Voting age a challenge for Japanese schools

Voting age a challenge for Japanese schools
Students at Igusa High School in Tokyo vote in a mock election in December 2014.
PHOTO: Japan News/ANN

A legal change has made it likely that some third-year high school students will become eligible to vote in next year's House of Councillors election, but little has been done so far to prepare these new voters for the important decisions they will make at the ballot box.

Educating these youths about their new voting rights is made more urgent by the persistently low turnout of young voters overall. Unfortunately, only a handful of high schools are offering information on voting and elections.

Many remain unsure how to broach the subject in class while respecting the political neutrality of education (See below).

Such concerns came to the fore on Wednesday when the upper house voted to lower the voting age from 20 to 18 by revising the Public Offices Election Law. The change will likely take effect ahead of an upper house election in the summer of 2016.

In 2012, the Igusa Metropolitan High School in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, held a mock election in which students "voted" in the school's version of the Tokyo gubernatorial and national House of Representatives elections held in December of that year. The students cast votes for actual candidates and parties and the event was timed to coincide with the real-life polls.

The students chose for themselves whom to vote for after learning that there are different views on some issues by reading candidates' election pledges and comparing content from various newspapers. The school did the same for the December 2014 lower house election.

Though participation was voluntary and voting was held after school hours, 70 per cent of the student body cast ballots - a high percentage compared with actual voter turnout in recent elections.

"I'd like to hear what the candidates have to say with my own ears," one student said.

Akira Muto, a civics teacher at Igusa High School, said he felt the school's mock election had heightened students' awareness of the importance of participating in the political process. "This project wasn't as difficult as I had expected. I hope more schools will follow our example," said Muto.

Kiyoshi Karaki, an associate professor at the University of Tsukuba and an expert in social studies education, said it was vital that Igusa's efforts be replicated elsewhere.

"To nurture socially responsible voters, teachers need to clear away the walls between the classroom and society, and they need to willingly handle politics and topical issues," Karaki said.

Still the minority

Holding mock elections is one method advocated by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry to raise interest in elections, but so far only a handful of schools have followed Igusa's example.

"There are many other things we have to teach," a teacher at a private high school in Tokyo said, "We can only touch briefly on the voting system and the significance of an election."

Such sentiments are expressed in the context of a curriculum that tends to prioritize preparation for university entrance exams and shy away from instruction on substantive political issues in deference to preserving the political neutrality of education.

For teachers, this can be a tricky balancing act.

"I think elections are wonderful as practical teaching material, but we have to be highly sensitive when handling these issues," admitted a 55-year-old civics teacher at a high school in Tokyo.

Some teachers are unsure whether they are allowed to mention the names of political parties and other details if they bring up party campaign pledges or key election issues. Other gray areas have instructors requesting clearer guidelines.

"I want the central government to clearly stipulate what points we need to be careful about when we discuss elections in class," another teacher told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

At high schools that have conducted several of these mock elections, teachers avoid simply drilling information into the students. They must stay conscious of the need to remain impartial and make students think for themselves by providing balanced instruction on the campaign pledges made by each party. This can be a challenging task for inexperienced teachers and school administrations.

Help on the way

The education ministry and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry are hurriedly preparing a manual for teachers and new supplementary material for high schools to help them teach students about the lower voting age.

"We hope to distribute them before the start of the third term," a senior official of the education ministry said.

However, it will be difficult to set aside instruction time on this topic for third-year students after the New Year comes around, and there will only be about six months between this time and when the current batch of second-year students who could become eligible to vote will actually go to the polls.

Given these time constraints, the education ministry is particularly concerned about ensuring that high school students do not inadvertently violate election laws.

Third-year classes at high school contain a mix of 18-year-olds who may soon be allowed vote, and 17-year-olds who will still be too young. An 18-year-old can legally take part in campaigns to spread election messages on Twitter and other social media sites.

If a 17-year-old - an ineligible voter - does the same thing, they run the risk of violating election laws. The education ministry plans to explain such dangers by compiling a list of concrete examples and using illustrations.

For the time being, the education of 18-year-old voters could end up having an emphasis on preventing election violations.

Political neutrality in education

Ensuring that biased principles and opinions are not included in the influential education provided to children at schools. The Basic Law on Education mentions the importance of "political literacy necessary for sensible citizenship," but stipulates "schools prescribed by law shall refrain from political education or other political activities for or against any specific political party."

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