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The days of Seinen-to (the Youth Party) Politics, elections and youth before World War II

Hisanori Ito
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Youth today and in the past

Last year in 2016, when the legal voting age was lowered to 18 in Japan, I gave a series of lectures titled “Modern Japan and General Election” to historically review the relationship between the Japanese people, politics and elections. Students who had just newly acquired their voting rights showed much interest in my lectures, partly because an election for the members of Japan’s House of Councilors was to be held during the series. Since I have dedicated myself to studying the youth in the past, every comment made by the youth of today sounded new in my mind.

Out of their comments, what stood out the most was a kind of self-deprecation, saying that, “Young people in the past are admirable. They, proactively sought involvement in politics and elections, unlike myself (or ourselves).” You may wonder what is so new bout this comment, but let me explain. In the course of lectures, I became aware that behind the words of these self-deprecating students, they lurked their desire of also wanting to get involved or change themselves. This was what sounded new to me.

Seinen-to before World War II and voting rights

How did the youth in the past participate in politics and elections, compelling youth of today to belittle themselves? Allow me to introduce some of them. It was in 1890 when the National Diet (then called the Imperial Diet) was established. As the generation born around that time approached their 20s, the name of the era changed from Meiji to Taisho, and political groups calling themselves seinen-to (the Youth Party) started to emerge one after another, mounting aggressive political movements outside the Diet.

The main participants of such groups were college students and graduates who were members of speech and debate clubs. They had polished oratorical skills and were praised for their eloquence. Taking advantage of their skills, they worked hard to stir public opinion at events such as elections of the House of Representatives by holding political speech meetings, making campaign tours, and publishing party bulletins summarizing these activities. Seinen-to was a nest of political youth.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between them and today’s youth: the young people then did not have voting rights. Roughly from the late 1900s to early 1910s (from the end of the Meiji era to the early Taisho era), only men 25 years and older paying direct national tax of 10 yen or more (with additional address requirements) had voting rights, and only men 30 years and older had electoral eligibility. The youth in Seinen-to met neither of these qualifications. Furthermore, we should remember that the youth at that time meant only young men, and women were both legally and socially excluded from politics and elections.

Demanding voting rights—Shogo Suzuki and the movement for universal suffrage

Shogo Suzuki, from he was a member of the Japanese Diet (Yuben (Eloquence) Volume 28, Issue 11, 1937)

In a situation where the members of Seinen-to (the Youth Party) could not either vote for the candidate they supported or obtain votes themselves, they inevitably had get involved in politics and elections in a different way from that of Seinen-to (the Adult Party), the existing party. Here is a specific case.

Shogo Suzuki (born in Aichi Prefecture in 1890, a graduate of Meiji University) was a member of the Teibi Club, an organization similar to Seinen-to (the Youth Party) established in 1907. He was famous for his gifted eloquence since his college days and literally dedicated his life in his 20s and mid-30s to the movement demanding the realization of universal suffrage (for men). For Suzuki, obtaining means to be engaged in politics and elections meant his being directly involved in politics and elections.

When the universal suffrage was finally granted in 1925, Suzuki started educating new voters and eventually was elected to the Diet in 1932. Keeping his distance from the two major parties, Seiyu-kai and Minsei-to, he joined a third party, Kokumin Domei and made the case on the Diet floor for revising the election laws to implement universal suffrage completely. He argued that the laws "should fully open the way for those without money but with aspirations to be members of the Diet (stenographic records of proceedings of the 64th Imperial Diet, 1933).” Suzuki made this argument, and incidentally, defiance to the parliamentary government was carried out by young army officers in the year following the May 15 Incident, in which the prime minister at the time was assassinated.

Picturing Seinen-to of today

I had, in front of me, written comments from young people today who were given their voting rights. The comments expressed inferiority towards youth in the past that ventured their adolescence and struggled to gain rights. I was unsure how to write feedbacks on these comments. It would be useless to try and convince them not to feel this way by listing up differences in time and situations. What they wanted to hear from me was no consolation.

Now, I think back with some regret that I should have posed the following questions: "If you could picture Seinen-to at present, what would it look like?" Would dichotomy between genders, men and women, be relativized? Moreover, would the members be talking about issues in the regional society or communities where they lead their daily lives, rather than discussing the state of the world and the nation? Perhaps, the party itself may be a virtual entity connected by LINE or other social media networks instead of it being a real association. Though this may sound like a fantasy, if I had posed the question, the latent desires of those young men and women which I felt were new might have gradually taken shape through such dialogue.

Reference

Hisanori Ito "Relations with the Election and the Political Movement of Youth, and the Representative Who Got His Position through the Movement: About the Case of SUZUKI Shogo and NISHIOKA Takejiro" Senkyo Kenkyu (Journal of electoral studies), Volume 32, Issue 1 (2016)

Hisanori Ito
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Born in Toyama Prefecture in 1978, Hisanori Ito completed the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. After serving as a research associate and a staff member at Waseda University Archives, he has held his present post since 2016. He has a Ph.D. in Literature, specializing in modern history of Japan.

Academic achievements:http://researchmap.jp/ito_hisanori/