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Gen Z takes office: Japan’s newest politicians are young, diverse and online

By Jessie Yeung and Eru Ishikawa, CNN

Move over, boomers and older millennials — Japan’s young people are stepping into office.

The country’s by-elections this week have seen a number of diverse new faces thrust into the national spotlight — which supporters have celebrated as a welcome change to the country’s government, mostly run by conservative older men.

Most members of Japan’s parliament are aged 50 to 70 — and are 75% male, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Making headlines is Ryosuke Takashima who, at 26 years old, is Japan’s youngest-ever mayor, according to Japanese public broadcaster NHK. He graduated last year from Harvard University, where he earned his bachelors degree in environmental engineering.

“Being young, I think there is a possibility that citizens will feel closer to me. Because I have no experience in politics, I can ask around what I don’t understand, learn various things, and I want reflect them in my own vision,” he told reporters, according to NHK.

The country’s previous youngest mayor had been Kotaro Shishida, elected in 1994 at the age of 27, NHK reported.

Takashima had campaigned on green infrastructure planning, promising to create more public spaces and parks, as well as reforms in education, childcare and youth healthcare. He will begin serving as mayor of Ashiya City in Hyogo Prefecture on May 1.

Then there’s the 26-year-old YouTuber who ran his campaign for Hiratsuka City Council — and won — under the official name “Shin the Hiratsuka YouTuber.”

Shin also runs a Pokemon card store but is best known for his YouTube channel, where he makes videos about local shops and events in the city; his most popular video reviews 10 recommended ramen shops in Hiratsuka.

It was while making these videos and talking to local business owners that Shin learned about their complaints and troubles — inspiring him to run for city council and freshen up the staid political scene, according to his website.

“Japan’s politicians are aging,” his site reads. “There are many high schools and universities in Hiratsuka, so there is no doubt that young people live here.”

As a single father of a 3-year-old son, he focused on childcare issues during his campaign, highlighting the need for greater support for parents and work-life balance — as well as supporting the elderly, as Japan’s population rapidly ages and its workforce shrinks.

Ayaka Nasuno, 25, is another Gen Z politician making her debut after winning the highest share of votes for the Kawasaki City Council earlier this month.

After being bullied as a child, Nasuno decided to “create her own community” by organizing a local trash cleanup effort — which is how she began working with constituents and local resources, according to her website and multiple social media accounts.

“This is the start of my career as a councilor, so I will work hard for the benefit of my hometown,” she wrote on Twitter after the election, thanking supporters for their votes.

Young, female and Uyghur

Another high-profile name this election season is 34-year-old Arfiya Eri, whose parents are Uyghur and Uzbek, and who has advocated for greater women’s rights and gender equality.

With her election to Japan’s Lower House, Eri is the first woman of Uyghur descent to be elected to any parliament in the world, according to the World Uyghur Congress, which called her victory significant for the Uyghur Japanese community and the global Uyghur diaspora.

The Uyghur ethnic group largely lives in China’s western Xinjiang region, where Beijing is accused of committing human rights abuses against Uyghurs. The United Nations has called these actions “crimes against humanity” in a report last September, while the United States has previously accused China of holding up to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in detention camps, accusations Beijing has repeatedly denied.

She is also one of the few parliament members with non-Japanese ancestry in what remains a highly homogenous country with comparatively low levels of immigration.

Eri was born in Japan but moved to China as a child, before studying at Georgetown University in the US and working for the United Nations. She researched Uyghur issues during her studies abroad, according to her official website — with one blog post decrying the “unspeakable tragic oppression and human rights violations” taking place against Uyghurs.

She has also turned the spotlight to Japan’s male-dominated politics and society, highlighting issues such as the gender wage gap, the unequal burden of housework and childcare on women, and the need for men to take more active roles in child-rearing.

Her election as a “33-year-old working woman” would send a message to the world that “Japan is going to move forward,” she wrote on her blog last year.

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