The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

“Silver Democracy” Likely Winner in July Election

June 30, 2016

Although Japan has lowered the voting age in advance of the July 10 House of Councillors election, the participation of younger voters seems unlikely to have much impact on domestic policy under Japan’s “silver democracy.” Katsuyuki Yakushiji takes the Abe cabinet to task for placing short-term electoral gains ahead of the nation’s long-term fiscal and demographic health.

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Japan has lowered the voting age from 20 to 18, bringing it into line with about 90% of the world’s nations. Could this belated electoral reform signal a gradual retreat from shortsighted policies that prioritize the elderly at the expense of those struggling to pay for college or raise young children?

Not likely. In fact, in the run-up to the July 10 House of Councillors election—the first national election in which Japanese teenagers will be able to vote—the government is shamelessly trying to woo elderly voters with benefits and breaks for which younger generations will end up footing the bill.

Pre-Election Pandering

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began preparing for the upper house election on June 1, when he announced his cabinet’s decision to postpone a scheduled increase in the consumption tax rate for two and a half years—from April 2017 to October 2019. This is the second such delay. Under an agreement reached before Abe took office, the consumption tax rate was to rise from 8% to 10% in October 2015 as part of a plan to rehabilitate government finances amid soaring social security costs. In November 2014, however, Abe abruptly announced that he would postpone the tax hike until April 2017.

Abe also used that decision as a pretext for dissolving the House of Representatives and holding a general election—ostensibly to secure a popular mandate for the policy shift. In fact, there was almost no opposition to postponing the tax hike, and the sole purpose of the snap election was to take advantage of the opposition’s disarray and further strengthen the position of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The plan worked, and the LDP won a resounding victory, solidifying its position as a giant among pygmies in Japanese party politics.

Now the tax hike is being put off again, a move that will cost the government some ¥5 trillion a year. Japan’s public debt is the highest in the world at more than ¥1,000 trillion, and social security costs continue to rise. Why, then, does the Abe cabinet persist in putting off the urgent task of fiscal consolidation?

The prime minister insists that his policies to revitalize the economy, known as Abenomics, are working. Yet he is delaying the tax hike for fear of its impact on consumer spending. He has attempted to resolve this contradiction by playing up “concerns about long-term stagnation in global demand.”

He made the case at the Group of Seven summit, which he hosted in May, when calling for a coordinated stimulus, comparing the state of the world economy to the situation on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis. The other G7 leaders were unconvinced. Even so, Abe decided to use the specter of a global recession as a pretext for delaying the tax hike, repeating his dire warnings at his June 1 press conference. The message is that, while his own economic policies are working just fine, the tax increase must be postponed as a preemptive measure to soften the blow of a hypothetical global economic meltdown.

At the same time, the prime minister has insisted that his government will move ahead with plans to shore up the social security system, despite a two-and-a-half year postponement of the tax hike that would have paid for those enhancements. On the eve of a national election, Abe has promised to delay the sort of tax increase that voters dislike while promising the benefits that older voters love (without explaining how the government will finance them). And if that were not enough, in June the government began paying a “temporary welfare benefit” of ¥30,000 to 11 million low-income seniors (65 and over) at a cost of more than ¥300 billion. Such “policies” are nothing more than handouts calculated to appease voters over the short term.

Neglecting Our Young

Of course, something has to give somewhere. To help finance all this largesse, the government has had to delay the institution of a grant-style scholarship program for college students. (The “scholarships” that the government currently provides are actually student loans.) Other policy initiatives targeted to the young are suffering as well.

One of the biggest issues facing younger Japanese citizens today is an acute shortage of daycare facilities in major metropolitan areas. The number of infants and preschool children on daycare center waiting lists around Japan (as of 2015) is over 23,000. The lack of daycare options forces women to choose between motherhood and work. Confronted with a loss of income on top of the financial burden of childrearing, many couples are delaying having children. This is an important factor contributing to Japan’s low fertility rate of 1.46 (2015), which is causing the population to shrink while aging ever more rapidly. To address this demographic crisis, the government needs to mobilize its resources and substantially increase daycare capacity. Yet its response has been infuriatingly slow—particularly by comparison with its policies targeted to the elderly.

Last February, during Diet deliberation on daycare measures, a member of the opposition called attention to an anonymous blog titled “Rejected from Daycare—Die, Japan!” In a passionate if somewhat crudely worded essay, the author of the blog vented her frustration with the daycare situation in a sharp attack on the government. Thanks in part to attention from the mainstream media, the blog attracted a deluge of sympathetic comments, training the spotlight on a problem that has reached crisis proportions. Yet the policy response has been lethargic at best.

Hard figures more clearly reveal the government’s bias in favor of the elderly. In fiscal 2013, social security outlays to support families, including money for daycare and direct childcare allowances, totaled ¥6.1 trillion, while expenditures earmarked for the elderly, such as pension benefits and nursing care, came to almost nine times that, at ¥54.6 trillion (according to figures compiled by the National Institution of Population and Social Security Research). Moreover, while outlays for the elderly keep rising, support for families has been falling.

The Dark Side of “Silver Democracy”

The young do not appear to be a high priority for Japanese politicians, and the reason is simple: As a group, the elderly have a far greater impact on elections. Voters aged 60 and up comprise 53% of the electorate; those 55 and up (including voters nearing retirement age) account for a full 60%. By contrast, voters in their twenties and thirties constitute only about a third of the total. Furthermore, voters 60 and older turn out at a rate of more than 70%, while the turnout for those in their twenties has been less than 40% in recent elections. In a typical national election, voters 50 and older cast almost three times as many ballots as those in their twenties and thirties. The recent revision to the Public Offices Election Law will enfranchise another 2.4 million 18- and 19-year-olds in time for the July 10 House of Councillors election. But given the low turnout among the young, this is unlikely to alter the basic electoral dynamic.

When it comes to campaigning for elections, parties and individual candidates alike have a strong incentive to tailor their policies to the voting blocs with the most power to influence the outcome. In Japan’s rapidly aging society, the upshot is a phenomenon dubbed “silver democracy,” in which the government caters to the demands of the elderly while neglecting the needs of the young.

So it is that the government has fallen into a pattern of pandering to older voters with an eye on the next election instead of coming to grips with such fundamental long-term problems as ballooning public debt and a dwindling population. This pork-barrel strategy has served the Abe administration well thus far. In contrast to the previous six cabinets, this one has maintained an approval rating of at least 40% (despite unpopular policies on defense and nuclear energy)—more than enough to prevail over the fragmented opposition. According to most opinion polls, around 60% of Japanese voters seem to agree with Abe’s decision to postpone the consumption tax increase.

Voters 55 and older—that is, the elderly and those nearing retirement—form the core of Abe’s support. Younger voters have remained diffident. Despite some angry outbursts on the Internet, the vast majority of young people seem passively resigned to a government that is not only ignoring their needs but adding more and more to their burden farther down the road. Unless the younger generation becomes more assertive, it is hard to imagine how Japan can escape the trap of “silver democracy” and begin preparing seriously for the future.

    • Senior Associate, Tokyo Foundation / Professor, Toyo University
    • Katsuyuki Yakushiji
    • Katsuyuki Yakushiji

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