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Low turnout among young voters in Japan may mean the ruling party stays in power

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

When Japan heads to the polls this weekend, the Liberal Democratic Party is expected to hang on to power. It's ruled the country for all but four of the past 66 years. In recent elections, low turnout by young, independent voters has helped. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, the ruling party hopes it stays that way.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Before the last general election in 2017, Japan's government tried to encourage young people to vote by lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. Four years ago, just over half the population turned out to vote. But among 20-somethings, it was only 34%. Yutaro Yamaguchi is a senior at Kyoto Sangyo University in Kyoto, Japan's former capital. He remembers his first trips to the ballot box.

YUTARO YAMAGUCHI: (Through interpreter) The voting age was lowered when we were in high school, and I voted about three times. But that was only because my parents made me do it.

KUHN: His schoolmate, Risa Asonuma, says whether she votes or not may depend on her schedule.

RISA ASONUMA: (Through interpreter) I wish there was a system that allowed us to vote online any time, anywhere during the election period.

KUHN: Professor Ayumu Nakai, head of the Faculty of Law, says he's a bit surprised by his students' apathy.

AYUMU NAKAI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: I want them to understand we are the voters, he says. We should vote to say that those politicians and parties are our servants. Gill Steele, a political scientist at Doshisha University in Kyoto, says apathy is not the youth's fault. Instead, she argues, it's partly the result of a strategy that discourages political participation.

GILL STEELE: The Japanese state has cultivated or even mandated an atmosphere of depoliticization that discourages citizen interest and engagement.

KUHN: It includes jargon-filled political platforms, yawn-inducing political reporting by Japanese media and education which generally discourages political debate and protest. That's too bad, Steele says.

STEELE: There are all sorts of exciting ways to teach politics, even to the youngest children in elementary school, to connect decisions that get made to their own interest. And here it's just not allowed and not considered.

KUHN: Steele admits that there are bright spots and occasional pockets of activism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Your vote is your voice. (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: In this video, Japanese celebrities try to convince young people that voting is cool. Here's actor Ken Watanabe, who starred with Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KUHN: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: When I exercise my right to say what I want to say, I feel refreshed, he says. Many progressive youth, though, find the LDP anything but refreshing. Gill Steel notes that it's against LGBTQ rights, feminism and immigration, and more than 90% of LDP candidates in this election are male.

STEELE: The movement of the country as a whole is being more progressive on social issues. So for the LDP to be clinging onto to these policies is not a good look.

KUHN: Instead, the LDP focuses on bread and butter issues. Those are more important to voters 60 and over, who outnumber the youth. The LDP reminds voters that while the economy isn't booming, stock prices are high and unemployment low. Kyoto Sanyo University student Tatsuya Yamagoshi says he'll be saddled with student loan debt for years, but he's OK with it.

TATSUYA YAMAGOSHI: (Through interpreter) Sometimes I care about politics, but as time goes by, I feel I'm not dissatisfied with my current situation. And then I kind of forget about it.

KUHN: Gill Steele predicts that if the LDP can keep voter turnout around 50%, it should hang onto a comfortable majority in parliament. But an increase in turnout of even a few percentage points, she adds, could put that majority at risk. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMMETT KAI SONG, "SUNDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.