Back during the first year of the Heisei era, Japan was unraveling its ambitious program of political reforms, which were supposed to put Japanese democracy on the same foot as major Western countries. In 1989, the LDP declared in its outline of political reform “Now we are ready to show to the people our political conscience and sense of responsibility, steeling ourselves to shed blood and make sacrifices” (Asahi Shimbun, 2019). What remains today of the ambition of Japanese politicians to reform the country ? Although significant changes have taken place since the establishment of democracy in Japan after World War II, the core characteristics of Japanese politics remain intact.
Indeed, the LDP’s central role in politics is stronger than ever, money politics is still rampant, and excessive bureaucracy prevents Japan from achieving major reforms. In the wake of declining interest among youth for politics and nationwide discontent regarding economic policies, it is necessary to reflect on what are the key features of Japanese politics today, and how political reforms in Japan have failed to bring about substantial change to Japanese politics. We will proceed by first analysing the current status of Japanese politics today, its particularities and how it compares to other advanced democracies. Then, we will examine more closely the reforms that have emerged, mainly after 1989, and their impact on Japanese politics to this day. Finally, we will try to understand to what extent these changes have failed to meet their targets and have not, as the LDP leaders desired then, shaken the LDP’s stronghold on Japanese politics.
After 1947, Japan was forced to adopt a democratic parliamentary system under pressures from America. Emerging from business leaders, the conservative LDP quickly became the major political party in Japan.
This brings us to a first characteristic of the Japanese system : one party wields excessive power compared to the others. Although in the prime years of Japanese democracy, the Social Democratic party, leaning towards socialism, held a great number of seats and confronted the LDP, opposition parties have since then become more divided. The main opposition party has changed names many times and is currently known as the Democratic Party for the People.
However, the multiplicity of small parties make it difficult for each individual party to be fairly represented in the parliament, especially in light of the current voting system. Since the LDP’s support have become weaker after the burst of the bubble and the economic crisis in the late 1980s, they have usually retained power through a coalition of conservative right-wing parties. Despite brief transitions in 1993 and between 2009 and 2012, the LDP has always sent its leader as Prime Minister to lead the country. Even in the wake of numerous scandals and unpopular economic policies, support for the LDP has remained strong since 2012 and it is unlikely to be challenged in the near future.
This highlights the key aspect of Japanese politics : it favors stability in terms of ruling party, and changes are most often coming from frequently changing Prime Ministers. Indeed, in the last 20 years alone, 16 different Prime Ministers ruled the country. Therefore, although LDP is the inevitable ruling political party, multiple factions exist inside the party and a great diversity of people are represented. Rather than a change from ruling party to opposition party, Japanese politics is characterized by regular transition among the LDP between party factions and leader.
A second key aspect of Japanese politics is its unique voting system that favors the one party dynamics. The most important elections are those of the House of Representatives, since the leader of the political party which received the highest turnout gets to rule the country. House of Representatives is composed of 465 members, among whom 176 are elected through proportional representation and 289 from single member constituencies. Since it is only semi-proportional, it tends to favor the LDP and its hegemonic position. Although composed of different factions, the strong grip of the LDP on Japanese Politics have led some scholars to question the fairness of the Japanese political system in representing citizens’ opinion.
Third, Japanese Politics suffers from low turnout and decreasing interest for elections among the younger generation. Indeed, Japanese voters seems disenchanted by politics and only 53.68% showed up at the polls for the 2017 general election, second lowest turnout in post-war Japan history (The New York Times, 2017). One of the reasons for this lack of political participation in comparison with other advanced democracies may be the lack of real change as the LDP has almost always won and few are willing to challenge its stance. Because older people are far more likely to vote and ever more numerous, political parties tend to favor them at the expense of younger voters. This has created a situation of “silver democracy” which undermines the credibility of Japanese Politics. If remaining unchanged, this situation could put a greater burden on Japanese democracy and its effectiveness.
Last, Japanese politics is dominated by its central bureaucracy. The role of bureaucracy in Japan is prominent and Japanese elected officials have arguably less power than the established bureaucracy. It is said that “80% of policies come from bureaucrats and 20% by elected country leaders” (Maki, J. 1997). This dates back to the Meiji era when aristocrats looked down on the commoners and held the slogan “Revere the bureaucrat, despise the people”. Bureaucrats hold discretionary power, licensing and approval power, making formal and informal regulations etc, which makes them the “third legislative house”. Heavy rules and regulations in Japanese society ensure that they maintain their authority. One can wonder how such a concentration of power and decision-making in the hands of elites can be considered democratic.
Besides, the LDP has been involved in numerous scandals since the 1990s (Recruit Scandal) that have revealed the porous links between the administration, the bureaucrats and business leaders. Therefore, we can conclude that the four key characteristics of Japanese Politics are in order of importance : an hegemonic political party (LDP) with frequent internal transition, a semi-proportional voting system favoring one party, a relatively low participation rate of the population in politics and lastly, an excessively powerful bureaucracy.
Conscious of the necessity to reform politics and avoid the one-party domination, successive governments have led several reforms to cement democracy in Japan.
One of the major political reforms that was passed in 1994, after years of debate, was the change in the electoral system. Because the LDP lost the general elections in 1993, the ruling coalition pledged to enact a new electoral system that would favor an alternance of two party rule in place of the LDP hegemony, fragilized by internal scandals. Electors also hoped that the new system would be more effective to fight against corruption. Previously, voters would vote to elect one to six representatives for each of the 129 districts. However, under this system, parties would have to find ways of ensuring that each candidate obtain a minimum number of votes to be elected, in order to maximize the number of representatives they can send to Parliament. Needless to say, this strongly favored the LDP and led to endemic corruption. The reformed electoral system hoped to correct the previous failures through its two tiers : single-member districts (289 seats) and proportional representation (176 seats). Besides, it also reorganized constituencies that were malapportioned, because Japan’s population had shifted away from rural constituencies to urban settlements that were underrepresented in the previous electoral system. However, LDP has since regained power and corruption is still prevalent in Japanese politics.
Another transition came when the DPJ coalition emerged victorious from the 2009 House of Representatives election. This marked only the second time since World War II that the LDP lost the elections (first in 1993). DPJ administration promised to fight against the rule of bureaucracy and move the US Marine Base out of Okinawa, which they both failed to do. Their legislative failure and incapacity to solve internal conflicts led to their defeat and the return of the LDP in 2012. The two party system, that was the goal of the 1990s reforms, failed to materialize and the LDP has an even tighter grip on Japanese politics.
To solve the issue of silver democracy discussed earlier, and convince the younger generation to get involved in politics, politicians decided to lower the voting age from 20 to 18. It was first implemented in the 2016 House of Councillors election and resulted in a rather high turnout from younger voters. Despite opposition from the public, making young people more engaged in politics is essential to maintain effective democracy in Japan. Nonetheless, consequences were disappointing with young voters turnout shrinking in the 2017 General Election, and strictly no impact on the LDP score. Viewed as a political manoeuvre, the new voting age was insufficient to rebuild trust from young electors in Japanese politics.
Meanwhile, small parties have started to proliferate since the 2010s, showing the inability of the opposition parties to form a coherent political movement and gain consensus on major policies. The multiplication of small parties has only served the interests of the LDP, which denounced the unpreparedness of other parties to hold office. The once ruling DPJ has given birth to two new parties that reveal the inconciliable differences that existed among its members : Constitutional party of Japan and Kibou no Tou, led by the charismatic Yuriko Koike. The CDP, along with the Communists and the SDP form the pacifist coalition while the Koike-led coalition has since collapsed following the 2017 general elections. Therefore, there is now not one but two major opposition parties : the CDP and the Koike coalition, whose future is uncertain. So far, this change in configuration of the opposition parties has failed to threaten the ruling LDP and convince the electors.
The last political change that has been put forward is decentralization. Decentralization has been enthusiastically promoted since the 1990s in Japan. After the war, Japan had the characteristics of a heavily centralized system whereby local governments were appointed by the Central government and only delegated some minor tasks. In a broader context of political reforms in the 1990s, decentralization was thought to go hand-in-hand with deregulation which brought about the Decentralization Promotion Law in 1995. Other laws have followed to transfer more authority to local governments and move decisions further away from the Central authority in Tokyo (such as on tax revenue, citizen autonomy etc). Once again, results were seen as insufficient as they did not contribute to an expansion of autonomy and independence of local governments.
To conclude, on the surface, there seems to have been numerous changes to Japanese Politics since the first government transition took office in 1993. A reform of the electoral system to introduce proportional representation, two DPJ administrations, lowering of the voting age and promotion of decentralization have all been conducted in the last twenty-five years. However, the results have been underwhelming : the two-party system has failed to develop, the DPJ administration is considered a failure and voters have never been so distrustful of politicians.
After looking more closely at the last decades of Japanese politics, it appears clearly that the overall political system has not evolved drastically despite its shortcomings. We shall try to understand why it has failed to do so, despite some successes, and how Japanese politics could overcome those issues. Indeed, the electoral system is still heavily biased. The introduction of a semi-proportional voting system has not had much of an impact on the politics, and LDP still remains in place. The semi-proportional voting system is insufficient to represent the ideas of the Japanese citizens in a fair way. Many have criticized the reform for being incomplete and not implementing fully proportional representation.
This flawed political system is all the more obvious when looking at the political scandals that continue to plague Japan. In 2018, two major political scandals have cast doubt on trust in politicians. They concern Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, two school operators with close links to Abe, that has been accused of favoritism by the Prime Minister for the sale of state-owned land and the opening of a new veterinary school. The Prime Minister simply dismissed those scandals, and refused to acknowledge his responsibility in the case; thereby underpinning the grave distrust of politicians in the country. Far from becoming more transparent, the Abe administration has been accused of insincerity and refused to confront the grim reality of corruption in Japanese politics. Meanwhile, opposition parties have also faced scandal, with Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike being embroiled in so-called “Olympics bribery scandal”. The practice is so common that the term “Money politics” has been used to qualify Japanese politics.
However, opposition parties remain as divided as ever, and have failed to “project a clear vision for the government they wish to form”, although the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Yuriko Koike’s movement emerging as potential leaders to counterweight the LDP’s overwhelming power. Yuriko Koike’s victory for the Tokyo gubernatorial election was seen as wind of change, being the first female Tokyo governor ever, and distancing herself from the LDP. Besides, the historical decision of six opposition parties including the CDP to back joint candidates in single-seat upper house races for the 2019 House of Councillors send a strong symbolic message and shows a relative discontent in LDP’s politics. It remains to be seen whether Japan’s opposition can form a coherent bloc to campaign against the LDP supremacy.
Another issue that remains to be solved is malapportionment, which refers to the uneven distribution of voting districts across the country, favoring rural areas and the ruling party. This distorted distribution means that with only 29% of popular votes, the LDP could win 79% of winner-take-it-all seats in the General Election, giving them a supermajority at the Parliament. The 129 proportionally designated seats cannot compensate for this, and opposition remains confined to a minor role. This also stems from the fact that none of the policies taken to get people to vote have shown their fruitfulness, as Japanese voter turnout keeps shrinking.
Recent developments might however show some hope, as attempts have been made by the government to challenge the omnipotent bureaucracy, reapproportionate the constituencies, as well as with the rise of a coherent opposition and a will to change before the Olympics 2020, when the international community’s attention will be focused on Japan.
Japanese politics display many peculiar characteristics that distinguish it from other modern democracies, namely a dominating ruling party that has only stepped out of office twice since WWII but composed of multiple factions, a semi-proportional voting system that has mainly favored the ruling party, a declining population of voters who are increasingly distrustful of politics and an exceptionally powerful bureaucracy. The result has been the continuing tenure of the LDP met with frequently changing political leaders. Since the early 1990s, numerous attempts have been made to challenge this supremacy : a semi-proportional system was introduced, and DPJ won the elections twice, each time following major corruption scandals from the LDP. Besides, the voting age has been lowered to 18 and decentralization has been heavily promoted as a means to introduce more autonomy and local democracy.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that changes have failed to meet expectations, and most aspects of politics have remained the same. Indeed, proportional representation is incomplete and continues to favor LDP, political participation remains too low for a working democracy, malapportionment is impeding other political parties from emerging. Scandals and corruption remain endemic among political parties, slowly eroding popular support in the system.
Democratic politics are clearly facing a crisis in Japan and around the world. It is up to the Japanese government, and also, the opposition parties to take action to tackle those issues and protect democracy in Japan. Fairness, transparency, representation, and trust are values that the Japanese political system has failed to uphold thus far, and desperately needs to implement in order to regain voter support and faith in the wake of impending General Elections.