Poll voting exercises and civics education at Tamagawa Academy

EDUCATIONAL RENAISSANCE / Group fosters interest in politics among youth
Naoyuki Shiomi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series, continued from last week, focuses on citizenship education.
Four days before the July 12 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, about 150 third-year middle school students at Tamagawa Academy cast their own ballots. The simulated voting was part of the civics classes at the private school in Machida, Tokyo.

When the students–ninth-graders in a K-12 system–entered the polling station in a vacant classroom, each of them was given a ballot to fill in. Each makeshift voting booth had a list of actual Machida constituency candidates on one partition.

After selecting their candidate, the students placed their slips in a metal box at the center of the room.

The simulation had an authentic feeling because the school used real items as provided by the Machida municipal election committee. Only the ballots were not legitimate, though they resembled real ballots.

“It’s important for us to create a realistic atmosphere to give the students the same experience adults have,” said Munetaka Soai, the teacher behind the polling.

Since first conducting the polling exercise for the 2003 House of Representatives election, Soai has been holding the polls whenever there are national or Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections. This latest activity was in connection with recent lessons about the government and the Diet.

Before heading to their polling stations, the students were told that people in their 20s are significantly less likely to turn out to vote than their older counterparts. They also used official election material to discuss the positions of each candidate, thereby helping each student to decide how to vote.

Some students relied on intuition or other factors to make their decision. (One student, for example, chose a candidate who “looks like Soai-sensei.”) Others, however, paid attention to the candidates’ policies. “I’ll choose one who is pledging more support to hospitals,” another student said.

Soai is a member of a Tokyo-based organization that promotes similar activities nationwide. Whenever a national election is approaching, the organization asks municipal election committees to provide official literature and other items, and asks the political parties to provide posters and copies of their manifestos.

Daisuke Hayashi, the organization’s secretary general, observed a simulated election held at U.S. schools in October last year in connection with the country’s presidential election. About 5 million students participated in the balloting, which also was offered on the Internet.

In contrast, the largest number of participants the organization has had in its mock elections so far was 8,000 for the 2007 House of Councillors election.

Hayashi is now working to arrange a poll ahead of the Aug. 30 lower house election. But, it is proving to be an uphill battle as young people have little interest in politics and educators do not have a very deep understanding of the organization, which is often misconstrued as a political group.

In an attempt to better explain the organization, the head of the group, Takeaki Yamazaki, has business cards that state: “We are a fair and neutral organization not influenced by any political or religious group.”

Getting permission from school administrators can be difficult, according to a teacher from a public high school in Kanagawa Prefecture.

“I want to invite politicians from each party to come and hold discussions with my students,” he says. “But both my principal and officials from the prefectural board of education rejected my proposal.”

The actual election will be held at a time when not all schools will have resumed classes after summer break. As interest in the mock election will wane if it is held after the actual poll, Hayashi is trying to find an appropriate location for the student poll in a popular shopping district, such as Shibuya, Tokyo.

(Aug. 13, 2009 Daily Yomiuri)

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