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Japan’s democracy to undergo changes with lowering of voting age

  • 2016-01-04 15:00:00
  • , Nikkei
  • Translation

(Nikkei: January 1, 2016 – p. 2)


 The government will lower the minimum voting age from 20 to 18 in 2016 in time for the House of Councillors election this summer. This may bring about new trends in politics. As the Abe administration enters its fourth year, we examined the prospects for the challenges that lay ahead, including new developments in relations among politicians, bureaucrats, and business leaders brought about by Abenomics, and the future course of Japan’s diplomacy.


 On Dec. 21, 2015, Liberal Democratic Party Youth Division Director Hideki Makihara spoke to juniors and seniors at Meiji Gakuin University during a workshop led by Professor Kazuhisa Kawakami of the Law Department.


 The students complained that the government’s budgetary allocations are skewed favorably toward the aged. “Why do we have to shoulder such a big burden? We are dissatisfied with the ‘silver democracy,'” they said. Makihara replied: “We need to rectify the public finances, which are dominated by social security for the aged. In order to do that, we need the voices of the youth.”


 On the morning of the same day, Makihara gave an outdoor speech near JR Kitayono Station in Saitama City, which is part of his constituency. An elderly person of around 70 told him, “The old folks are having trouble. Hurry up and give us 30,000 yen. Then we’ll support you.”


 By “30,000 yen,” he was referring to a subsidy for low-income elderly people that was incorporated in the fiscal 2015 supplementary budget. Some members of the ruling parties criticize the subsidy as “lavish spending on welfare.” Shinjiro Koizumi brought this up in an LDP meeting held on Dec. 17 by saying, “Many young people will begin participating in politics. We need to tell the harsh truth to the elderly.”


 In the House of Representatives election in 2014, voter turnout among people in their 20s was 36%, whereas among people in their 70s it was 63%. Though Makihara is looking forward to young people’s participation in politics, he responded to the 70-year-old person who asked for 30,000 yen by saying, “I think taking care of old folks is important.” Although the Abe administration calls for promoting the dynamic engagement of all citizens, shifting the focus of budget allocation from the old to the young generation will not be easy.


 Of the 2016 draft budget that includes 57 trillion yen for general expenditure, the government allocates 11 trillion yen for medical services and 3 trillion yen for nursing care, which accounts for 40%. It allocates 2 trillion yen for measures to counter the declining birthrate, which accounts for 2%. This allocation can be said to be for young people. The total national expenditure on education is 4 trillion yen, which has been on the decline on account of the low birthrate.


 One example of politicians being overly sensitive to the elderly is the amount of medical expenses paid by patients at hospitals. The former Koizumi administration decided to raise the amount paid by patients aged 70 to 74 from 10% to 20% beginning in 2008. Consequently, in the 2007 House of Councillors election, the Abe administration was trounced on account of “the issue of vanishing pensions.” The rebellion of the elderly traumatized both the ruling and opposition parties. The administrations under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) avoided addressing the issue of raising the amount of medical expenses to be paid by the elderly. The second Abe administration finally raised the amount in 2014. Until then, the government had to spend 200 billion yen a year to keep the amount at 10%. The population of people aged 70 to 74 is 7.8 million, 30% more than the 6 million people aged 20 to 24. This means that any policy for the elderly requires a huge amount of money. A subsidy of 30,000 yen per old person would cost 360 billion yen.


 The DPJ places importance on measures to combat child poverty. On Dec. 12, Tomoko Abe, a DPJ member who is in charge of policies for children, held a meeting with supporters in Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture, which is her constituency. Of the 30 people who gathered, most of them were over 50 and asked questions about nursing and medical services. Abe was unable to discuss her policies for children.


 On Dec. 23 in Shibuya, the DPJ sponsored an event targeting those in their late teens. DPJ Secretary General Yukio Edano said: “The future will be determined by politics. Many elderly people cast their ballots while thinking more about their grandchildren than their pensions. The pension system should not be a source of conflict between generations.”


 The transfer of savings to children or grandchildren for educational purposes is exempt from taxation. There have been hundreds of thousands of such transactions and the amount has exceeded one trillion yen. Under such circumstances, how can the government move forward with social security system reform by promoting dialogue between generations? The government is being called upon to exercise wisdom in developing new politics to coincide with the lowering of the minimum voting age for the first time in 70 years. (Abridged)

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