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The problematic politics of Japan’s ageing electorate

Yasuo Takao
01 Mar 2023 00:01:50 | Update: 01 Mar 2023 00:01:50
The problematic politics of Japan’s ageing electorate

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida used a policy speech at the opening of the 2023 session of Japan’s parliament, the National Diet, to declare that Japan was ‘on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions’ due to the country’s population crisis. The country’s median age is 49 — the second highest in the world.

In the 2021 House of Representatives election, the median age of those who cast a vote was 59. The centre of gravity of Japanese electoral politics has shifted from taxpayers to pensioners, with the potential of the elderly exerting more political pressure over policymakers as the population ages.

The majoritarian decision-making model suggests that self-interested aging voters are likely to support increasingly generous social benefits for themselves, even at the expense of other generations.

In Japan, voter turnout has consistently been higher and is steadily increasing among older people. The age gap in Japan’s voter turnout is exceptionally high, with an OECD study finding a gap of 25 percentage points in voter turnout between voters 55 and older and voters under 35, compared with the OECD average of 12 points. Assuming that high turnout is a reflection of political interest, this implies that elderly voters influence politics in a self-interested way, to the detriment of younger generations.

But no studies have yet found clear evidence of such self-interest among Japan’s elderly voters. In the early 2000s, the Japanese public became seriously concerned about the country’s apparently unsustainable level of social security expenditure. The elderly, more than any other cohort of the population, consider social security issues to be important factors in casting their votes.

Japan’s older people may not be as explicitly self-interested as the median voter model would predict. A series of surveys conducted by Japan’s Cabinet Office and Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare found that elderly respondents supported policy constraints on social security just as much as other age cohorts.

Internationally, the Japanese elderly are seen as more accepting of intergenerational equity than the elderly in other countries. Cross-national surveys on those 60 and older, conducted by the Cabinet Office in 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2020, asked whether government policy should prioritise younger people over older people or vice versa. Japan had the highest percentage — 31 per cent — of respondents agreeing that ‘young people should be prioritised’ —compared to 14 per cent in the United States and 17 per cent in both Germany and Sweden.

On this evidence, self-interested voters seeking to maximise their own benefits seems less applicable in the case of the Japanese welfare state. But other factors might also be at play..

The primary factor influencing public attitudes toward social security is demographic changes. In the early 2000s, the urgent need for social security reform in response to Japan’s population crisis captured public attention. The debate that followed played a significant role in influencing the attitudes of the elderly toward social security benefits.

There is undoubtedly a distinctive generational difference in political attitudes. The dankai baby boomer cohort born between 1947 and 1949 experienced turbulent events in their youth — Japan’s rapid economic growth, anti-establishment student movements, industrial pollution and the Vietnam War among them. These dankai-specific experiences bred life-long progressive political attitudes and a propensity to embrace the common good rather than sectional interests. In the 2009 general election a plurality of 49 per cent of voters aged 60–69 voted for the Democratic Party of Japan, which toppled the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

Japan’s elderly cohort also has the highest labour-force participation among the OECD countries. Nearly half of Japanese men aged 60–70 and one quarter of those aged 70–75 are still in the workforce. About three-quarters of the Japanese elderly workforce work in non-regular positions and consider social security issues important to their votes.

Despite having less secure employment, elderly voters do not necessarily influence politics in a self-interested way to the detriment of younger generations. Employed elderly people continue to find security in belonging to a particular company, which dissuades them from organising around their own interests with others beyond their company ties. Employed elderly people are more likely to identify with the interests of their younger co-workers.

Japan’s public, mandatory long-term care insurance has had a significant impact on the elderly. The dramatic rise of the costs of its operation has undermined its fiscal stability and this universal system weakens the interest in political activism by the elderly. Eligibility is not based on income or family situation but purely on age and physical and mental health. Anyone 65 or older, plus those aged 40–64 with aging-related diseases, are eligible for institutional or community-based care.

Self-employed individuals, of whom 40 per cent are 65 or older and have no mandatory retirement age, hold opinions aligned with the protection of their small businesses, often against the interests of elderly consumption.

The aging of the Japanese electorate may not have led to politically charged generosity for the elderly at the expense of younger generations, but there are still many puzzles to unravel about how the elderly in Japan are affecting policy choices and political outcomes.

East Asia Forum