From Kyodo News

As an upper house election in Japan draws near with more than 2 million new 18- and 19-year-old voters eligible to go to the polls Sunday, the UN Youth Envoy said he is excited about the potential of Japan’s youth as they exercise their right to vote in a national poll for the first time.

“We welcome very much lowering the voting age, but we should not think that we have done our job just by lowering the voting age,” Ahmad Alhendawi, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Envoy on Youth, told Kyodo News in an interview.

He was referring to a new Japanese law that lowered the minimum voting age from 20 to 18, marking the first such change in over 70 years when the age was reduced from 25. The new legislation means about 2.4 million 18- and 19-year-olds can exercise their democratic rights in the national election.

“I think now we need to bring more recognition to the contribution of young people and allow them to not only be seen as voters, but also to be seen as partners and people who can set policy,” the Jordanian youth advocate added.

Appointed by Ban in 2013 to encourage global youth participation, the 32-year-old Alhendawi sees young people’s potential to leverage national discussions and debates to change the status quo.

“My message to young people in Japan is please come forward, please seize this opportunity,” he explained. “You have to join and you have to influence how to conduct the participation.”

This is especially relevant in today’s interconnected world, he said, where international events and tragedies draw people together.

Against the backdrop of what he describes as a tenuous world “with many burning fires” and one marked by young people “who are not dreaming of participation, but dreaming of survival,” Japan’s new law is very relevant, he said.

“Young people in Japan are extremely privileged with a nation that has made miracles in terms of technological advancement,” he added. “I think with their participation they could set even more examples for young people in other places.”

To reluctant Japanese who worry young voters are not up to the task, he explained how 90 percent of the world has a minimum voting age of 18.

He also pointed to countries like Austria, Argentina and Brazil, where 16-year-olds can vote.

With many in Japan concerned about the future of their rapidly aging country, he stressed the vital role engaged young voters can play.

“I hope that also this lowering of the youth voting age comes with a recognition that it is time to give more recognition to young people because the smaller the youth population you have the bigger responsibility each one has to carry,” he said.

With teenagers like Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai as well as young politicians and entrepreneurs now making their mark on the world, Alhendawi sees the potential of this new force, including in Japan.

“You energize democracy, you make it much younger, you inject a new energy by having more young people,” he added.

As a recent first-time voter in the New York State primary and having volunteered for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, 19-year-old Patrick Kinney sees great benefits if his Japanese peers get involved.

“Prove you are alive, tell the government that you matter, tell them that you care,” he told Kyodo News.

“Tell them that you are going to do what is right, and tell them that they answer to you, and they do it because it is a democracy.”