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[Columns]Sovereign Education from Elementary School

 “Sovereign education” (civic and voter education) has been receiving particular attention over the last six months, especially at high schools. This is because of the holding of the first Upper House election this summer since the voting age in Japan was lowered from 20 to 18. Public attention has centered on the voting behavior of 18-year-old high school students. What do they think of the opportunity they now have to become politically involved (new voters: approximately 2.4 million)? I had an opportunity to hear their real opinions after the election. The following provides details of their opinions and my own views.
 
 Voter turnout in the last Upper House election was 39.66 percent for 19 year-olds and 51.17 percent for 18 year-olds, more than 10 points higher (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications survey). Overall turnout stood at 53.01 percent, with the rate still being higher among senior citizens. The figure for 18 year-olds, however, compared well with the 33.37 percent for ages 20–29, 43.78 percent for ages 30–39, and 51.66 percent for those 40–49. This favorable result has been attributed to the media spotlight on voting awareness among high school students, as well as their many opportunities to learn about elections in school sovereign education classes, such as participating in mock voting. On the other hand, the low voter turnout among 19 year olds resulted from the fewer opportunities they had to learn about the significance of elections. In addition, many urban college students from rural areas have kept their registration of residence in their hometowns and did not cast an absentee ballot.
 
 Political issues are also social issues and also should concern 18-19 year-old voters. How deeply have they considered these matters as something that affects their daily lives and how seriously have they thought about political issues before going to a polling station? We cannot easily evaluate the turnout among new voters unless their voting process is examined.
 
 During the past six months I have been involved in some discussion programs on the theme of political participation by teenagers. Above all, the most impressive one was an open workshop at the August annual meeting hosted by the Kyoto Kyoiku Konwakai educational association (Chairman: Atsushi Horiba, Chairman, President and CEO of HORIBA, Ltd.). The main participants in the workshop were about 30 high school students and some junior high school students. To learn the importance of forming an opinion in an election, they held a mock referendum debate over whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union, divided into three groups: Leave, Remain, and Undecided. The adult workshop organizers expected an in-depth discussion among politically- and socially-conscious high school students, but it fell short of expectations. Meanwhile, a lively debate took place in the wrap-up discussion on sovereign education. Opinions expressed there included: “We need to have discussions with politicians in class,” “We have few opportunities to experience civic life at school,” and “Japanese education emphasizes the art of test-taking, as exemplified by English classes that do not enable students to speak English. We cannot cope with globalization under such circumstances.” In summary, they think that developing political awareness is not easy due to the thick wall between their current school life and society.
 
 Then, do college students have less interest in politics? The workshop and group discussions on that day were chaired by 11 students from Doshisha University and Ritsumeikan University. They belong to the non-profit student organization Dot-jp Kyoto branch, which aims to improve voter turnout, by coordinating and offering national and local parliamentary internship programs to college students. The organization (headquarters: Tokyo) has 25 branch offices and approximately 400 student staff. Among others, the Kyoto branch has a remarkable track record, with 92 students working as interns in national or local parliamentary members’ offices this summer.
 
 “I took on the task of coordinating this workshop to help improve the political participation of high school students. To contribute to building a better politics and society through the power of the younger generation, we wish to expand the parliamentary internship program to include high school students,” says Akihiro Sakakibara, the leader of the coordinators (third-year student in Ritsumeikan University), welcoming the political involvement of teenagers. “There is a huge gap between college, politics and society. Institutional reform of college is an urgent necessity in sovereign education,” he adds.
 
 “Sovereign education is a synonym for citizenship education that fosters civil awareness. Therefore, it should start in elementary school,” pointes out Daisuke Hayashi, an assistant professor at Toyo University, who is famous for the mock voting program. I have realized that educational reform to implement such a philosophy is a shortcut to prevent the alienation of young voters. (Tokuo Sato, education journalist)

 
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Vigorous debate
(Open workshop, Kyoto Kyoiku Konwakai)
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Adults join the debate at times.
(Open workshop, Kyoto Kyoiku Konwakai)