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Saturday, April 21, 2012

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Booze talking?: Democratic Party of Japan member Keisuke Tsumura (second from right) mingles with students Wednesday during a "nomikai" event at a pub in Tokyo to counter youth apathy toward politics and boost voter turnout. YOSHIAKI MIURA

Youth, politicos find common ground: beer

Apathetic young, cynical Diet vets try time-honored tactic to build ties


Staff writer

Just as in many other countries, Japan's young voters view politicians as untrustworthy, while lawmakers consider youths completely apathetic and out of touch with the real world — especially when it comes to politics.

To mitigate this deep-rooted mutual distrust and attempt to boost the nation's disappointing voter turnout rate, three lawmakers and around 30 students met up at an "izakaya" (pub) in Tokyo this week for a rare, and at times shockingly blunt and frank, face-to-face talk over a few beers.

The students who took part in Wednesday's "nomikai," or drinking party, in Shibuya were mainly in their early 20s, but most have never had a chance to cast a ballot in a general election as they were too young to vote in the last Lower House vote in 2009.

A lot of the students admitted their interest in politics is marginal at best, and also said they feel afraid to vote because they can't yet grasp how, and to what extent, politics impacts their lives.

But these were by no means the only concerns voiced at the event.

"I feel that I am deprived of opportunities to speak out," said Ken Sugiuchi, 20, who attends International Christian University in Tokyo.

"I vote because that's one of the few occasions I can express my opinions," he said.

Some expressed such deep distrust toward politicians that their views bordered on outright contempt.

But for others, skepticism has resulted in a sense of resignation.

"The lies and mishandling of the nuclear crisis following the (March 2011) disasters left me feeling disgusted with politics and has discouraged me from voting," said Saori Sekiya, a 21-year-old student at Jissen Women's University.

Wednesday's drinking party was the 12th such event hosted by ivote, a student organization, and was attended by Diet members from both the ruling and opposition parties.

The events, which kicked off in 2008, have so far attracted around 450 voters under the age of 30.

Ivote hopes the nomikai will encourage more of the younger generation to engage in politics and turn up at elections, as the voting rate among those aged 20 to 30 is alarmingly low.

In the 2009 general election, voters in this age bracket accounted for only 9 percent of the valid ballots cast, according to data compiled by the Association of Promoting Fair Elections, a group working to promote a fair electoral system and greater voter turnout.

"Our educational system works in such a way that many students are deterred from engaging even slightly in politics. That's why politicians are not listening to us," said Naoko Yasui, vice president of ivote. "We want to be heard."

For lawmakers, many of whom spend the majority of their time talking to elderly voters, their key constituency, the event offered a rare opportunity to get their message across to younger members of the electorate.

"We should address (the huge disparities in) income levels before raising the sales tax," said Yoshiki Yamashita, an Upper House lawmaker from the Japanese Communist Party, referring to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's crusade to double the levy.

Yamashita even brought in display panels he used at a Diet session to illustrate the salary disparities between full-time and contracted workers.

But the lawmakers were frequently caught off guard — and often visibly stunned — by the ferocity and bluntness of the students' criticism and accusations.

"Are there any politicians who truly want to work for the public good, even without a salary?" asked Shusuke Takamiya, 20, from the University of Tokyo.

Chihiro Ishii, a 20-year-old from Meiji Gakuin University, had even harsher words for the Diet members.

"Politicians exploit us by raising taxes while they are getting paid fat salaries," Ishii said, going straight for the jugular.

"Seriously, I will not have any money (to spend after a tax hike)," Ishii warned them.

Some of the lawmakers realized they radically needed to change tack to fend off the barrage of accusations and tried a different strategy.

"Even though we pass about 100 bills a year, I sometimes vote in the Diet without having a full understanding of the legislation, as we all depend on each others' expertise," Keisuke Tsumura, a former Bank of Japan employee who is now a Lower House member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, told them. "For example, I know a lot about the BOJ's policy on how much money to print."

While the participants acknowledged that mingling over drinks for a couple of hours obviously falls far short of creating mutual trust, the event did partially bridge the disconnect between the two groups and slightly shifted mindsets on each side.

By the end of the event, the lawmakers had begun to realize that young voters are, contrary to their previous assumptions, sufficiently informed to confront them about key political issues and not afraid to chastise them over their perceived failings.

The students, meanwhile, were surprised to find the politicians were more open to their suggestions than they thought.

At one point, Yamashita, the JCP lawmaker, sought their advise on the best way to reach out to the younger generation.

"The Internet," several students shouted back.

"How about Twitter? Is that useful?" Yamashita asked.

"Of course," Chuo University student Takuma Matushita, 19, replied. "We don't listen to your stump speeches because we are too busy, but with Twitter, you would be able to interact with us more."

"OK, then I'll give it a go," Yamashita responded.



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