Examining Japanese youth’s perception of political citizenship

What is my normative role in democracy?

Jun Tsukada, Graduate School of Information Science, Tohoku University [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 3 (Article 13 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 13 December 2015.


Political apathy among the Japanese youth today has reached unprecedented levels. There is an ongoing debate over what is causing this political indifference, but it is rarely approached from a political citizenship viewpoint. This article focuses on how the youth perceive their normative role as political citizens in Japanese democracy, and examines how that perception, as a political citizen, plays into their attitude and action/inaction toward politics. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 41 university students, across 5 regions in Japan, currently active in volunteer organisations. It was found that, while most students were not apathetic toward society or politics as is often suggested, they fail to locate themselves in the making phases of politics, and instead voluntarily designate their role in the aftermath evaluation of already established politics. This version of political citizenship, explicitly and implicitly embraced by many students, was seen to displace themselves as relevant players in the political arena, inducing a perception of politics as something done by ‘them’ and not ‘us’. This conception of political citizenship was seen to foster political detachment, low political efficacy and to be sustained by the political news format of the mainstream media.

Keywords: youth, Japan, political detachment, political citizenship, democracy.

Political apathy in Japan

Similar to other western democracies around the world (Banaji & Buckingham 2010; Dahlgren 2007), Japanese democracy, too, appears to be facing the problem of political apathy, particularly noticeable among the youth. In 2014, national elections set to appoint members of the House of Representatives showed a turnout rate of 52.66%, where the youth in their 20s showed a turnout rate of 32.58% (Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 2014). Both figures had surpassed the all-time low, demonstrating the widespread indifference toward politics in Japan. This trait can be noticed in local elections as well, where elections appointing the Tokyo Governor showed a turnout rate of 46.14%, whereas the rate for youth aged in their 20s was 27.92% (Tokyo Metropolitan Office 2014).

Are Japanese citizens simply not interested or enthusiastic about society and/or politics? That may not necessarily be the case. For instance, in a national poll conducted in 2011, 83.3% of citizens answered they are interested or very interested in politics (K. Takahashi & Murata 2011). In other recent polls, 69.6% answered that they possess a right to disobey when they feel that their government is doing something wrong (Kobayashi 2015), and 73.6% of people answered that they want to do something to better the country (NHK 2013).

Such attitudes can be observed among the youth cohort as well. According to an international poll conducted by the Cabinet office of Japan in 2009 (Cabinet Office, Government of Japan 2009), 58% of Japanese youth aged between 18-24 years of age, scored the highest in an interest toward politics among the tested countries (South Korea 49.7%, U.S.A 54.5%, U.K 33.2%, France 42.6%). In further comparative polls, when youth aged 13-29 years of age were asked whether ‘children’s and young people’s opinions should be listened to in regard to public policy and programs for children and young people’, 67.7% answered ‘yes’ (Cabinet Office, Government of Japan 2013). Although Japan’s figure was the lowest score among the involved countries (US 72.7%, UK 73.3%, South Korea 77.1%, Germany 79.2%, France 70.9%, Sweden 77.0%) it does not at all suggest that the youth are entirely apathetic towards politics and/or society.

We are then left with a paradox—a symptom seen throughout many established democracies of a seemingly motivated, but a politically detached, citizenry (Amnå & Ekman 2013; Bennett 2009). What is behind this paradox in the Japanese context, particularly among the youth? This is the background in which this article was formulated.

This article approaches this question from a political citizenship point of view. It examines how students see themselves as political agents in a democracy, and how their perception of, and identity as a political citizen contributes (or not) to the aforementioned political detachment. To contextualise this matter, 41 student volunteers across Japan were interviewed. What was found in the course of this study was that, while students do show an interest, and have made various commitments and/or sacrifices to better society, they were not able to identify or articulate their normative role as a political agent in a democracy. There was a critical lack of a political foundation, which seems to have lead the students in feeling a strong sense of ‘unpreparedness’ or ‘uncertainty’, which would in many instances, contribute in terminating their initial motive toward political matters. This article focuses on the process of this termination, and tries to highlight the reasoning and dilemma that the youth face when confronted by politics, from a political citizenship viewpoint.

Political Citizenship

Just as democracy remains a contested concept, not susceptible to a single interpretation, citizenship and what it entails also remain a disputed subject (Carr 1991; Qualifications and Curriculum Authority 1998; Hindess 2002; NCCR National Centre of Competence in Research 2011; Stevenson 2003), seen to ‘vary in accordance to the political, economic and cultural physiognomy of the social formations’ (Intzidis & Karantzola 2008, p. 7). Citizenship has traditionally been defined and discussed within a single nation state. But, fairly recent developments (i.e. European Union) further deepen and expand the discussion and definition of citizenship (Byrne 2012; Delanty 1997; Isin & Turner 2007; Turner 1997) leading to debates, as Delanty discusses, regarding ‘trans-national, supra national and post-national’ modes of citizenship (Delanty 1997, p. 287).

Within a single nation state, citizenship was seen to entail aspects such as‘national identity, legal or social entitlement, obligations such as military service’ (Torney-Purta et al. 2001, p. 77). Marshall distinguished features of citizenship within a nation state as the civic, social and political dimensions of citizenship (Marshall 1950). It is not the intent here to provide an extensive overview of the dynamic nature of citizenship. Rather, of the many factions that citizenship encompasses, this article will focus particularly on the political dimension of citizenship.

According to UNESCO, the political feature of citizenship entails ‘the status of having the right to participate in and to be represented in politics. It is a collection of rights and obligations that give individuals a formal juridical identity’ (UNESCO 2015). Similarly, Crick notes political citizenship as ‘involvement in public affairs by those who had the rights of citizens: to take part in public debate and, directly or indirectly, in shaping the laws and decisions of a state’ (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority 1998, p. 9) .

Figure 1.

Tsukada, Figure 1

From Banks 2008, p. 137.

As can be seen in Figure 1, Political citizenship is not only about a legal status, right or obligation, but also symbolises the right to participate and be represented in politics as ‘political actors’ (Stewart 1995, p. 65). What “kind” of political actor we are socialised to become can naturally shape how we perceive ourselves in the political domain, influencing our actions, decisions and potential impact in society. Such qualities can usually be acquired through citizenship education, which can also be described as a political socialisation process (Lasswell 1951; Merelman 1969; Verba & Almond 1963). Citizenship education, for instance in the UK context, seeks to nurture citizens with: 1. Knowledge and understanding about becoming informed citizens; 2. Developing skills of enquiry and communication; 3. Developing skills of participation and responsible action (UK parliament 2007), enabling them to make proper ‘public judgements’ (Yankelovich 1991, p. 6). They also see that equipping citizens (students) with a theoretical foundation is not enough, and emphasise that a desirable outcome ‘can be developed and applied only through active participation’, hence emphasising the importance of connecting theory and practice to nurture a politically competent citizen (UK parliament 2007). Such institutional training, accompanied by other societal factors such as family environment, and family conversations (Ekstrom & Ostman 2013) are seen to facilitate the political foundation of citizens (students) which can be seen later to affect their functionality as political agents.

Political Citizenship in Japan

Japanese democracy and its constitution, now almost 70 years old, were facilitated by the occupying powers (GHQ/SCAP) after World War II. The new constitution, promulgated in November 3, 1946 and implemented in May 3, 1947, grants citizens of Japan sovereignty over its societal affairs, signifying a fundamental departure from the Meiji constitution, where the emperor was designated as the supreme figure. The current constitution formally safeguards basic human rights, voting rights, freedom of speech among other privileges which had never existed in Japanese society prior to WWII. According to international barometers such as Freedom House (Freedom House 2015) and the Economic Intelligence Unit (Economist Intelligence Unit 2015), Japan has been recognised as a functioning democracy, seen to uphold formal democratic principles.

As mentioned, Japanese democracy was not a result of civic struggles in which the quality of democracy had been repeatedly substantiated from the bottom up (Davies et al. 2013; Hasegawa 2004; Massey 1976). Rather, the current framework of Japanese democracy is a political system which was introduced and implemented by and during an external occupation approximately 70 years ago (Dower 2000). Therefore, it is thought that the concept of political citizenship and popular sovereignty had little or no root in Japanese society at the time of implementation (Watanabe 1991) and thus would have required cultivation, especially so if the objective of the SCAP/GHQ was to substantiate a ‘thick’ democracy (Barber 2003).

Substantiating democratic citizenship from the bottom up was in fact a priority set forth by the occupying powers. It was seen that the initiation of this agenda was essential, not just to develop Japanese democracy, but also to prevent the remilitarisation and re-emergence of the Japanese empire (Anon 1945; Watanabe 1991). Therefore, one of GHQ’s primary initiatives was to democratise a then centralised educational system, by facilitating an independent educational committee (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology—Japan 1946), as well as to introduce a citizenship education curriculum to nurture a cohort of youth who could then later on function as active political citizens in Japanese democracy (Ohmomo 2009).

But despite this initial plan, the democratisation of the education system appeared to have never been firmly institutionalised in post war Japan. The turning point was seen to be the ‘reverse course’ of occupational policies, where GHQ reversed its initial democratisation objective (Yanaihara 1960, p. 379), prioritising ‘economic rehabilitation’ and support for ‘Japanese conservatives’ (Pempel 1987, p. 168). As a result of this shift, the educational committee was eventually abolished in 1956 (Okamura 2006, p. 186), essentially reinstating a centralised educational platform. This pause had left the development of an educational curriculum, aimed specifically to provide a political literacy education, underdeveloped or undeveloped (Kameyama 2009; Watanabe 1991). While Japanese students do get a particular form of civic education, Kameyama explains that,

‘Despite Japanese educational law stating the need to endorse a ‘public’ mindset, there are no political literacy programs in Japan that follow up on it’ (Parmenter et al. 2008)…. Students are taught about the basic facts about democracy and social rules but are not required to take part in rule/policy making. There may be some attempts to teach aspects related to democracy but they are vague and lack practicality. Students are taught to ‘obey rules’ but are not taught how to make them. In other words, they are not taught the broader meaning of political skills’ (Kameyama 2009, p. 101)

Therefore the political socialisation process which is seen as essential for establishing and nurturing political citizenship (Hyman 1959; Lasswell 1951; Verba & Almond 1963), especially so for a society that had never operated under popular sovereignty, is seen to have been poorly institutionalised in post war Japan (Hashimoto 2013; Kameyama 2009; S. Takahashi 2014) .

Due to this historical context, not only is it difficult to comprehend the historical development of political citizenship in postwar Japan, but also this situation may have led to the dismissal of incorporating political citizenship as a symptom and/or a solution to various political issues (i.e. political apathy). Common surveys that ask whether a citizen has taken part in some kind of political participation (i.e. signing petitions, participating in demonstrations), do offer valuable insight into ‘what’ citizens have done or have not done with regard to politics. But such quantitative data often fail to encapsulate the concepts, consciousness and normative values associated with political citizenship that may also be an intervening factor with regard to political action/inaction.

Interviews for this project were conducted to supplement this point. The objective was to grasp the orientation the youth (students) have toward politics, as well as their perceived functionality as political agents in a democracy, and see how it is utilised in their political situations. This is a narrative similar to what Richardson theorises as ‘Involvement Attitudes’.

Involvement attitudes are essentially mental states or orientations reflecting the importance of politics to the individual or the individual’s relationship to politics as a general object. Included within this category are voter’s feelings about the relevance of politics, their manifest knowledge of public affairs, and there self-assessment of the degree to which politics is an object of personal interest or concern. Involvement attitudes also encompass feeling about the degree to which politics is a relevant instrumental activity, or a process whereby representation of the needs and wants of individual voters, communities and groups is sought (Richardson 1975, p. 31).

While depicting political citizenship, this article’s final objective is to examine how that political consciousness can (or can not) be related to the aforementioned political apathy. In other words, it examines how this political attitude in turn influences the attitudes and/or decisions (i.e. voting) that students make toward political matters. These sets of interests have formulated the research questions and subsequent interview format.

RQ#1: What is the perceived normative role among the youth, as a political agent in a democracy?

RQ#2: How can that consciousness be relatedto their decision making toward political action and/or inaction?


General Framework

41 university students, residing in 10 volunteer organisations across 5 regions of Japan, were interviewed for this study. All of the organisations were contacted directly, emails sent to their public contact usually directed to the chair-person or representative. The subjects of the interview were university students who are currently members of volunteer organisations. Table 1 indicates the basic description of the organisations interviewed for this study.

Table 1

Region Organisation name Activity context Students interviewed
1 A Environmental protection, Disaster response/recovery, Community activities, International relief activities 6
1 B Disaster response/recovery, Community activities 5
1 C International relief activities 4
1 D Environmental protection, Disaster response/recovery, Community activities 5
2 E Disaster response/recovery, Community activities 3
3 F Disaster response/recovery 5
4 G Community activities 3
4 H Community activities, International relief activities, Environmental protection 4
4 I Community activities, International activities 3
5 J Community activities 3
41 (total)

Why volunteer students?

According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan, the number of NPOs in Japan has continued to increase ever since the enactment of an NPO law in 1998 (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan 2009). Correspondingly, the number of volunteer students has also increased (Shakai Fukushi Houjin—Zenkoku Shakai Fukushi Kyougikai 2010), which was prominently displayed in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Numerous student volunteers from all across Japan supported the reconstruction process, as well as providing relief to the victims who had, and are continuing to endure, distress in varying conditions.

While volunteering has been gaining prominence as a feature of Japanese society, such action still seems an uncommon act (Kobayashi 2015; K. Takahashi & Murata 2011) where, for instance, only 6-9% of people have been willing to engage in volunteering for the 30 years from 1973 to 2013 (NHK 2013). In the same survey conducted by NHK, 54-71% of people answered they did ‘nothing’, when asked what means of informal politics (petitioning, attending meetings, contacting local officials and media, participating in demonstrations, etc) they undertook. This observable hesitance toward societal action is precisely the reason volunteer students were employed for this study.

These groups of students, who willingly take part in volunteering, can be thought to possess a degree of interest or concern toward society, and have displayed that commitment through their voluntary actions (this presupposition has later been verified throughout the interview sessions). The sense of being a member of such organisations may also reinforce such motives, helping them overcome the initial hesitance toward societal actions, as well as to cope with the various hardships that they may encounter. If we are aiming to locate a group of youth who are socially and politically conscious and active, it was thought to be among such cohort. Concurrently, if political citizenship does not exist among this particular group, then that may appeal us to hypothesise the conditionality of students who do not participate in such activities.

Another reason for focusing on volunteering students was that many of the activities where students were deployed (i.e. reconstruction, depopulated villages, environmental issues, etc), are often situations where the matter can be associated to local and/or national politics. Due to this context, it was presumed that the students would, perhaps inevitably, have firsthand connection or experience with political matters. This was also a reason why student volunteers were considered to be a favourable group to examine how politics is thought of and utilised in their daily lives.

Finally, the reason why interviews were conducted across multiple locations/organisations across Japan was to understand whether there were variations over the conception of political citizenship across multiple regions. To substantiate this point, interviews were carried out across five regions/volunteer organisations in Japan; namely in Hokakido, Tohoku, Hokuriku, and the Kanto and Kansai areas.

Interview setting

All interviews (except on 1 occasion) were conducted 1:1 under a semi-structured format by the author. Commonplace settings were university cafeterias, libraries, and open classrooms among other semi-private settings. The interview duration was approximately 30-60 minutes. All interviews were recorded in digital audio file format and later formulated into minute transcripts.

The interview was designed around several core questions listed below. The interview session would typically start off by asking the volunteer students to explain their motives, goals, and dilemmas during their time participating in volunteering activities. The interviews would then be steered into connecting the experience of volunteering with politics and its role/function in their activities. The discussion would then be directed toward general political matters, and would examine their consciousness and orientation as political agents in a democracy. Below are some of the core questions related to citizenship and politics which were posed to the students during the interviews. The following sections have been designed around these questions.

  1. Motivation, goals and dilemmas when participating in volunteering activities
  2. What is your impression when you think of politics?
  3. What do you feel is your normative role in Japanese democracy? (political citizenship)
  4. What do you feel is the normative role that is expected of you by society/Japanese democracy?
  5. What are some of the thought processes and/or logic when you decide to detach yourself from politics?


General comments

Turning to the results, it should be noted from the outset that there were difficulties in conducting the interviews for this study. Problems typically arose when questioning the students’ perception of political citizenship and/or their perceived normative role as a political agent in a democracy. Students seemed to be highly accustomed to the role as a ‘recipient’ of politics and political services. Requesting them to elaborate their identity or function as a normative political agent appeared to be an uneasy task for many. The very objective of the interview was for the students to outline this normative connection and association toward politics and democracy. Therefore, the interviews would often require a preparatory briefing to outline the concept of political citizenship in the framework of democracy. Only then would the interview be able to proceed. The quotes from students throughout this article have derived from such conditionality, and should be taken into account when viewing the proceeding results and analysis.

Motivation toward volunteering

The interview started off by asking the students to describe their experience and motives toward volunteering. While some had extensive volunteering experience (i.e., the student’s parents were board members of an NPO; they had established a volunteer circle during high school; and so on), the majority of students had little or no experience.

A commonly-expressed motivator that lead students to becoming volunteers was the Tohoku region’s magnitude-9.0 earthquake, subsequent tsunamis, and the nuclear catastrophe of March 11th, 2011 (abbreviated as 311 hereafter). The shocking images that were displayed in the aftermath of 311, as well as the unknown and unpredictable situation of the nuclear meltdowns of Fukushima, left a powerful impact on the students’ psyche, many of whom were then attending high school.

I didn’t know what to do, but I felt I needed to do something (Organisation B)

Such remarks were routinely made throughout the interview session. This sentiment would serve as a pretext for many of the students later to join volunteer organisations at their enrolled universities. This pattern was especially noticeable for students who could not do that ‘something’ in the immediate aftermath of 311, due to preparation for university exams or other financial and/or geographic restrictions. Generally, as was predicted, it can be said that students interviewed for this study, who are currently members of, and participate in, volunteering activities, show a noticeable concern and an enthusiastic attitude toward people and society. The proceeding questions have focused on how this passion toward the world is successfully or unsuccessfully channeled toward politics.

Impression toward politics

My impression when hearing the term politics is surrounded by a very strong negative vibe. That’s the feeling I have when I hear the word politics. (Organisation B)

When I watch TV, I see some older people intensely arguing over something. In a way, I can see it as a form of bullying. And I think to myself, these are our representatives right…? I don’t know even what they are talking about, and that makes me not want to have anything to do with them. What an ugly world… is the impression I get (Organisation I)

Complex. They talk about so many rigid and complex things. When I watch the politicians falling asleep during sessions, and them being caught in money scandals, I feel like… whatever. But at the same time, I still feel that I should go and vote (Organisation I)

Difficult. When I hear the word politics, that word drags me down from the fun world I live in because of its dark and negative image (Organisation J)

As a startup question, the interviewer asked the students their general impression toward politics. What was commonly shared was that nearly all, except a few students, objectified politics in a negative manner. The comments above are mere examples among many, where students expressed the negativity they possessed toward conventional politics.

Then there were the students that were detached from the very idea of politics. Students here would not show overt negativity or repulsion, but simply expressed their indifference.

Our organisation has many people from social science departments. Sometimes I hear people talking about society, and I’m like “wow”, they are actually thinking about it. Im just completely detached. (Organisation A)

Well, I’m just not interested. Which is why I don’t think about it that much. Its something really far away (unrelated to myself). (Organisation F)

The indifference was seen to be caused by a combination of factors (distrust, complexity, no interest, low political efficacy) which will be further explored in the following sections. But it can be observed that it was partly due to the hesitance toward engaging in something that will naturally create disagreement and conflict. A conditionality which is not always welcomed in Japan (Feldman 1999). For such, among other reasons, politics was rarely seen in a favourable light. An exceptional response to this question, which did not seem to fit either as negative or indifferent, was this following response:

Politics to me is about negotiations. It can be between a country and country, municipal to municipal, or a municipal to state matter. (Organisation D).

This male student consciously and willingly detaches himself from the political arena, but not due to a negative rationale. Rather, this response stems from the idea that politics is something that the politicians and/or government does among themselves. According to this logic, his lack of participation in politics did not seem as a problem in itself, and hence the indifference and lack of emotional negativity.

Student’s perception as a political citizen (Research Question #1)

I really never thought of myself as a political actor. That’s probably why I can’t give you an answer (Organisation B)

None that I can think of (Organisation H)

With regard to my normative role as a political agent, I believe that I have never been expected to do or be anything (Organisation J)

Turning to RQ#1, here the author asked how the students viewed themselves as political citizens, as well as their orientation toward, and perceived relevance in, the political arena. Unlike the previous question which was a matter of impression, this question required a degree of political articulation. Voting, which has just recently been lowered to 18 years of age (Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 2015), was something that many respondents, leaving aside whether they voted or not, felt as a political obligation. Voting as a technicality was not at all a confusion. But, typified by the responses above, having them explain, in their own words, the normative values associated to their action/function as political agents, seemed a perplexing task. For instance, when asked to elaborate the normative values and expectations that underlie voting (i.e. why it’s important to vote), students would very often sustain a not-so-momentary pause, in which the author would eventually need to intervene.

In order systematically to observe the responses that were given, the replies were categorised in three levels. The level would increase corresponding to their perceived degree of normative expectation by themselves, or by the state/society.

Level 0 indicates the perception among students for those who do not self-appoint any normative role as a political citizen, and is similarly not expected such functionality by society as well. Twenty out of forty-one students were categorised in this group. Those who could not deliver any answer would also fall into this category.

I think with society, its more of just kind of like drowning yourself into TV, keep watching the same sitcoms and the same jokes, and buy the things that they are wearing. I feel it doesn’t ask much of you, which is the scary part of society (Organisation C)

I don’t think there is much expected of me. If there is something, it would probably be for me to function as an approver or a supporter of whatever political agenda that they (politicians and/or national government) want to implement (Organisation E)

If there is something expected of me, it would probably be a “good” citizen existing among/together with the mass (Organisation F)

Level 1, which was the majority group (21 out of 41), applied for those who acknowledge some kind of normative role put upon by either themselves or society. As mentioned earlier, many students recognised the duty to vote, and hence would fit within this categorisation. But again, voting was more of a technicality, rather than an act stemming from a normative underpinning.

It is stated in the constitution that we have the right to vote… so I guess there is some kind of expectation for me as a citizen, but what, I don’t know… (Organisation D)

All I have heard was to go vote (Organisation B)

It was clear that for many, the act of voting was not accompanied by a normative drive. Rather students would often claim that they went to vote, despite not knowing why they should go, or under what criteria they should select a particular candidate. Despite acknowledging that voting in ignorance may be unwanted or inappropriate (Lister et al. 2005, p. 45), many students nevertheless went ahead to the ballot boxes to cast their vote.

The final level, a level 3 response, applies to those who recognise themselves as having, or are expected by society to perform, an explicit normative role as a political citizen. To be categorised in this division, he/she would need to elaborate his or her self-perceived role as a political citizen, as well as to describe some form of political action which would accompany that perception. None of the respondents interviewed for this study were categorised in this group.

There was one instance in which a student from Organisation J responded, identifying a relatively active role within society. Though he could not substantiate or associate his remark to his conception as a political citizen, it was still an unusual attitude among the subjects interviewed for this study.

Change something. What to change is probably society itself. I do feel that society expects me to ‘fit’ among everyone else, but at the same time, I feel that I am expected to change society for the better, and need to change it (Organisation J)

Other cases

What can be seen throughout the interview was, as explained earlier, the difficulty or confusion in imaging oneself as an actor or initiator, instead of a recipient of politics. This symptom may derive from various reasons, such as the youth being accustomed to identifying themselves as ‘consumers’ (Stevenson 2003, p. 127) in society over their identity as political citizens. In any case, placing themselves not at the receiving end, but at the centre stage of politics and democracy, and appointing or imagining a normative role within that dynamic, seemed to be a puzzling assignment for many.

While there was a clear absence of political citizenship in the daily psyche of the students, several interesting observations could be made with regard to their perceived normative role in a democracy. While students were not at all clear over what they should do, or what society (or politics) expects them to do, the message the students commonly see conveyed from society was what ‘not’ to do.

If you are a Japanese, act like one, and live like one. I think there is that underlying atmosphere or pressure in our society (Organisation C)

What is expected of me, I feel is not about what we are to do, but rather I feel that the message is to “not” do certain things, such as causing trouble in public (Organisation E)

In Japan, the feeling I get, is what the majority says is correct, and what the minority says should be eliminated. That’s the message I get (Organisation F)

I never really thought about that. Most of the time, I don’t think there is any expectation toward me, but when something happens, you get a lot of attention. For instance, if you commit a crime, you get enormous attention, and all the focus is on the individual. So, when thinking from a society perspective, I feel that what society expects from me, is not to do certain things (Organisation G)

This viewpoint can be seen as related to the notion of being a ‘good citizen’ mentioned earlier (Level 0 response). The notion of obedience, or respecting the consent of the majority, whether it be within or beyond the political domain, was seen as a strong variable that entered into the psyche of the students. This viewpoint was reiterated in different forms, such as a ‘Jyoushiki no aru hito’ or a person with common sense in Japanese (Organisation B).

Perhaps the most noticeable narrative or logic shared by many students, which was not always overtly expressed but was an identifiable concept embedded in their answers, was that their role as a political agent, if existent, was called for in the aftermath of political matters. Though some, such as the student below, recognise this as a problematic situation, the majority of students accepted this political dynamic as normal.

I don’t really know what is going on. They do what they want, decide how they want, and the media broadcast the results. They say democracy but their version of democracy is without the citizens. That’s the impression I have (Organisation D)

For the majority of students, their role in this ‘aftermath politics’ was mainly to evaluate and understand the political situation that was ‘already’ decided, instead of imagining to incorporate oneself in the making phase of politics.

If it’s decided, then it’s decided. That’s how I feel what politics is (Organisation C)

When viewed from this political horizon, the means by which they can meaningfully and influentially participate as political agents appear limited, compared to the potential of engaging in politics from the policy making phases (i.e. participatory budgeting). This attitude was particularly puzzling due to the consistent traits seen in opinion polls. When asked whether they thought it was appropriate to leave political matters entirely in the hands of politicians and experts, 86.5% of citizens answered “no” (K. Takahashi & Murata 2011). Yet the idea of engaging in a more influential phase of politics appears to be something distant, at least for the students observed in this study.

Reasons for political detachment

I feel I can’t do anything. I know I can, but I naturally think I can’t do anything (Organisation H)

Politics is supposed to be present in our daily lives, but I don’t think any of us (youth) feel any connection whatsoever to politics. So, in that sense, politics for me is very distant, and is also why I feel powerless when it comes to changing politics or society. Also, watching the news, I unconsciously feel its a fixed race and things are already in place, which is another reason that makes me apathetic (Organisation J)

The final question focuses on the context and reasoning of political detachment. Here the students were asked the reasons why and how they chose to terminate their initial incentive toward politics. Similar to the previous question, this again required some degree of articulation. The responses have been categorised into 3 types and will be articulated accordingly.

Connection toward politics unclear

One of the prominent reason for the students to terminate their political incentives was the uncertainty in establishing a connection with or toward politics. The respondents, though showing a degree of motive or concern toward society, appear to be trapped, not knowing what to do. While many saw voting as the only avenue to exert such incentives, they did not see it as a meaningful or effective channel, and most certainly not as a solution.

I am interested, but I lack the knowledge. It’s not that I don’t have opinions but don’t have much opportunity to discuss/develop it (Organisation E)

It’s not that I’m indifferent toward politics, but rather at a loss not knowing how to interact with it. How am I supposed to interact with something that I have no idea how to connect to. I often hear people say that we (youth) should engage with politics. Again, how are we supposed to connect to politics if we don’t know how? (Organisation F)

Like even right now (during the interview), I am supposed to have some kind of connection to politics. But all I can imagine when I think of the connection I have toward politics is to vote. So most of the time, when I am living my life, I rarely if ever feel that I have some kind of connection toward politics. For me, acknowledging this situation is probably the biggest reason why I feel detached from politics (Organisation J)

Other responses, struggling to find a means to connect to politics was seen by a student from Organisation B. When asked what options he had as a citizen to connect to politics, the only means he could think of was to become part of the political establishment.

I don’t think I can become a legislator. In other words I can’t become a politician. So if I am to initiate politics as a citizen, I would choose to work in the local municipality. Meaning, to become a civil servant. But if I do become a civil servant, that means that I become a public individual, which would limit what I can do… But because as a civil servant, I can interact with the community and politics, I think I can do something as a citizen… (Organisation B)

Another typical response or idea in how to connect to politics was, as expressed above, for themselves to become a politician. There appears to be a fundamental leap, from being a citizen to an elected politician, failing to foresee what he/she can do as an individual political citizen in between. This shows just how narrow the ‘door’ to politics appears for the students, seeing no other meaningful channel to exert their political interests and/or motives.

Another potential factor why students fail to embark on alternative means of politics, terminating their incentives, is because of their negative perception toward informal politics, most notably toward demonstrations.

All I can imagine are those protesting in Hong Kong. Those types. Also the people at my university (students were protesting with megaphones in front of campus). How I imagine political participation is ‘that’. That’s why how I connect to politics is narrowed to voting, I guess (Organisation A)

If I were only watching TV or reading newspapers, I probably would not have participated in demonstrations. Because the impression I get from these sources is very radical. What made me go was because I listened to the radio… I then realised that normal people go to demonstrations too, and made me less afraid of participating. But if I were viewing only the mainstream media, I doubt I would have gone at all (Organisation B)

While the majority of students replied that voting is not a sufficient method efficiently to channel their socio-political incentives toward society, at the same time they fail to find alternative means of politics. A political avenue which they can utilise for their purposes and objectives seemed to be absent from their political horizon; thus, as many have done, they decide to detach themselves from politics, choosing silence as their conclusive form of action.

Low Political Efficacy

Here the reason behind political termination stems from a more realistic approach. For many, the amount of time and effort devoted to politics appeared to be highly uneven when thinking of the potential and/or likely output. In other words, politics for them seemed to be a low level of political efficacy. For instance, a student from Organisation B explained how empowering it felt when he was among the thousands of protesters demanding the halt of the State Secrecy Bill (BBC Asia 2013). But after their demands were not met, he explained how hopeless he felt, and that ordinary people like him did not matter at all.

When I participated in demonstrations, though I am a bit embarrassed to say this, I felt something would change. Especially when we demonstrated against the State Secrecy Bill, I really thought that something would change and we would have some kind of effect. But in the end, nothing happened. The politicians, centred around Prime Minister Abe, had no interest in what we were saying. I really felt hopeless and powerless at that time (Organisation B)

I sense that politics is a fixed race. It’s predictable. I feel it is natural for me to disassociate myself from politics. For instance I would watch people go on demonstrations, and think ‘nothing is going to change, but despite that all of you try so hard’… and watching them as an observer (Organisation J)

Many of the students for this interview had never taken part in informal politics (i.e. demonstrations, sending messages to politicians etc), but it was clear that, if no realistic and/or meaningful output was foreseeable, that prediction would then de-motivate the students to undertake any kind of action. This logic was applied toward voting as well. Many felt that their vote felt meaningless, and would not ‘change’ anything; hence the time and resources devoted to such action seemed somewhat worthless. Here it appears that students do not view politics as a constant and persistent deliberation among various factions of society, but rather as a temporary instance or event in which, with luck or chance, a desired change may (or may not) occur. This rather short-term perception of politics, citizenship, and democracy is seen to discourage students from taking part in longitudinal political activities, as well as failing to take part in activities where change is not foreseeable in short term, although it may be considered important in the longer run.


Hesitance was seen across most of the students. Not just a hesitance in taking part in political activities, but also, as mentioned before, to engage in something that would naturally invite discussion, deliberation and/or potential conflict. Many students showed hesitance, as typified below, in expressing their political viewpoint or entering a dialogue to share and exchange their opinions over socio-political matters.

You can never have the exact same opinion with everybody. There will always be disagreement. I feel very hesitant to engage in something which I may knowingly have potential conflict with someone who may disagree with me (Organisation H)

This hesitance can be seen to be caused by a combination of factors, but most noticeably, the hesitance in stepping into the something for which he/she is unprepared, thus causing a lack of confidence.

There was an unusual instance where a student, who previously would show little or no interest or confidence toward politics, changed her attitude due to a direct political experience. Her political stance was modified somewhat when her hometown, Osaka, was at the centre stage of a national political topic—whether to reorganise Osaka into several districts (The Japan Times 2015). Through this experience, she was able to feel that politics could have actual consequences that could affect her daily life, and showed signs of interest (or concern).

I used to reject politics whatsoever. But the issues that were raised in my hometown Osaka by Governor Hashimoto, made me feel that not knowing about my society is bad. Since then, I have started to try to keep up with current affairs (Organisation I)

This experience changed her political view somewhat, but not enough for her to be engaged beyond reading about politics more than she had before. There were certainly other instances that could not be typified by the three categories above, but it would be fair to say that the majority of the students’ response, over their reason why they were detached from politics, would fall into one or the other of the above categorisations.

Relation between political citizenship and political apathy (Research Question #2)

Turning to Research Question#2, namely how the perceived notion of political citizenship could be related to the aforementioned political apathy; when reviewing the responses, it can be said first of all, that how the students perceived his/her role, as well as what it meant and what it took to be engaged in the political arena, seemed an extremely distant and unfamiliar terrain to start with. While the reasoning behind political termination varied, the lack of preparation was quite obvious, and can undoubtedly be seen as a contributing factor over their initial hesitance toward politics.

Moreover, in the arena which the students saw as legitimate grounds to participate, namely in the aftermath of politics, there too, students showed how they lacked sufficient preparation to evaluate the situation, while constantly being exposed to negative stimuli by the media, all the while being reminded of their low level of political efficacy. A possible explanation for this conditionality stems from the narrative explained in the previous section, namely the lack of citizenship education and/or a political literacy curriculum. This point was echoed by many students, who equated their lack of confidence to their lack of preparation. Crick asserted that a firm and confident connection toward the political domain can give ‘people a sense of empowerment and that they are connected with their larger community and they are empowered to make a change and contribution to their society’ (UK parliament 2007). This empowerment, was apparently missing for the subjects for this study. Although political citizenship can potentially function as a social ‘glue’ (Turner 1997, p. 10), bonding the citizen’s collective identity and thus enhancing their influence as political agents, that too would not seem to apply for the subjects here.

Interestingly, despite the students not experiencing political literacy training, some thought that their lack of preparation was due to their laziness or lack of attention at school programs. Many expressed that it was themselves to blame for their poor political foundation.

I think to myself, I might have been taught about these things at school. I know I haven’t, but I get worried sometimes that I might actually have. Then I kind of blame myself for this situation (lack of preparation) (Organisation F)

All in all, I think its my fault. Not enough preparation on my side (Organisation F)

Some even thought that they needed to be political science majors to be sufficiently equipped with the concepts and skills to function sufficiently as a political citizen (Organisation A). It is quite clear that functioning as a capable political citizen was not something for the mass, but was a unique capability, restricted to those who happened to have a stronger background in politics (i.e., political science majors, parents are politically active).

It can be concluded that the perception of political citizenship among the subjects for this study was not always empowering as Crick noted, but may have been contributing to de-motivating their presence in the political arena by relegating them to the back seat or aftermath of politics, in a political arena swamped with negative and complex information, where they see little or no chance of changing.


There were no significant discrepancies among or across regional locations. Their perceived role as a citizen, as well as their explanation and/or rationale toward political detachment, was more or less shared across all regions to a surprising degree. Secondly, the trait that was demonstrated in the polling data, namely the juxtaposition of possessing a motive or interest toward society, and the hesitance toward political action, was also noticeable among the students. The reasons for the termination toward politics varied but there seemed to be a commonly shared dilemma or process that terminated their initial motives toward politics as was explained throughout this article.

Lowering the voting age from 20 to 18 is now an established national policy (Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 2015). Accompanying this historical modification of the election law, Japan has started to embark on an initiative formally to install citizenship education or ‘Shukensha-Kyouiku’ (The Education Newspaper 2015), primarily focusing on implementing mock elections as a formal curricular activity for 3rd year high school students. Mock elections, which were already experimentally initiated by a few schools (i.e. Kanagawa Prefecture) (Sogo Kyouiku Centre 2012), can be seen to be an important start. But some students do not see mock elections as a fundamental solution to their political detachment.

I feel that politics is so obsessed about whether to vote or not vote. I feel that they are talking about the trees and not the forest. I really think that. As for the voting age amendment, I don’t think now is the time. Like the low voting rates, yes it’s true that some people may not have the time to go vote, but I think youth are so detached from politics, having no idea about what is good or bad, and can not evaluate the political situation. And yet are told that they need to vote. To me, that seems to be a very odd situation. I feel that they (politicians) have no idea what the root cause of the problem is. Even I know what it is, but they don’t seem to care (Organisation G)

I think I would need the fundaments first of all. When I hear some political term from the media, I want to be able to understand what they are talking about. Then I feel that I may direct my attention more. Right now, I am already at a loss when hearing these terms, so the door slams shut right away. So if I had a bit more background, then I feel could become more engaged toward politics. For me, the very entrance toward politics is closed right now (Organisation I)

As was repeatedly noted, it is quite clear from the group of students interviewed for this study, that they feel very poorly prepared. While the lack of a citizenship education curriculum or a political literacy program can be anticipated to be a primary reason for this state, the media, and how they display the political world, were also seen to be a decisive factor for the apathy and lack of preparation.

I was watching the political section of a news program last night. While watching it, I had no idea what they were talking about, and even if I did, I felt that the topic was something that they, amongst themselves, were debating about. Not interesting at all, and highly complex. I wish the news programs were easier to understand. It just doesn’t seem to be something related to me. Just some other people’s business (Organisation F)

When I watch or listen to news, there are just so many words that are too difficult for me to comprehend. There are some programs that lecture us on some of the terminologies, but often times there are none... So basically, it’s too complex for me to understand. I would ask my mother but she wouldn’t know, and I don’t have the enthusiasm to look it up or research about it. So I just leave it at that point (Organisation J)

As Lister et al (2005) point out, citizenship in daily life can lead to ‘inclusion and exclusion’ from politics (Lister et al. 2005, p. 48). Here students described themselves as encircled by media that do not supply them with relevant concepts, or a user-friendly news format (Buckingham 2002; Cushion 2012), depicting politics as something that they are not related to or are part of, thus contributing to an ‘exclusionary’ state. This environment, combined with their current perception of political citizenship and lack of preparation, appears to be sustaining the detachment toward politics, fostering the students’ failure to imagine themselves as capable and influential actors in a democracy.

The purpose of this article was to frame the discussion of political apathy among the Japanese youth, from the perspective of political citizenship. Although further research is needed to validate the findings from this study, what can be said, however, is that the oversimplified explanation, claiming that the youth are simply not interested in politics, is inapplicable, at least for the subjects of this interview. There appears to be a missing ‘pipe’ that sufficiently connects the interest and concerns that youth have toward society, with politics and action, a factor which Couldry et al similarly described as a ‘missing link’ (Couldry et al. 2010, p. 121). From the student’s perspective, this appears to stem from a lack of preparation that equips the youth with the concepts, values, and skills to function as political citizens in a democracy, but also media which would familiarise the youth with politics, promoting a sense of ‘inclusion’ as Lister at al (2005) described, in the political arena.


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About the Author

Jun Tsukada is a Ph.D. Candiate at the Graduate School of Information Science, Tohoku University, with an M.A. in Political Communication (Mittuniversitetet / Sweden). His main areas of interest are mediated citizenship, democratic citizenship and e-democracy. This article has been funded by the ‘Student Project’ of the Graduate School of Information Science, Tohoku University.

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