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Sunday, July 4, 2004

YOUNG PEOPLE IN POLITICS

Interns buck the trend


Staff writer

This story is part of a package on politics and people. To read the introduction, please click here.

It's a sad fact that Japanese people, especially the young, are losing interest in politics.

However, 21-year-old Tokyo resident Mizuki Takura is an exception.

When she was 18, Takura was a high-school exchange student in the United States. It was a presidential election year, and her friends there were excited about the race for the White House. But such enthusiasm for politics was new to Takura, and their fervor came as a shock.

"I was embarrassed because I didn't know anything about Japanese politics and couldn't answer anything people asked me," she recalled.

After returning to Japan last autumn after studying for two years at Dickenson College in Pennsylvania, Takura enrolled at Sophia University as a junior in April. But in addition to her studies, she began looking for opportunities to work for politicians to learn something about politics firsthand. "I wanted to see what it is like with my own eyes," she said.

It wasn't long before Takura came across I-CAS, a nonprofit organization that coordinates political internships for university students to raise their interest in politics. Through this program, Takura, along with five other students, was introduced to Taichi Sekiguchi, a 28-year-old member of the Setagawa Ward Assembly. Since mid-May, Takura has been interning for Sekiguchi, helping him two or three days a week while spending four days at school and holding down a part-time job at a karaoke parlor.

For Takura, a typical day as an intern last month began early in the morning at Oyamadai Station on the Oimachi Line, where Sekiguchi was giving a soapbox speech. As the young Democratic Party of Japan assembly member addressed passersby, Takura and few other interns, all sporting suits and big smiles, handed out Sekiguchi's fliers to as many people as they could.

After returning to Sekiguchi's office, Takura helped with the layout of his new flier, while others were sent to visit potential constituents door-to-door with a questionnaire Sekiguchi intends to use in question time at the next assembly meeting. When they did manage to get a complete questionnaire, the interns asked the respondents if they were interested in putting their names on Sekiguchi's support list. But since many people were reluctant to open their doors in the first place, that proved a formidable challenge.

Back in the office later in the afternoon, the interns spent the rest of the day helping Sekiguchi address postcards from a DPJ candidate in the Upper House election to his own supporters.

Though the interns' work that day seemed simple, it was nonstop; yet they were able to apply themselves diligently while enjoying lively discussions with Sekiguchi.

Takura says that observing and taking part in a politician's work and meeting a wide range of people has already taught her many things -- both about politics and society -- that she never would have learned in school. And they don't seem to mind that they aren't paid for anything but transportation. "Even the fact that I learned the importance of questioning whatever is being reported on the media was meaningful," she said.

Unlike Takura, whose interest in politics led her to seek out an internship, others said they stumbled onto the program while randomly seeking internship opportunities to enhance their job-hunting prospects.

According to Eisuke Igeta, 21, a junior at Keio University and Kanto area representative of dot-JP, another NPO that organizes political internships nationwide, only 20 percent of their participants declare an interest in politics. Most others are simply interested in the social experience, he said.

Regardless of their motivation, though, by the end of the program Igeta said more than 80 percent of dot-JP interns have a better image of politicians.

"I always thought that politicians were dirty people who came from a high-class family and ate sumptuous meals, but they weren't like that at all," said Takura's fellow I-CAS intern Naohiko Kishie, a 21-year-old student at Hosei University.

While these students may be addressing their societal concerns through these programs, they admit -- either from the outset or by the end -- that they are in the minority among their generation.

"When I tell people that I'm an intern for a politician, they look me in a bizarre way and ask things like which party the politician belongs to," said Yuma Tsuchiya, 20, another junior at Hosei.

"I think people's sense of being a Japanese and part of this society is low," Takura said. "They are simply not interested. But to them, that's probably similar to me not being interested in combative sports," she said.

With her new, higher consciousness of society, though, Takura feels it is important to talk to friends about the importance of voting to dispel the climate of political apathy. "Some people don't even know there will be an election." Takura said. "But if I talk to three people about this, they may each talk to three more, and if that goes on and on, I want to believe that it will make a difference.

"Although it may be just one vote, it can also change something."

For other stories in our package, please click the following links: Questionnaire findings spotlight younger people's political gloom Media insider casts an outsider's eye on Japan



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