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Early voting in Japan elections on the rise with help from businesses

Locals at Aeon Mall Kasukabe in Kasukabe, Saitama Prefecture, take a break from shopping to cast ballots at an advance polling station on Oct. 12, 2017. The mall polling station is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mainichi)

About 1.5 times more people cast ballots in the first five days of advance voting for the upcoming House of Representatives election than in the same period for the 2014 poll.

A total of 4,107,108 people had already voted within the first five days after the official campaign kicked off. With shops offering space for advance polling stations and companies introducing a half-day off system for going to the ballot box, the move toward early voting is getting a push from businesses.

Once such business is the human resources consulting firm Cyest Corp. based in Tokyo's Minato Ward. When election day was set for Oct. 22, the company quickly set up company regulations for taking time off to go vote. The new measures were prompted by the company's plans for a four-day overseas training trip for all employees starting on Oct. 19. To ensure their employees the right to vote, they had to make use of advance voting. Usually, the company requires employees to be at work by 10 a.m., but for those visiting polling stations, the company pushed back the arrival time to noon.

According to a Cyest representative, 30 percent of their employees are women who have children in day care or other facilities during work hours. These mothers don't have time to visit polling stations after work. But, if they used the company's system for voting before coming into the office, they had more than enough time to cast their ballot.

"It's the duty of members of society to participate in elections," the representative said. "With the introduction of the system, voter turnout for our company is expected to reach 100 percent."

The current early voting system was established by a revision to the Public Offices Election Act that went into effect in 2003. The system has been used four times for lower house elections so far, and the proportion of voters in single-seat constituencies utilizing advance voting nearly doubled from 12.89 percent in 2005 to 24.03 percent in 2014. Voting became allowed at polling stations set up in places like shopping centers, and now one in four of all the people heading to the polls cast their ballot early.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reports that while only 11 advance polling stations were set up in event spaces in shopping malls and other shopping facilities during the 2009 lower house election, that number quadrupled to 44 locations in 2014. In the July 2016 House of Councillors election, the number again jumped to 162 polling stations.

Retail giant Aeon Co. group companies first began offering spaces in their stores for advance polling for local elections in 2007. In last year's upper house election, Aeon provided a total of 55 locations for polling stations nationwide, and this year, it offered 52 spaces.

"The sudden dissolution of the lower house made arrangements difficult, and there were locations used during the upper house election that were unavailable this time," an Aeon public relations representative explained.

Even while the number of voters casting early ballots is growing, overall voter turnout is still plummeting.

"The importance of the election among voters is decreasing. With the diversification of lifestyles, there are cases of people who have to work on election day Sundays," explained Tokyo Institute of Technology associate professor of sociology Ryosuke Nishida, who specializes in voting systems. "I think the establishment of advance polling stations in places like shopping centers, where you don't have to go out of your way but can just drop in, will be effective (in helping raise voter turnout)."

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