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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Are young people ready, willing to be adults at 18?

Staff writer

Kids just don't wanna grow up.

News photo
Teen scene: High school students stroll across a busy intersection in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, earlier this month. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Many high school students recently interviewed by the Justice Ministry said they were leery of government efforts to explore a reduction in the legal age from 20 to 18.

"Some expressed hope that recognition as adults would give them the freedom to do what they want," a Justice Ministry official said last month. "But the general opinion of the students was that people aged 18 are still immature."

The students defined adults as those who can make ends meet on their own.

How old is old enough, and can an adult's maturity be defined by age?

The ministry has been debating these questions for months, but experts are still divided.

The issue came up in May 2007, when a law was enacted to spell out the procedure for amending the Constitution. While the Public Offices Election Law states that 20 is the legal voting age, the referendum act, which takes effect in 2010, will let citizens 18 or older cast ballots on whether to revise the Constitution.

This is something that most other countries allow but many Diet politicians were unaware of until debate began on the issue.

However, experts say several more matters must be examined before recognizing 18-year-olds as legal adults.

"There is a substantial difference between an 18-year-old and a 20-year-old. The difference can be seen in their ability to make clear judgments as a member of society," said Takashi Muto, a professor at Shiraume Gakuen University who specializes in child studies and developmental psychology.

When the 18-member board of legal experts and educational professionals got together in March to study the issue of adulthood, the notion was raised that if voting rights were to be granted, then everything else ought to be, too, including the right to smoke and drink, and the responsibility to perform one's civic duties.

Lowering the legal age to 18 would likely force changes in a variety of regulations, including those for alcohol consumption, smoking and borrowing money.

It would also strip 18-year-olds of their public anonymity in crime cases by allowing them to be identified by the media.

But one merit of lowering the age of majority, according to Muto, is that it would have the effect of instilling teenagers with a sense of social responsibility.

"But many 18-year-olds do not have sufficient judgment capabilities and are easily swayed by external information," he said.

Muto defined an adult as someone who has "reached puberty, can earn a living and form a household." But this definition is not easy to apply. Children reach puberty at an early age, but many young people put off marriage so they can enjoy single life longer. Then there's the question of adequate paying jobs.

The multiyear span between puberty and family life has made it difficult to determine where to draw the line on legal adulthood, Muto said.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary defines an adult as a "person who is fully grown and developed," Japan's current legal age of 20 is rooted in the Meiji Constitution.

During the Edo Period, a 15-year-old was considered an adult.

Today, Japan remains the only member of the Group of Eight nations whose age of majority is 20. According to data compiled by the Justice Ministry, most U.S. states prohibit smoking and drinking alcohol under the age of 21, but everyone nationwide gets the right to vote at age 18.

Italians are considered legal adults at 18, and are allowed to smoke and drink alcohol at 16. Civil codes in the U.K., France, Canada, Russia and Germany stipulate 18 as adulthood. All 18-year-olds are granted voting rights in those countries.

"Ultimately, I am in favor of bringing down the legal age of adulthood. But it is vital to provide more occasions for people who are 18 years old and younger children to better comprehend society, through means such as volunteer activities or internships. We must prepare the environment for them," Muto said.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, for example, does not want 18-year-olds to be allowed to vote.

At a news conference in February, Ishihara pointed out that parents often have to accompany their 20-year-old offspring to the annual coming-of-age day ceremonies sponsored by local governments to prevent the "new adults" from disrupting the events.

Even 20-year-olds "are essentially not adults," Ishihara said.

Meanwhile, those promoting wider public participation in elections remain neutral on the issue, suggesting a set age should not be the essence of the debate.

"The important issue is not about lowering the age of adulthood or the voting age, but promoting public understanding and participation in politics and social activities," said Takeaki Yamazaki, a representative of Mogisenkyo Suishin Network (Network for Promoting Mock Elections).

The nonprofit organization has worked on enlightenment projects in schools nationwide, holding mock elections for teenagers on school campuses and providing tours of the Diet for high school students.

Asked if he sees himself as a mature adult, Yamazaki, 23, said he is uncertain — even though it has been three years since he came of age.

He said he sees similar anxiety among teenagers during the mock elections. At times they seem incapable of grasping political issues and the candidates' perspectives.

But as national voter turnout remains low, including last year's Upper House election, which had a 58 percent turnout, Yamazaki wonders whether people over 20 have actually performed their civic duty and contributed to society as "adults."

"Surprisingly, voting results of the minors in mock elections are never that far off from the outcome of actual elections," Yamazaki explained. "I don't think this is a question of being old enough or too young. We all need to have a much greater sense of responsibility" as members of society.

The ministry will review the board's opinions and decide if a bill should be submitted to the Diet early next year to amend the Civic Code.

Once the panel acknowledges the need to lower the legal age, the process of amending the Public Offices Election Law will likely start at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

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