To persuade 18- and 19-year-olds to head to the polls for the first time this weekend, officials in Japan have launched marketing campaigns starring a series of ambassadors they believe will play to the budding democratic instincts of the country’s youth. They include a male model and his platinum-haired sweetheart, a lovelorn comic-book character and a talking grain of rice. The opposition Democratic Party hopes to increase turnout by inviting actual young people—in fact, teen models—to talk sessions with lawmakers where they chat about the latest cellphone apps and gossip about romance between members of parliament. At a recent event, participants suggested free ice cream and more shelters for abandoned pets as policies they wanted the government to adopt. “These models have a lot of big fans, and these events might be an opportunity to make those fans think that politics is actually a part of their lives and that they should vote,” said Democratic Party lawmaker Akihiro Hatsushika. Japan, which has the oldest population of any country on Earth, has good reason to want to get its young people engaged in politics. While most elderly Japanese vote, only about a third of people in their 20s voted in a lower house election in late 2014, when overall turnout hit an almost record low. The law to lower the voting age was passed last year. Nearly two-thirds of 18- and 19-year-olds say they aren’t affiliated with either of the two biggest political parties, according to a survey conducted in June by Asahi Shimbun.
Enter Komesuke, a talking grain of rice. Created around 2013 by the Komeito party, which is a member of the LDP-led ruling coalition, the cartoon character’s name is a play on the party’s name and the Japanese word for rice, “kome.” He educates voters through interviews with lawmakers and policy videos on his website.
In his most recent video, Komesuke says his political party “is doing its all to make sure that young people can participate in society.” The character has its own Instagram account, which says “I’m Komesuke! I’m from Tokyo. I love rice. I’d like to become friends with everyone.” It includes pictures of a plush version of the character in various settings, including out on the street, with a dish of ice cream and in a red wagon.
Wakana Okamoto, 25, a Komeito employee who takes photos for Komesuke’s Instagram account, says the character’s popularity is increasing, with people posting pictures of their own handmade stuffed, knitted and drawn likenesses of it, and that Komesuke has become well-known enough to spawn parody characters, such as “barley-suke.” She also confirmed the two spots near Komesuke’s mouth are actually flecks of rice, which raises questions of cannibalism. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government enlisted Ryuchell, a model, and his girlfriend, Peco, also a model, to promote civic responsibility.