Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Referendum Law and The Age of Majority

"In Japan, adulthood legally begins at age 20. This has been so since the Civil Law was created in 1896. The government has recently started debating whether to lower the ceiling to 18. What sparked this debate was the adoption of a law last year setting the rules for a national referendum required for constitutional change. It stipulates that those aged 18 or older could vote in such a referendum. It also takes note of the fact that it is common around the world for 18-year-olds to be allowed to vote.

"The national referendum law will come into effect in May 2010. The law also demands that lowering of the voting age for elections should be decided by then, as well as lowering the age of adulthood stipulated by the Civil Law. The Justice Ministry's Legislative Council has started discussing whether to revise the Civil Law and lower the age of adulthood.

"In the Civil Law alone, there are as many as 50 related articles. There are also 308 related laws or ordinances. Lowering the age of adulthood would, therefore, have widespread repercussions. Even before the national referendum law was adopted, we argued in our editorials that the voting age should be lowered to 18. Our reason for this is that Japanese people live in an aging society, where the younger generation has to bear a greater burden of taxes and social security fees. Thus, we believe the political establishment should be listening to the opinions of the younger generation. For local referendums, some municipalities already allow 18-year-olds to vote.

"If the right to vote is given to people as young as 18, it would seem to follow that the legal age of adulthood should be lowered, too. If the revision to the Civil Law is approved, those who are 18 or 19 would be able to enter into a legal contract or get married without parental approval. That would expand the rights of the young.

"On the other hand, many people strongly oppose the notion of treating 18- and 19-year-olds as adults. The key reason seems to be that those aged 18 and 19 are too young and immature to make appropriate judgments on their own.

"At what age does one mature mentally and gain good judgment? That is a very difficult question, since so much depends on the individual. The Justice Ministry says it is unclear why 20 was deemed to be the age of adulthood in the first place. Until the Edo Period (1603-1867), children usually came of age at 15. This was raised to 20 in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), but the decision was apparently made without any national discussion on the merits of doing so. In the end, there is nothing else to do but to decide the age of adulthood based on the maturity of youth and current trends around the world.

"Those who oppose lowering the age of adulthood are also worried about taking away various legal safeguards given to 18- and 19-year-olds as they fall under the category of minors. It is true that rights come hand in hand with obligations. That a youngster can enter into a contract without parental consent means he or she cannot void the contract even if it is disadvantageous to him or herself. However, measures against fraudulent contracts should be dealt with individually regardless of age.

"The biggest anxiety may concern the removal of legal protection based on the Juvenile Law that are currently granted to 18- and 19-year-olds. Yet even now, 18- and 19-year-olds are treated differently from those aged 17 or younger, for they can be handed the death sentence. A multifaceted debate is necessary, taking these issues into account.

"Another immediate problem is what to do about laws that prohibit those under 20 from drinking alcohol or smoking. The negative effects of smoking remain a serious issue no matter what age. This issue could serve as a starting point for fresh discussions. The Legislative Council has set up an expert panel. We expect to see forward-looking discussions that reflect a wide range of views from the public."

By Asahi Shimbun (Editorial, 03/25/2008), Link to article (last visited 03/25/2008)

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