Postwar Government and Politics: The Creation of Japanese Democracy and Its Structure

Japan became a democratic country with the adoption of the 1947 Constitution, which has never been amended and remains in effect today. However, since roughly 1985, domestic and international factors have resulted in new challenges and changes for Japan’s political leadership. Before contemporary government and politics can be understood, a discussion of the creation of Japanese democracy and the structure of postwar government is appropriate. To fully understand how Japan’s democracy was created and has evolved, as well as the challenges it now faces and its responses, it is also important to read other relevant sections of this book including the chapters on history, the economy, and contemporary issues.

As recent world events confirm, building democracies when prior significantly different forms of government have existed is no easy task. In retrospect, Japan rapidly changed course after World War II, but a closer examination indicates that several features of Japanese pre–World War II society provided solid foundations for later democratic government. Japan had been a politically unified country since 1600. Also, the Japanese possessed an important ingredient for building a successful democratic society; thanks to a compulsory educational system that had been in place for much more than 50 years by 1945, the Japanese had high literacy rates by world standards. Despite short periods of turmoil in the beginning of the Tokugawa and Meiji eras and during World War II, Japanese political history has been also largely evolutionary and nonviolent since the early 1600s. This climate of stability proved to be a fertile one for the growth of mass democracy in Japan. Certain political institutions vital to the growth of democracy also evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As noted earlier, Japanese in 1945 had experiences with a prior Constitution that was more than 50 years old, which provided for some legislative representation. They also had experience with a political system that had adopted universal male suffrage and allowed for, despite periods of repression, contrasting ideologies, social movements, and political parties.

After experiencing displeasure with initial efforts on the part of the Japanese government, American occupational authorities wrote the present 1947 Constitution and successfully managed its adoption. The Constitution includes a bicameral Diet with both houses elected, a judicial branch that includes a 15-member Supreme Court appointed by the executive, and an executive branch composed of the prime minister and cabinet. The Constitution provides for universal suffrage for both sexes as well as other such individual rights as freedom of speech and the press. Much to the consternation of some conservatives to this day, the Constitution limits the emperor’s governmental powers and states that he is solely ‘‘a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people’’ (Reischauer 1981, 229). Article 9, whereby the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation, also remains controversial, even though Japan now has substantial air, land, and sea self-defense forces. The 1947 Constitution did not change the prefectural governmental structure that has existed since the Meiji period. Today, Japan has 47 prefectures, each with its own elected governor and legislature who serve four-year terms. The governor is responsible for prefectural administration. There are 43 regular prefectures, 3 urban prefectures (Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto), and one special prefecture, Hokkaido. Hokkaido is classified as ‘‘special’’ because the entire island is one self-contained prefecture. Although prefectures are roughly analogous to U.S. states, there is a significant difference: While prefectures have some control over such policy matters as public law and order and hiring teachers, they do not have the degree of autonomy from the national government as is the case with American states. More than 40 percent of monies for Japan’s local government expenses—such as public hygiene, education, police, and similar areas of local responsibility—come from the national government. Prefectural and local governments regularly negotiate with national government bureaucrats regarding many policy matters because numerous national guidelines and directives accompany these central government revenues.

A major innovation of the 1947 Constitution was to make the Diet, in theory, the highest organ of state power with sole law-making authority. The more powerful of the two houses is the 480-member lower house, the House of Representatives, whose members are all elected at the same time for four-year terms. The 242 members of the upper House of Councilors replaced the pre–World War II nonelective House of Peers. Members are elected for six-year terms with one-half of members elected every third year. The House of Councilors is considered the upper house since there are no parliamentary rules that can result in its dissolution. The House of Representatives is considered the lower house, or the house that is most sensitive to public opinion, since it can be dissolved either by the prime minister or by a successful legislative ‘‘no confidence’’ vote.

Although both houses have power, the House of Councilors’ power is more limited than that of the House of Representatives. If the lower house passes a bill and the upper house votes it down, it can still become law if a two-thirds majority of the lower house votes for the bill a second time. The annual national government budget is presented to the lower house first. If the lower house passes the budget, the upper house formulates a different version, and no compromise can be reached by a bicameral conference committee, then the lower house’s version becomes law. Also, if the two houses fail to agree on who should become prime minister, the lower house has the prerogative of choosing the executive.

Once elections to the lower house are concluded, the leader of the party that either has a majority in the lower house or assembles a majority coalition of parties normally becomes prime minister. In 1994, an exception occurred when Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leaders built a coalition government by awarding Socialist Party chair Murayama Tomiichi the prime ministership. Upon election, the prime minister names a cabinet of 14 to 17 ministers consisting of heads of government ministries and various other agencies. Prime ministers and governments change relatively frequently in Japan because of cabinet reshuffles, votes of no confidence, and elections. As of the publication of this book, since 1996 there have been seven different prime ministers and 12 different cabinets. Cabinet ministers, who are politically appointed, serve as titular heads of major departments within the bureaucracy, such as the Ministry of Finance (MOF), the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, and all have significant policy and administrative responsibilities.

National Diet elections in Japan are held for both houses, and citizens 20 years or older are eligible to vote. Although there have been several changes in election laws over the past few decades, currently, 300 of the 480 members of the House of Representatives are elected from single-seat constituencies, and the remaining 180 representatives are elected by proportional representation. Japan is divided into 11 electoral blocs, with each bloc electing between 6 and 40 members according to its size. Voters cast two ballots in elections. One is for the individual candidate in the single-district constituency. The second ballot is for a political party in the proportional representation election. Dual candidacies are legal, so a party may run a candidate for both a single-member district seat and for election by proportional representation. Candidates must be at least 25 years of age to run for the House of Representatives.

Ninety-six of the 242 members of the House of Councilors are elected by proportional representation from a single national electoral district, and the remaining 146 are elected in the 47 prefectures, with each prefecture electing a varying number of members depending on its size. As is the case in the House of Representatives elections, voters cast two ballots, one in the proportional vote and one for the individual candidate in a constituency. Candidates for the House of Councilors must be at least 30 years of age. These electoral law changes were initiated in 1994. Until then, the House of Representatives consisted of 512 members elected from 130 districts, with each electoral district having anywhere from 2 to 6 Diet seats. Voters would vote for only one candidate, but the winners in any given district would be the 2 to 6 candidates who received the most votes among perhaps 10 to 12 candidates running. This proportional system was the subject of much criticism in Japan due to perceptions that it promoted legislator overaccentuation on constituency services, factionalism, and personality. Because one political party, the LDP, dominated the Diet, candidates for seats often would be elected based on how much money and favors could be doled out to supporters rather than based on their stances on political issues.

Electoral campaigns in Japan are much shorter than the United States, being limited by law to only 40 days. Despite this, many Japanese politicians, like their counterparts elsewhere, are always unofficially campaigning. Door-to-door campaigning is prohibited during the official campaign period, and there are stricter rules on Internet campaign use than in the United States, but citizens in urban areas are constantly subjected to candidates’ supporters blaring out platitudes on loudspeakers. National elections, which were until a few years ago always held on Sundays, drew a much higher percentage of voters than in the United States until recently. As of late, cynicism about politicians has resulted in a substantial drop in voter participation rates. Since the advent of democracy in Japan, multiple political parties have existed but, as noted, the LDP has been dominant since its creation in 1955. However, as will be discussed at some length, this dominance is in dire jeopardy. Other current active political parties include the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the New Komeito Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Japanese Communist Party. There are numerous smaller parties as well.