Posted inGlobal Affairs

Japan lowers age of adulthood

Overview and background

As of 1 April 2022, the Japanese government has amended Article IV of the Civil Code to change the age of adulthood from 20 to 18. This is the first time that the age of majority has been changed since it was set to 20 in the Meiji Constitution of 1876.

The most significant change is that those who are 18 and over are permitted to form legal contracts where they previously required parental consent. Examples of this include: mobile phone contracts, apartment leases, and obtaining loans and a credit card.

As a result of recent calls to take a stricter stance on juvenile crime, the Juvenile Law was also reformed to include 18 and 19-year-olds as adults under criminal law.

Nor do the effects of the reform stop there. The change in the law allows 18-year-olds to begin sex reassignment surgery, raises the age of marriage of women from 16 to 18 in line with the age set for men, and permits 18 and 19-year-olds to act as ‘lay judges’, who are selected from the general public to rule on criminal cases. In addition, as Japanese law does not recognise dual citizenship, where a citizen holds more than one nationality (such as in the case of having one parent of Japanese nationality and the other of foreign nationality) they must choose to renounce one after they turn 18.

However, citizens must still be 20 in order to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or gamble. Concerns over health and gambling addictions have been cited as reasons for keeping these activities illegal for those under 20.

Why now?

Political and economic reasons have been given for lowering the age of majority. In 2014, the constitutional referendum law was revised, lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. This was in the aim of increasing political awareness and turnout amongst young people.

The age of adulthood was also lowered in order to promote economic growth. Japanese high school students typically graduate at age 18, and this change enables those who begin working immediately to sign formal contracts without parental permission. As Japan faces an ageing population, it was hoped that greater economic independence for young people would help to increase the labour force. 

Political implications

Will the change to the age of adulthood in Japan change the face of Japanese politics? So far, it appears unlikely. In spite of the voting age being lowered to 18 in 2014, there have not been any noticeable effects in the most recent elections.

In the 2021 general election, the overall turnout was 56%, comparable to previous years. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled almost continuously since 1953, again won a large majority on the back of votes from the elderly. Young people in urban areas remain apathetic about voting and have limited knowledge of politics. Following the election, the Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, Matsuno Hirokazu stated that efforts still need to be made to increase turnout, in particular amongst the youth. This would involve political education in schools, and politicians making a greater effort to appeal to younger voters.

Institutional factors also contribute to voter apathy. Japan used the single non-transferable vote (SNTV) until 1994, a plurality system in which a voter casts one vote in a multi-member district. This led to competition between politicians within the same party, who ran their campaigns based on their personality rather than on a party platform, and provided an incentive for politicians to establish patron-client networks with particular industries or geographic regions. Under clientelist party systems, the voter trades their vote in return for private goods, such as a job, education or housing, or distributive goods, such as financial support for businesses.

Clientelism is more prominent in rural areas. The small and close-knit communities in rural areas enable local politicians to know constituents personally and monitor voting behaviour. Not unlike the ‘pork barrel’ politics in America, Japanese politicians provide financial support to farmers, and commission new infrastructure in rural areas to encourage citizens to continue voting for the incumbent. Indeed, in comparison to American politics, the Japanese system has been described as an ‘industrial hog farm’.  There is little incentive for voters to switch parties under this arrangement, or for politicians to appeal to younger voters.

Voting districts also give greater voting power to rural areas. While the issue of unequal voting districts is not unique to Japan, it further entrenches the power of the LDP. As the population of urban areas increases while rural areas face population decline, each vote carries greater weight in a rural district. The low engagement with politics amongst urban youth may therefore be a rational response to institutional arrangements. 

While it is certainly possible that Japanese citizens do not vote because they are happy with the status quo, if the aim of lowering the voting age was to increase the political voice of young people, it is unlikely that this will be achieved without changes to the political system and education. Overall, this suggests that lowering the age of adulthood will not have any significant political implications, as alone it does not affect the institutional structures which maintain current party politics. 

Economic implications

Similarly, it is unlikely that lowering the voting age alone will tackle the economic repercussions of an ageing society.

Japan has an ageing population due to high life expectancy and low birth rates.

As of 2019, the life expectancy for women was 87.5 years and 81.4 years for men. For comparison, in the UK the female life expectancy is 82.9 years and the male equivalent  is 79.0 years. At the same time, Japan faces a declining birth rate, which increases the dependency ratio of younger to older citizens. While many developed countries face an ageing population, the issue is particularly acute in Japan, where over-65s make up approximately one third of the population.

An ageing population decreases the proportion of economically productive citizens while putting strain on state pensions and health services. As the age of retirement is 60 for most companies in Japan, many senior citizens are not contributing to the economy. 

The causes of the declining birth rate appear to be linked to socioeconomic factors. A greater proportion of citizens are remaining unmarried, marrying later or choosing to have fewer children. This may be due to gender inequality, the insufficiency of childcare provision, and the lack of family-friendly workplace policies.

An IMF report from 2020 suggests that structural change is needed to tackle the effect of the ageing population, such as labour-market reform. The labour force could be increased by encouraging more women to join the workforce, such as by addressing the pay gap and increasing the provision of childcare. Japan has been making changes in recent years in an effort to combat this. During his time in office, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo sought to increase female labour participation, yet Japan’s record on gender equality remains poor relative to other OECD countries. Increasing the number of older workers and foreign workers are also recommended policies by the IMF, however, Japan has been reluctant to increase the number of immigrants.  

In terms of increasing the fertility rate, IVF treatment has recently received greater coverage under national health insurance following pledges by the previous Prime Minister, Suga Yoshihide. While this provides greater support for couples undergoing IVF, this policy has also been criticised for not tackling the underlying economic strains of having a child in Japan.

Lowering the age of adulthood provides greater economic freedom to younger people, but it cannot address the institutional structures, economic insecurity, and cultural attitudes contributing to the ageing population. 

What next?

Young adults in Japan now have greater economic freedom, with the accompanying expectation that they will be held accountable for their actions. It was hoped that the reform would create economically and politically aware young adults who are better equipped to enter Japanese society.

Seen through the current political economy of Japan, it appears unlikely that this change will alter Japanese politics or revitalise the economy. While it can be tempting to then ascribe normative value to this change, lowering the voting age is not an inherently positive or negative development. It is certainly a landmark change to Japanese legislation, yet the perception of its significance is relative to current politics. How it will be reinterpreted by future generations as it is written into a longer narrative of Japanese history remains to be seen.