The Political Structure of Japan: All You Need To Know
Politics in Japan can seem like a very confusing place, especially for a foreigner, with its multiple houses, sporadic election dates, dissolvements and referrals of power. The governing system and its structure can seem as very fractured and divided, a confusing thing for a foreign resident to understand.
Though currently foreign nationals of Japan are unable to vote in the elections even with Japanese citizenship. This may change in the future as many notable Japanese political parties have been campaigning for this right as far back as 2009.
Even if you can’t vote, understanding the political system and climate of the country you are residing in is always a good idea, plus it always makes for good small talk with co-workers or friends.
The political system of Japan is in the framework of a multi-party bicameral parliamentary representative democratic constitutional monarchy, a bit of a mouthful I know but we will work through what all of that means.
Unlike some western democratic systems that have existed in their modern structure as they have for centuries such as the American and British systems. The Japanese system is a more recent construct being implemented in the year 1947, after being drawn up within the Constitution of Japan that was co-drafted by the United States of America following their occupation of Japan following the countries defeat at the end of WW2.
The constitution is a primarily anti-militarist document which includes the renunciation of the right to wage war and prohibits the maintenance of armed forces (Article 9). Since its adoption in 1947 there has been no amendment to its rigid rulings. Article 96 of the constitution states that any amendment to the constitution requires at least a two-thirds majority of the Japanese parliamentary system.
Without a doubt Japan is a democratic country, however its brand of democracy is very different to that of most western/European countries. In 2016 the Economist Intelligence Unit rated Japan as a “flawed democracy”. The most important reason for these claims is due to the dominant position of the one ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, who has ruled nearly unbroken for over 50 years.
The constitution splits Japan’s government and political structure into three separate branches, The Executive Branch, The Legislative Branch and The Judicial Branch.
The Executive Branch
Like Britain, Japan is a constitutional monarchy meaning that the power of the Emperor is very limited, his power being limited to a ceremonial figurehead. Being defined by the constitution as the “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people”. The real power within the executive branch lies with the Prime Minister who is chosen for a term of four years. However, due to Japan’s political climate and turbulence it is rare that they ever serve a full term in office.
They must win a majority in the National Diet, the legislative branch of the Government, which we will go into later, in order to be anointed by the Emperor as Prime Minister. If the two houses of the Diet cannot reach an agreement then the decision of the House of Representatives will always prevail.
The Prime Minister chooses his Cabinet which is limited by a constitutional amendment which was brought in in 2001 that says 14 regular members are allowed with the possibility of three additional special members. At least half of the Cabinet needs to also be members of the Diet.
The Legislative Branch
The Japanese legislative branch is a bicameral structure, meaning it has two houses of elected representatives that make up their parliamentary structure. The structure is called the Kokkai or the National Diet. Generally, decisions are made on a majority vote, however sometimes a two-thirds majority is required in special circumstances.
The lower house, The House of Representatives, currently has 465 seats and elected members serve a 4 year term, although only a handful of times since the war has the full term been served. Since the Prime Minister can dissolve the lower house at any time and call for a re-election, the median serving time for representatives is just under three years.
Of the 465 total seats, 289 are elected from single-member constituencies and the other 176 are elected from 11 multi-member constituencies by a system of proportional representation. All candidates for election must be at east 25 years old or above.
The House of Representatives has power over the upper house, The House of Councillors, and can even pass a vote of no confidence in the cabinet. However, the Prime Minister can dissolve the house if he wishes, and the cabinet can also induce a vote of no confidence in the house.
The upper house, the House of Representatives, has 242 seats and members serve a 6 year term. However, during each election only half of its members are re-elected every three years through a parallel voting system. Of the 121 members elected each voting period, 73 are elected from the 47 prefectures of Japan by a single transferable vote method and 48 are elected from a nationwide list by proportional representation.
This element was added in 1982 to try and combat the huge amounts of money that were being spent on election campaigns. Candidates for this house must be at least 30 years old, instead of 25 like in the lower house.
The Judicial Branch
The court with the most power and the most important part in the justice of Japan is the Supreme court. The Chief of Justice is appointed by the emperor following their selection by the cabinet. Fourteen other judges are also selected and appointed by the Cabinet.
A Chief of Justice’s tenure has to be confirmed by referendum every 10 years and are allowed to serve until they are 70. While in theory some justices may pass, they are always almost reselected.
The Supreme Court plays a low-key role, trying to avoid controversy, and helping to maintain the status quo. Because of this, individual members of the Court are virtually unknown to the general public.
The Japanese judicial system has been largely based on European Civil law since the Meiji era, most notably those of France and Germany. Even with the constitution of Japan being drafted after WW2 Japanese businessman and lawyers thought with the American occupiers to keep the already in place legal system and just slightly update it.
For more than the past 50 years the Japanese political system has been dominated by a single party, unlike anything seen in the democracies of North America and Europe. The Liberal Democratic Party, a centre-right, conservative party, was founded in 1955 and been in power at nearly all times since.
A short lived coalition government formed from opposition parties in 11 months during 1993 that put them out of power, and more recently a three year period starting in August 2009 that saw them lose power to the Democratic party, although they were swiftly re-elected in 2012 with 294 seats in the house of Representatives. They were re-elected in 2014 and have stayed in power since with their leader and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Another important party of note is the Komeito party, who traditionally ally themselves with the Liberal Democratic Party. It is a socially conservative, Buddhist party. In the 2017 election, they won 29 seats. Meaning both parties combined commanded 313 votes in the lower house, giving them a super majority. Well more than the two-thirds necessary to override a veto by the upper house.
Leading up to the election of October 2017, a new political party were formed from the basis of the prior opposition party. The Constitutional Democratic party is a centre left party. The party was formed from the prior Democratic party as a centre-left split. In the 2019 House of Councillors election, they won 17 seats making them the largest opposition party to the LDP.
While still much smaller than the LDP they are growing at a fast rate, and have been able to maintain their ground without fracturing like many other opposition parties of the past.
With how often new parties are formed and disbanded in Japan, the public funding of political parties was introduced in 1994 to help with the insane amount of short lived, lightning in a bottle parties that were being introduced into the system.
The dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party within Japan’s political system has left a large imprint on the shape and nature of politics within the country, especially when compared to the democracies of other countries.
Since there is effectively no scope for changing the party in power, instead of there being inter party conflicts like there are within many countries. Japan experiences bitter, intra party conflict on the side of the LDP, with multiple different factions within the party vying for power, control and different ideologies. Much of the time, voters and the general public will know more about and see more of intra-party conflicts on the news rather than any opposing party.
The factions are based on individuals as much as on policies, most usually veteran members of the party, many of them being former or aspiring Prime Ministers. The size and membership of the factions are constantly in flux. Many of the factions have official titles, however in the media they are just referred to by the name of their leaders.
One of the most notable features about Japanese politics that not many people know about is its deep integration with the influence of family connections. Many members of parliament are the children or grandchildren of former members of the diet, usually LDP members due to their size and history as the dominant party.
The success that the Liberal Democratic Party has seen in its long and dominant history has less to do with their brilliant marketing and strategy, less on their generalised appeal and more to the inability for any opposing party to gain a foothold and create a place for themselves within the political market.
A lot of these reasons combined have caused one of the main causes for poor democratic ratings in recent years, poor voter turnout. In the 2019 House of Representatives elections, Japan saw its second lowest voter turn out since WW2 at 48.8% with the worst being for a upper house election in 1995.
Voter turnout is especially low for younger voters who feel that their voices are not heard or represented well at all. Easy to see why when the ruling party has been around for over 50 years and are more conservative focussed.
While at first the institutions of Japanese and Western democracy look similar on the surface they are incredibly different when looked at underneath a microscope.
The Diet, both upper and lower house, has little real authority; and the Liberal Democratic Party gets overwhelming focus and influence compared to other parties even when considering their size. Cabinet meetings are usually brief and for ceremonial purposes only, combined with a PM that is weaker than its counterparts in other democracies.
Power in the Japanese society is wielded less by the politicians in suits that run the parliament but rather by the civil servants and industrialists. These three groups, the politicians, bureaucrats and big businesses form what is known as the Iron Triangle in Japan.
There are significant moves within Japan for the hope to revise the constitution, so that Japan can become a more ‘normal’ country that can hold and maintain its own military, and a more traditional country in which rights are balanced by obligations.
In 2012 the Liberal Democratic Party published a draft of a new constitution, however due to the difficulty in changed the principal laws governing a country no finalisation will be reached anytime soon. With nearly all opposing parties wanting to maintain the status quo, the LDP will have to fight hard to achieve the two-thirds majority required to re-write the constitution.
While Japan may have many issues democratically, as many democracies, the country has used its westernisation to its effect and create a better standard of living and economic quality of life for its people. That likely would not have been possible without the start of a democratic system within the country.