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Will Lowering the Voting Age Change Japanese Politics?

Sugawara Taku [Profile]


In June 2015, an amendment to the Public Offices Election Act lowering the voting age from 20 to 18 was enacted by the Diet. Starting with next year’s House of Councillors contest, over 2 million new voters will be able to take part in elections. Political commentator Sugawara Taku examines the potential impact of the new voting age on the Japanese political landscape.

Younger Voters

In 2016, the legal voting age in Japan will be lowered from 20 to 18, in time for next summer’s House of Councillors election. The move has sparked much discussion in the media and among political commentators.

As for how the Japanese political landscape could change, the two main questions that the amendment has sparked are, will it prompt new directions in policy by mitigating the influence of the country’s “silver democracy,” and how will it affect the election results.

“Silver Democracy”

The term “silver democracy” was coined to describe the political influence exerted by the elderly—on the strength of the high share of seniors in the population and their high election turnout—which was believed to impede reforms to policies that prioritize their needs. Some argued that a younger electorate would lead to legislators pushing policies that would shift more benefits to the young, while others expressed skepticism in view of the small size of the teenage population and the generally low turnout of young voters.

The idea of silver democracy itself is no more than a hypothesis, though, and as the following facts demonstrate, the preponderance of older voters has not necessarily encouraged a social welfare system that favors seniors.

First, the current social security system in Japan was established several decades ago during the high-growth period, when the largest age groups were people in their twenties and thirties and when there were minimal differences in voter turnout by age. Other developed countries with low birthrates and aging populations have social security systems more favorable to the young, contradicting a simple correlation between populous cohorts and bigger benefits. Attitudes toward who should pay for social welfare are fairly similar across generations, moreover, with seniors not wishing to place an excess burden on the working-age population.

The following figure shows the results of a public opinion poll on this latter point. Noticeably, younger people were more likely to say that an increased burden on the working-age population was unavoidable than respondents aged 60 or over. There was no clear generational difference in opinion other than the fact that higher shares of older respondents tended to choose “don’t know.” Such data suggests that a lower voting age will not lead to the election of politicians with different social policy priorities.

Experts commonly talk about “silver democracy” these days as if it were an established fact. The truth is, however, that the high share of older voters is not a significant factor behind social security policies that favor the elderly. There are probably other factors, such as the very small number of female Diet members, the many years that the Liberal Democratic Party—which espouses conservative family values—has been in power, and the seniority-based hierarchy of political parties and the bureaucracy. Whatever the causes, lowering the voting age to 18 will have no bearing on the “silver democracy” argument.

  • [2015.09.25]

Visiting researcher at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Tokyo. Born in 1976. Specializes in political process theory and contemporary Japanese politics. After graduating in the Faculty of Law at the University of Tokyo, completed his doctorate at the Graduate Schools for Law and Politics at the same institution. Publications include Seron no kyokkai: Naze Jimintō wa taihai shita no ka (Misinterpreting Public Opinion: Why the LDP Was Soundly Beaten) and a chapter in Heiseishi (A History of the Heisei Era).

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