general image in Japan that being interested in politics is not cool. But with the various campaigns organized by young activists this time around, I think that image has changed completely.” , Suzuki said.

Some systemic factors have hampered awareness among young citizens, according to experts and activists.

For decades, the Public Service Elections Act prohibited students from participating in politics. The law was originally designed to prevent ideological influence from seeping into the education system.

Lowering the voting age to 18 allowed more students to discuss politics. But political campaigns by minors, including on social media, are still illegal. Minors cannot share partisan information on social media or retweet voting information shared by political accounts.

The age change has created confusion among high school students – some of whom are 18, while others are still minors – as to who in class can and cannot talk about politics. The strict neutrality requirements imposed on educators made it difficult for teachers to openly discuss the political system, or even answer questions about the positions of political parties or candidates.

“How sensitive it is, many grow up in this environment where it is taboo to talk about politics. I think it is difficult for young people to suddenly take an interest in politics,” Machida said.

Asako Tsuji, 25, this year launched Go Vote Japan to break that silence through a variety of online campaigns, including an online tool that makes it easy for people to tick off the issues that matter most to them and then share graphics on these issues online.

She worked with local businesses to launch an online store called Go Vote Market, where shoppers will receive a discount that coincides with the percentage of voter turnout in their 20s.

“It is often dismissed that young people are not interested in politics, but I think it is society’s fault for creating such an atmosphere that has made political discourse taboo,” Tsuji said. “In Japan, it’s really hard for young people to believe that they can change society. The system seems established and untouchable, and there is very little opportunity to think and make decisions for yourself.”


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