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The growing concern of Japan's 'silver democracy'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

While the U.S. discusses President Biden's age ahead of his reelection bid - he's 80 years old - other rapidly-aging societies worry about what some observers call silver democracy. That's when older politicians make policies that disproportionately benefit older voters. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, in the world's most aged society, Japan, rejuvenating politics is seen as an uphill battle.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In April, a lone attacker lobbed what looked like a pipe bomb at Prime Minister Fumio Kishida as he gave a stump speech in the city of Wakayama.

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KUHN: Nobody was hurt. Police arrested a 24-year-old suspect named Ryuji Kimura. Last June, Kimura sued the government. He reportedly wanted to stand for election to Japan's upper house of parliament, but he claims he was unfairly barred because he was under the minimum age of 30 and was required to put up a deposit equivalent to more than $22,000. Kimura has not explained his motives. Investigators are looking into whether the lawsuit had anything to do with it, but the discussion in Japan has already turned to age and politics.

JEFFREY HALL: This is being introduced as a story where he has kind of resentment towards the politicians who don't allow younger people to run for office.

KUHN: That's Jeffrey Hall, an expert on Japanese politics at Kanda University of International Studies near Tokyo. In Japan, citizens over 65 form the nation's largest voting bloc, and they receive an overwhelming share of government welfare spending. Yale University postdoctoral associate Charles McClean has done research that shows that while Scandinavian countries, for example...

CHARLES MCCLEAN: Might spend three to four times more on the elderly than they do on young families per capita, you know, or on children, say, per capita. Countries like Japan or the U.S. - it's much more like 20 times more.

KUHN: McClean also notes that Japan has one of the lowest proportions of young politicians among developed economies. It's not that voters won't vote for young candidates, he says...

MCCLEAN: A reason why countries like Japan - and the U.S., too - have very few young people in office is that elections are just prohibitively expensive for candidates.

KUHN: They require not just cash, but name recognition and personal networks. That favors either older candidates or the offspring of political dynasties.

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KUHN: Some activists have tried to drum up youth political participation, such as with this satirical video that came out ahead of elections in 2019. In it, older voters tell younger ones that voting is a waste of their time.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) Pension funds going bankrupt? It doesn't matter. I'm getting one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Global warming? I don't care what happens 20 or 30 years from now.

KUHN: The video's creator, 29-year-old comedian and activist Nana Takamatsu, says the problem is that many young Japanese despair of changing their country through politics.

NANA TAKAMATSU: (Through interpreter) This is because we do not teach people in school how to change society. I am concerned that, if this situation continues, there will be more copycats who think that the way to change society is through force - through terrorism.

KUHN: This month, the Kishida administration pledged to double spending on child care to halt Japan's plunging birth rate. Prime Minister Kishida did not detail exactly how he's going to pay for the increase. One possible problem, says Jeffrey Hall, is that...

HALL: The older voters might react negatively to something that's too expensive or might cause them to have to pay for, basically, a future that they won't deal with or a situation that they don't quite understand.

KUHN: Because when they were young, a single income was often enough to raise a family.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.