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Japanese students wake up to politics

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Graduates of the National Academy toss up their caps into the air to celebrate their graduation during the graduation ceremony at the National Defense Academy in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Japan, 22 March 2015 (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

Recent student protests in Japan against the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) proposed changes to constitutional reinterpretation have Japan watchers asking: ‘is the sleepy Japanese student waking up?’ But what if they were never asleep or they were just waiting for the alarm clock to go off?


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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s highly controversial reforms would allow a greater security role for Japan’s Self Defense Forces. Criticism of Abe’s efforts has been widespread and reinvigorated by the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on 15 August 2015. The protesting students want to maintain the status quo and are demonstrating on a platform of peace. In doing so, they are defying the stereotype that Japan’s youth are disinterested in politics.

The voting rate among those in their 20s is below 30 per cent, but over 50 per cent of young people in Japan claim an interest in politics, according to the Japanese Cabinet Office. Yet only 30.2 per cent of respondents to the same survey answered that their involvement or contribution to politics would matter. Remember that the LDP has held majority power in the Diet for many years, despite Japan’s economic malaise and challenges.

In the December 2014 election the overall voting rate stood at 52 per cent, the lowest in postwar history. National partisanship may contribute to low voting rates, even among older generations, as the results are clear before the close of any election. Some youth-led organisations suggest that internet voting may increase voting rates, particularly among younger generations.

Younger generations also express their opinions in non-traditional forms such as blog posts and social media. Japanese tapas bars (izakaya), for example, incentivise engagement through articles on their websites and tweets. The Teen’s Rights Movement and Youth Create use YouTube and Twitter to express their opinions and test younger generations’ attitudes towards politics. The Teen’s Rights Movement began with a mission in January 2013 to lower the voting age to 18 from 20 and engage youth participation in political discussion. 15,000 high school students engaged in political discussions through the Teen’s Rights Summit.

But the attitude of traditional educators towards political education is more complex. Civic education, including the political content of high school curricula, has become increasingly controversial as a result of political proposals to reduce the voting age.

Traditionally, teachers have been required to present an apolitical persona, particularly in light of the draconian war propaganda practised in schools before World War II. In March 2015, a teacher from Osaka was reprimanded and dismissed for not standing up to sing the national anthem at a graduation ceremony. He remained seated because of his concern about the anthem’s association with the war: he wanted to educate students about its history so that they will never make the same mistakes of the war period.

The Japan Teachers’ Union argues that civic education should not stop at conducting mock voting or learning about the rules relating to the election system. It should also include an element of social responsibility for citizens to use their voting rights in a way which fosters active involvement in societal issues.

These young advocates and older educators will have their chance to participate soon. In June 2015, Japan’s National Diet passed an amendment to decrease the voting age from 20 to 18, bringing Japan into line with the voting age of most countries.

The Japanese government’s motivations for the reform are unclear, although the stated rationale is to increase interest in politics among the younger population. The amendment will increase the number of voters by almost 2.5 million people at the 2016 elections. The reforms are top-down and, for the politicians, it may be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. Until now, the voting rate has been highest among the 60s age bracket — almost 70 per cent — which undoubtedly influences parties’ policies.

Yet, voting may be overtaken by other approaches — and not just for younger people. This decade seems to have seen an increase in popular demonstrations in Japan, beginning in 2011 with protests against restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants. But student voices seemed absent until now. The current protests in relation to the proposed constitutional reforms coalesce with the Japanese government’s decision to reduce the voting age from 20 to 18, but aren’t necessarily linked.

The potential drivers for student involvement in the protests are numerous. Some are more Japan-specific (Abe’s controversial reform agenda or Japan’s less stable economic and global position). Others are arguably common with student movements globally (a lack of life and economic opportunities for young people). There is also the impact of recent student protests elsewhere, including Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan. How different generations interact on the protest agendas also remains to be seen.

The drop in the voting age doesn’t necessarily mean that students will turn out in greater numbers to vote in 2016. There may be no candidates that they consider worthy and there is no guarantee that younger people will vote as a collective. But it may be the beginning of something new — if not revolutionary — in Japan. Younger people may yet start to influence the sort of Japan that we are all waking up to.

Stacey Steele is Associate Director (Japan) at the Asian Law Centre, University of Melbourne. Aya Haruyama is a research assistant at the Asian Law Centre. 

A version of this article was originally posted here on Asian Currents, the blog of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.

2 responses to “Japanese students wake up to politics”

  1. Why is there nothing in this piece about the Students for Emergency Action in a Liberal Democracy (SEALDs)? This is a group led by college students who are protesting Abe’s reinterpretation of the Constitution and security laws. They are using social media and other methods to try to garner attention and support for their efforts across the age and political spectrum in Japan.

    More about SEALDs can be found in recent articles of Japan Focus.

  2. A group’of’college age students spearheading many of the demonstrations in opposition to Abe’s collective self defense and security laws known as SEALDs is worth noting. Japan Focus has some articles on it which describe how it is different from the AMPO era groups of the 1960’s and uses social media, etc in order to broaden its appeal and support base.

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