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How to Stop Voting Rights at 18 from Becoming “Imposed Voting Rights”

Yuzo Nakanishi
Emeritus Professor, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Administrative law, public services law, etc.

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1.The Constitution and voting rights

The Public Offices Election Act was amended last year. The voting age was lowered to 18 years old, and this came into force in June this year. It was widely reported as the most significant accomplishment in 70 years in respect to voting rights. This is all well and good, but there are differences between the recent amendment and the history of expansions in voting rights. In the cases of both universal male suffrage and the expansion of voting rights to women, there was a strong demand from the nation for voting rights to be expanded, and in both cases voting rights were finally acquired by overcoming numerous failures. Even if voting rights are guaranteed under law, in many cases their free execution is often hit by moves to repress free speech and action with violence. These changes were literally established in exchange for “blood, tears and lives.” Article 97 of the Constitution refers to this historical process as follows: “The fundamental human rights by this Constitution guaranteed to the people of Japan are fruits of the age-old struggle of man to be free; they have survived the many exacting tests for durability and are conferred upon this and future generations in trust, to be held for all time inviolate.” The Constitution guarantees universal suffrage by adults in the election of public officials (Article 15, Paragraph 2). It also states that the qualifications of members of both Houses shall be stipulated by law (Article 44, Paragraph 1) and that there shall be no discrimination because of race, creed, gender, social status, family origin, education, property or income (Article 44, Paragraph 2). In response, Article 9, Paragraph 1 of the current Public Offices Election Act states that Japanese nationals aged 18 and older shall have the right to vote for members of the House of Representatives and House of Councilors.

2.Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan and the Public Offices Election Act

However, what was the reason behind making a voting age 18? There does not appear to have been a strong demand from the nation, especially from those aged under 20, to lower the voting age to 18. It is a little-known fact that the recent downward adjustment in the voting age had already been set out under Paragraph 3 of the Supplementary Provisions to the Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan (Act No. 75 of 2014). In other words, the Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan gave citizens aged 18 and older the right to vote in the constitutional amendment referendum (Article 3), and set out that the necessary measures should be taken as soon as possible after enactment of the Act to allow the participation of people aged 18 and 19 in national elections. In response to these provisions, the recent amendment to the Public Offices Election Act lowered the overall voting age within one year of the enactment of the Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan. Initially, it was stated that this method would be adopted within four years (Supplementary Provisions Paragraph 2). In this case, no active discussions were held about whether or not to lower the voting age in national elections to 18. A certain party argued that “revision of the constitution affects the future of the country and for this reason we should ask for the opinions of the younger generation and lower the voting age to 18.” The ruling parties initially proposed a voting age of 20 but after carrying out a survey of procedures for constitutional reform in various countries they decided to lower the voting age to 18 as a “global trend.” There were no arguments against this.

3.Several points of concern

Looking at it this way, it would appear that choosing a voting age of 18 is nothing more than following a global trend. However, there are several points of concerns that do not suggest such an optimistic view.

(1) The state of history education
One concern is the growing trend to glorify Japan’s past in a biased way in history education for senior high school and younger students, particularly Japan’s history under the Meiji Constitution. The sovereignty of the people, pacifism and respect for basic human rights guaranteed by the current Constitution were all established as a result of regrets at the path taken by Japan under the Meiji Constitution, including imperial colonialism and invasions, militarism and the suppression of civil rights. Study of the Constitution is the foundation of citizenship classes (basic sovereignty education). I believe that this ought to go beyond simply studying its clauses and philosophies, and that students should also learn the historical developments pertaining to each of its clauses. Does education for senior high school and younger students provide sovereignty education in this sense? The history education described above does not appear to meet these requirements.

(2) Emphasizing the neutrality of teachers
Another point of concern is the deliberate emphasis on “neutrality” of teachers in so-called sovereignty education. It is true that to educate by taking just one side of a question that has conflicting arguments is not the right thing to do. There is a need to provide as many diverse opinions as possible. However, if the teaching method is focused too much on providing complete neutrality, there is a concern that opposing opinions would simply be listed without examining the significance of those opinions, and that this would become reflected in the students themselves, who would cease to make judgments or would converge towards “safe” opinions. The process of voting includes making a decision on what you agree with among many diverse opinions. For this reason, it is an important part of sovereignty education to make each student think about how he or she can reach a judgment based on the various reasons, but this appears to sit uneasily with a deliberate emphasis on the neutrality of teachers.

(3) The policy of controlling political activities of senior high school students pursued by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology
In response to the voting age being lowered to 18, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology abolished a 1969 notice that completely prohibited political activities by senior high school students both at and outside school grounds. Instead, it requires school principals and other teachers to strictly control the political activities of senior high school students both at and outside school grounds, and sets out a new policy that would allow use of a notification system for participation in political activities by senior high school students outside the school grounds (2015 Notice, and 2016 Liaison Meeting Manual for Student Instructors). However, voting is the most fundamental political activity and should be decided based on the free thought of the individual. These strict regulations and notification systems are completely ridiculous because they would reduce the free thought of students as voters.

4.Using your own judgment to make a better decision

These many concerns suggest that the behavior of 18-year-old voters is being pushed in a certain direction, and give rise to the suspicion that there is a hidden agenda. However, even if such a plan does exist, it will not necessarily work. This is because even when faced with difficulties young people’s nature is to push beyond the limits that adults try to impose on them. Furthermore, university students enjoy a far freer environment than senior high school students. They could be described as being blessed with an environment in which they are able to identify, pursue, consider, select and judge questions freely on their own for the first time. Making full use of the environment that has been given to them is one way for them to use the voting rights granted to them effectively as something that is “their own,” rather than as something that has been “imposed upon them.” It is not possible to make 100% perfect judgments about everything from the start. However, surely it is a good idea for them to start making small steps into deciding what they believe to be a better choice based on their own judgment in the areas that interest them. Let us be confident in selecting and making judgments on the things that matter to us. We may make the wrong choice, but as long as we realize this, there will be time to amend it.

Lastly

I want to touch upon a phenomenon that I have seen among students that gives me concern. I am not sure whether or not this is the result of the education described above, but as soon as somebody asks a question that may lead to criticism of the government, even if this is just a theory being discussed in a class, there are some students who will strongly argue that the person who asked the question is biased, or who will write this on the Internet, and many who will simply follow the crowd. This kind of behavior prevents the free development of research and development at universities. Before you shout out “biased!” or write comments on the Internet, I think you should test the theory that you consider to be biased, and consider whether or not your own reactions themselves are biased. I posit that thoughtless comments and behavior like this betray the environment that students are lucky enough to find themselves in. Do you think my argument is “biased”?

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Yuzo Nakanishi
Emeritus Professor, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Administrative law, public services law, etc.
Yuzo Nakanishi was born in Tokyo in 1942.
1965 - Graduated from the Faculty of Law, Chuo University
1967 - Completed master’s degree at Chuo Law School, Chuo University (master’s degree)
1967 - Research Associate, Faculty of Law, Chuo University (administrative law)
1971 - Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
1978 – Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
2014 - Emeritus Professor, Chuo University

Yuzo Nakanishi has taken a particular interest in researching public service law since his time as a research associate, and has also carried out research and education in general administrative law. Books include: Gyoseiho 1 [Administrative Law 1] (Chudai Tsukyo, 2002); and Koumuin no Shurui [Types of Public Servant] (Yuhikaku, 1985)