Japanese teens discover weight of a single vote

Japanese teens discover weight of a single vote
Japan is set to take a baby step towards rebalancing the age scales when lawmakers lower the voting age to 18 from its current 20, allowing teenagers into polling booths for the first time.
PHOTO: AFP

The minimum voting age is likely to be lowered to 18 through revision of the Public Offices Election Law, just in time for next summer's House of Councillors poll.

For many high school students, however, the anticipated change is a cause of anxiety, as it means they will be eligible to vote during their third year. Schools too are struggling to address the question of how to nurture future generations of engaged citizens.

This article examines a voter education programme at St. Catalina Girls High School in Matsuyama, undertaken in co-operation with a nongovernmental organisation, that aims to tackle such issues.

Real-world relevance

Hirotaka Ochi, a 28-year-old teacher at St. Catalina, spoke to his students on June 19. "To understand what's happening in society, thinking and debating are more important than just memorizing words," he told them. The semester's final exams were only a few days away.

The class focused that day on reviewing keywords in preparation for the tests, but the teacher still adhered to his usual teaching method of making political issues relevant to his students' lives.

They covered topics like vote-value disparity.

"Imagine that this class is a constituency. For instance, this constituency has 30 people and another constituency has 10. Even if we have a unanimous vote passing a motion to make education free, the value of a vote for this group of 30 is only a third of that for their group of 10. That's not fair, is it?"

"The class is interesting because it deals with things that are part of our everyday lives," said Naru Takahara, 17. "I've started watching the news."

The school's campaign to educate future voters began on April 9. Ochi, who is also the director of an NPO in the education field, is filling in for a teacher on maternity leave. He teaches two classes a week for third-year students, each of which are two hours long.

Voter turnabout

The first session explored the question "At what point do children become adults?"

The students were asked their opinions on lowering the voting age to 18. Among the two classes, only eight were for it, while 54 were opposed.

Hikaru Jikumaru, 17, supported the idea. "With Japan's aging population and low birthrate, lowering the voting age will make young people more aware of their role in moving society forward," Jikumaru said.

Those averse to the idea offered such reasons as "I don't know anything about politics," and "I'm just a kid."

The school held a series of classes designed to encourage critical thought. It then staged a mock vote on May 28, with members of Matsuyama's election administration committee in attendance. "Let's decide the future of St. Catalina Girls High School!" was the slogan of the event.

Participants were asked to vote for high course fees and free extracurricular activities, or low course fees and some charge for extracurricular activities. The concept was to take the broader issue of big versus small government and make it relatable for students.

At the end of the course, the students were polled again on whether they approved of lowering the minimum voting age to 18. This time the outcome was reversed, with 53 supporting it and 11 opposed.

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