TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese youth face a range of uncertainties as the country heads towards an election, with job prospects dwindling in a downbeat economy and an ageing population coming to bear on their shoulders.
However, their concerns largely fall on deaf ears. Student activists worry that politicians do little to address youth concerns because of voter apathy among younger Japanese.
“Policies in Japan now are too skewed towards the interests of old people, but that’s because more of them vote,” said Kensuke Harada, a 23-year-old student and founder of ivote, a group trying to boost the youth turnout rate for Sunday’s vote.
“If young people voted more, politicians would take more notice of what we have to say,” he said over iced coffee in Shibuya, a shopping and entertainment district in Tokyo which is popular with young people.
In the run-up to the election, ivote has hosted parties where 20-somethings mingle with politicians from both ruling and opposition parties over beer and snacks.
The group, which does not take political sides, also plans to send text messages to over 1,100 young people on election day to remind them to go to the ballot box.
A survey by the Mainichi newspaper last week showed 51 percent of Japanese in their 20s planned to vote, an improvement on the 46 percent who voted in the last election for parliament’s powerful lower house in 2005.
Still, the figure is low when compared with other age groups. The same Mainichi survey showed that 84 percent of respondents in their 60s planned to vote, while the overall turnout was expected at 74 percent.
Many young voters are disillusioned with politics and doubt whether the opposition Democratic Party can do better than the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in tackling problems such as youth unemployment, a result of companies cutting unskilled workers to cope with a recession.
The unemployment rate for Japanese aged 15-24 stood at 8.7 percent in June compared with 5.2 percent overall in non-seasonally adjusted terms.
“There’s a general feeling of uncertainty about society, of mistrust towards politics and worries about getting a job,” said Ai Yamaguchi of Ring, another non-partisan student group trying to get youth more involved in policy debate.
“But young people keep those feelings to themselves and they don’t think about how politics can make things better.”
Her group has been trying to change that through activities such as posting footage of student interviews with politicians on the video sharing site YouTube and organising outdoor debates among candidates on policy issues chosen by young people.
One recent topic of debate was the pension system, which is creaking under the weight of Japan’s ageing population. Some young people have refused to pay into the system, alarmed by estimates showing the rate of return on their payments will fall to less than half of current levels by the time they retire.
While another concern is the rock-bottom birth rate, young people dismissed the Democrats’ plans to distribute money to families with children as missing the point, saying money should be used for longer-term projects such as child care centres.
The mood for Sunday’s election has been nowhere near the enthusiasm seen in Barack Obama’s U.S. presidential campaign last year, but student groups said they were not about to give up.
“There are no charismatic leaders in the coming election, no one like Obama whom young people are going to want to show strong support for,” said Takehiko Nishino of the student group Ring.
“But waiting for Japanese politics to change could take a long time and in the meantime, young people need to take action.”
Media polls show Prime Minister Taro Aso’s LDP headed for a loss that would end over a half-century of nearly unbroken rule.
Editing by Jeremy Laurence