The Direction of Contemporary Japanese Politics

Behind Japan’s Political Turmoil


Japan’s political landscape has remained in a state of turbulence since the 1990s. We are now on our eighth prime minister in this century alone. What factors have brought about this situation? Machidori Satoshi provides the first in a series of pieces by leading Japanese political scholars presenting a comprehensive overview of the nation’s politics today.

Japan’s political landscape is immersed in an ever-mounting sense of helplessness. The country faces grave situations like the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that battered the Tōhoku region, as well as the ongoing emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Despite this, the prime minister has failed to respond in a cool, measured way, and the political parties have been of little help—the ruling coalition has hardly been cooperative with the administration, and the opposition parties have focused on attacking the premier and ruling parties in the hope of bringing down the cabinet by any means possible. Meanwhile, Japan appears to be paying almost no attention to foreign policy matters. Naturally the upshot of all this has been plummeting public support—not just for the cabinet, but for both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. It remains to be seen whether the launch of the administration of Noda Yoshihiko can turn things around. What is certain, though, is that the new prime minister faces a rocky road ahead.

Much of Japan’s electorate must be feeling that things were not supposed to go this way. When the DPJ gained control of the House of Representatives through its landslide victory in the August 2009 general election, taking over the reins of the government from the LDP, the public had very high hopes in the Democrats and the new administration of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio. Even those who were not among the DPJ’s supporters were more or less resigned to the prospect of considerable change in the nation’s policy course as a result of this changing of the guard. But in the end the Democrats failed to deliver on many of the policies they had trumpeted as planks in their election platform. Even when they were able to partially implement their key proposals, as in the case of the new public benefits for households with children, by the end of the administration of Kan Naoto in August 2011 they had ended up backtracking on nearly all of the progress made. These developments lead one to wonder what significance, if any, the shift in power from the LDP to DPJ has ultimately had.

It would be inappropriate, though, to place the blame solely on the DPJ’s inexperience or lack of preparation, or on the lack of leadership shown by Prime Ministers Hatoyama and Kan. Dysfunction in Japanese politics was evident even before the Democrats took power, in the waning days of LDP leadership. The situation may have deteriorated further on the Democrats’ watch, but the problems were not necessarily of their making. We must examine the deeper structural issues that would have confronted whichever political party had found itself in control of the government.

Basic Structures of Postwar Japanese Politics

As a point of departure for our consideration of the issues facing Japanese politics today, let us take a fresh look at the characteristics of the lengthy period of uninterrupted LDP rule that began in 1955, a relatively stable time in postwar politics.

The Japanese political scene at the time could be broadly characterized by two factors. First, the House of Representatives had de facto dominance over the upper house in the Diet, the House of Councillors. Japan’s Constitution gives both of houses roughly equivalent authority, while leaving the relationship between the cabinet and the upper house quite vague. Throughout the postwar era, therefore, there was always the possibility that the House of Councillors would exercise considerable influence on the direction of government. However, the LDP held comfortable majorities in both houses of the Diet, which meant that rivalry between the chambers largely took the form of internal rivalry among different portions of the ruling party. It was very rare for the upper house to slow the passage of a bill during Diet deliberations once the Liberal Democrats had carried out thorough intraparty preliminary discussion prior to the cabinet submitting the bill to the legislature. The flip side of this, however, was the need for LDP prime ministers—even long-lived ones like Ikeda Hayato (1960–64) and Satō Eisaku (1964–72)—to give their party’s members in the House of Councillors considerable autonomy, particularly when it came to deciding personnel matters like the selection of people to fill party posts.

The second factor was the bottom-up decision-making process that took place within the LDP during its years as the ruling party. The various divisions of the party’s Policy Research Council—where the zoku giin, or “tribe legislators” affiliated with certain interests or policy areas, were most active—kept in close contact with the various ministries and agencies in the central government. This activity led in the end to approval by the party’s General Council, strongly represented by longtime party members who had risen through the ranks. In this way the entire policy proposal process was highly systematized. The system also brought about a division of labor allowing all party members to take part in the task at hand: young Diet members with an interest in the policy field were involved in the first stages of the process, while veteran politicians who had connections with members of the opposition and a talent for political deal-making managed the final adjustments, smoothing over any dissatisfaction that might arise within the party.

Underlying these two factors was a particular combination of the multiple-member district system used in lower house elections and the parliamentary system, which placed relatively severe constraints on the prime minister’s leadership capacity. The LDP made use of these multiple-member districts to maintain its hold on a secure majority, sending several members to the Diet from nearly every one of them. This meant that the LDP candidates in these districts were not just campaigning against the opposition; they were in competition with others from their own party. They had to differentiate themselves from other LDP members seeking a seat in the same constituency. This situation encouraged them to develop their own specialized niches within the party, and to also continue advancing their own personal views whether or not they meshed with the party leaders’ direction. The LDP’s division of labor, bottom-up decision-making process, and factions were all aspects that matched these conditions nicely.

The limitations on the premier’s leadership during this era were one natural outcome of the LDP’s decision-making process. They were also due in part to the design of Japan’s parliamentary system, though. In short, the prime minister had a limited dedicated staff at the Kantei, his office, with some of its members being seconded from the organs of the bureaucracy. What is more, the cabinet gave each minister supervisory authority over his or her ministry based on the legal principle of compartmentalized management, making it difficult for the premier to go over the heads of his ministers to take direct control of the bureaucrats. The prime minister was in a position where he needed to go through his cabinet members’ assistants—generally influential members of the LDP—to begin putting his policy ideas into practice. Seen in this light, the LDP prime ministers of the postwar era were little different from their “first among equals” predecessors who governed under the imperial constitution that was in force until just after the war.

Reform and the Rise of Koizumi

The politics during the era of unbroken LDP rule, while stable, eventually became unable to respond effectively to shifts on the international stage and changes in Japan’s own society and economy. After the Cold War drew to a close in 1989, the twin pillars of Japanese diplomacy—the bilateral alliance with the United States and a United Nations-centered approach to global affairs—became less compatible with each other over time, and the nation was called upon to make independent decisions more frequently on the diplomatic stage. The nation’s social and economic structures also underwent drastic changes compared to what they had been during the prolonged period of postwar high-level growth, and it became difficult to use the same governance methods as before, which included coordinating measures with the bureaucracy, envisioning future developments along the same track as past developments, and implementing regulations based on forecasts of what would be required. The stage was thus set for major shifts in the structures of Japanese politics, and the 1990s became a period of just this sort of reform.

Of particular importance were the electoral system reforms undertaken during the administration of Hosokawa Morihiro (1993–4) and the administrative reforms launched under Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō (1996–8), which bolstered the cabinet’s authority. The main goal of the Hosokawa reforms was a change from multiple-member district system to a combination of single-member districts and larger proportional representation blocs. Due to the rules that allowed candidates to stand for election in both types of district at once, winning election in the proportional representation blocs even if they had lost the single-member district vote, and because of the large number of single-member districts, the introduction of those smaller districts was the portion of the reforms that had the greatest impact. The reforms led to a political dynamic centered on competition between the two main parties in the House of Representatives. Within the parties, meanwhile, the reforms brought about a trend toward centralizing authority in the hands of the party executive.

The Hashimoto administrative reforms allowed the prime minister to place staff under his direct control within the Cabinet Office and Cabinet Secretariat and broadened the scope of his ability to make political appointments, from specially tapped ministers of state on down. As a result, the prime minister could wield some authority in the area of proposing policy. This considerably increased the political resources available to the prime minister, particularly in conjunction with a reorganization of the central government bureaucracy, which helped to undermine the strict compartmentalization of duties handled by the ministries, and a clarification of the prime minister’s capability to propose his own initiatives to the cabinet. These steps hinted at the development in Japan of a Westminster-style parliamentary system, where the premier wields more authority.

It was Koizumi Jun’ichirō who took advantage of the results of these reforms to create a long-lived administration (2001–6). He was not originally favored to win the 2001 LDP presidential election, but he earned overwhelming support from the party’s regional organizations with his promise to “smash the old LDP,” winning the presidency and therefore the prime minister’s office. His successful pursuit of the presidency had aspects of a campaign for the popular vote. After taking office he actively wielded authority within the party, labeling rivals who resisted his steps as “forces of resistance” that were to be driven out of the LDP. The prime example of this was the general election held in 2005, in which Koizumi stripped the LDP members who had voted against his bill to privatize Japan’s postal services of their formal party backing and sent in “assassin” candidates to stand against them in their districts. He was willing to make active use of his powers as prime minister, too: the memory is still fresh of how he implemented bold changes to Japan’s economic course, mainly via the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy and with the help of Takenaka Heizō, his specially appointed minister of state for economic and fiscal policy.

An Anomalous Upper House

One result of the reforms in the 1990s, as we have seen, was the emergence of Koizumi as a strong prime minister in the first decade of the new century. There were two other factors worth noting that contributed to the effectiveness of his administration, though. The first was the fact that the ruling coalition controlled the House of Councillors for the entirety of his term in office. The LDP had not held a majority on its own in the upper house since losing it in the 1989 election, but through a variety of alliances with smaller parties it maintained control of a majority of seats in both houses for most of the period through 2007 (including its coalition with the New Kōmeitō beginning in 1999). When a coalition holds a majority in both houses of the Diet at the same time that it controls the government, conflicts that arise between the chambers can be dealt with as purely internal matters by the ruling parties. Koizumi exerted considerable top-down leadership in his selection of lower house members to serve in his cabinet and his policies, but he did so while addressing upper house demands by giving Aoki Mikio, the leading LDP lawmaker in that chamber, considerable latitude in personnel decisions.

In the 2007 election, however, the Democrats became top party in the House of Councillors, leaving the LDP and Kōmeitō unable to secure a majority even in combination and producing the “split Diet,” in which the upper and lower houses are controlled by different parties or coalitions. The rivalries between the houses combined with confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties. Japan’s Constitution stipulates no ability for the upper house to declare confidence or otherwise in the prime minister; in this sense it is a somewhat anomalous presence on the governmental stage. It remains, however, nearly equivalent to the lower house in terms of its authority. The House of Councillors skillfully wields considerable influence through the vehicles of two generally contradictory elements: its moral authority as a self-proclaimed “bastion of wise judgment” and its legitimacy as a democratic organ whose members are selected by popular vote. This influence was capped for many years while the ruling LDP maintained its lock on both Diet chambers, but once the divided Diet came into being the upper house became an independent force in the political scene.

The Constitution clearly defines a parliamentary system for Japan. In this system the prime minister is selected in line with the will of a majority of the House of Representatives, and the cabinet must answer to that lower house. The House of Councillors is an anomaly in this system: a fundamentally flawed organ of governance that has the ability to completely overturn the will of the cabinet and a majority of the members in the House of Representatives. If the upper house makes frequent use of this ability, it could plunge Japanese politics into a constitutional crisis.

Once the DPJ gained control of the upper house in 2007, though, it failed to recognize this fact, using that control consistently to resist the policies of the LDP administrations and the ruling coalition. A major reason for the early demises of the administrations of both Abe Shinzō (2006–7) and Fukuda Yasuo (2007–8) was their failure to line up majority support in the House of Councillors. And even after 2009, when the DPJ wrested control of the government away from the Liberal Democrats, the new ruling party ended up facing the exact same problem: an upper house in the hands of the opposition. Despite holding a crushing majority of more than 300 seats in the lower hours, the Democrats were forced from the beginning to forge a coalition with smaller parties by their minority position in the upper chamber. This meant giving in to those parties’ demands on the policy front. Following the upper house election of 2010, when the ruling parties lost further ground, the DPJ lost even the ability to form a controlling coalition, creating a divided Diet once again. To this date the Democrats remain unable to craft a stable majority by teaming up with other parties. This has had an undeniable impact on the government’s response to the March 11, 2011, disaster.

Party Organizations in Transition

Another factor that bolstered the long-lasting Koizumi administration, and which has not been seen since, was the complete loyalty to the prime minister from the ruling party’s executive. Given the election system in place today, the party’s secretary general is a very powerful post, with sole control over the approval of candidates and the distribution of party campaign funds. Prime Minister Koizumi filled this post with relatively young Diet members or those with whom he had a close personal relationship, thus strengthening party bonds of loyalty to him. Once Abe succeeded him, though, the premiers were politicians with shorter careers behind them, meaning their picks for secretary general were closer to them in terms of their influence within the party. This pattern of relative equality between the party president (prime minister in the case of a ruling party) and secretary general was not so different from that seen at the height of the era of LDP factional intraparty politics, but there was one key difference: the lack of a key dealmaker (such as the chairman of the party’s General Council or some other politician with no aspirations to become prime minister) who could smooth over rough patches in the party’s dealings.

In contrast, the DPJ since coming to power has had almost no politicians in its executive body who wholeheartedly support the prime minister and his decisions. As secretary general, the Democrats tapped Ozawa Ichirō to serve under Hatoyama Yukio and Edano Yukio and Okada Katsuya under Kan Naoto. Both Ozawa and Okada had previously served as party president, and Edano is viewed as a likely candidate for the premiership himself in the near future. The DPJ did away with the post of General Council chair some time ago, and the post of Policy Research Council was axed during Hatoyama’s tenure. The very makeup of the posts constituting the party’s executive has been somewhat fluid, and all the politicians entering this shifting group have been intraparty rivals to the prime minister. These key characteristics of the DPJ remain in place under the new prime minister, Noda Yoshihiko.

The relationships between the party executive and the prime minister in the nation’s two main political parties today point to one fact: the party organizations have not been sufficiently restructured to cope with the revised election system, whose single-seat districts gave rise to the “strong prime minister” in Japan, and the more sweeping capabilities of the cabinet. The parties have succeeded in reshaping their organizations in a relatively short time with respect to the connection with voters, the other direct participants in elections. What were once contests in which party factions and candidate-support organizations took the lead to present individual candidates and their positions as attractive choices are now elections where the parties’ “manifestos,” or officially published policy platforms, and the image of their leaders are the deciding factors. This has given more weight than before to the “official candidate” label that the two main parties give to their nominees, and these developments have centralized control over the relationships between the party executive and the rank and file.

When it comes to relationships among the parties’ more influential politicians, however, neither of the two leading parties has realized any sort of systemic approach to the authority wielded by the president and other members of the party executive. A major reason for this is the fact that the most powerful DPJ and LDP Diet members either built their foundations of political support during the era of multiple-member district system or received the support machines intact from their parents, whose seats they took over after the elder generation retired. There is therefore little incentive for these politicians to pay full allegiance to the party executive.

The Outlook for Change

In sum, the problems confronting Japanese politics today are rooted in the excessive power wielded by the House of Councillors vis-à-vis the House of Representatives and the cabinet, and in the failure of the two main political parties to consolidate authority over internal matters in their executives.

There has undeniably been a decline in the quality of political leadership, due in part to the rising number of Diet members occupying “hereditary seats” previously held by their parents. It is also a fact that the electorate demands too much of politicians in terms of short-term results and personal appearance. The real problems afflicting Japanese politics today, though, are more structural and systemic in nature. Practical solutions will not arise through pinning the blame on individual scapegoats or pointing the finger at the foolishness of voters or the media—and recognizing this fact is the first step toward any sort of positive change.

Once this recognition is gained, we must come up with concrete reforms that address the systemic problems in politics. First, there is a need to prevent the House of Councillors from wielding excessive influence over the political process—and, more to the point, to prevent the moves of the upper house from dictating the makeup of ruling parties and coalitions or deciding the fate of cabinets. The ideal way to do this is by amending the Constitution to clearly reduce the authority held by the upper house. Given the extraordinary difficulty of this approach, though, it may be better for the two main parties—both of which have seen administrations cut short due to the divided control of the chambers of the Diet—to reach a political agreement on limiting the powers of the House of Councillors. The members of the two parties currently sitting in that house will of course fiercely resist such moves, but with a broad agreement in place the parties could send any bill rejected in the upper house back to the lower house for repassage. Repeated overrides of upper house decisions in this way would build up precedent and convention, thus establishing the primacy of the lower house.

Luckily, there is an opportunity to revise the election system for the House of Councillors in connection with “malapportionment”—the fact that a vote in a rural district can be worth several times more than a vote in a heavily populated urban district with the same Diet representation. This reform must not be left up to the upper house, though. There is a need for broad debate on what sort of relations are needed among the voters, the cabinet, and the lower house. By clearly defining the ideal characteristics of the upper house at the same time that as moving ahead with needed changes to the electoral system, we may be able to ensure the quality of upper house reform.

Reforming the political parties’ organs may prove more difficult, as many of the aspects requiring change are governed by the parties’ internal regulations. It should be possible, however, to require the nation’s two main parties to introduce open elections—with the involvement of regional party organizations and the general membership—to select their presidents, who are potential prime ministers; and to require presidential candidates to name the people they would tap as chief cabinet secretary and party secretary general. Such steps would confer greater legitimacy upon the party presidents and help to prevent situations in which a limited number of Diet members enjoy excessive control over their parties. It is also only natural to require more accountability from the parties regarding their organizational management, in addition of course to strict observation of the Political Funds Control Law, given that they receive public funds in the form of party subsidies.

Japan has little time to waste in addressing societal and economic problems, such as its rapidly graying population and its deteriorating public finances. The rise of China coupled with the economic woes now besetting the United States and Europe point to a potential major shift in the global economic and political order. This makes the political vacuum seen in Japan during its short-lived administrations since 2006 all the more distressing. Of course, nothing will change if Japan’s people only spend their time complaining about the situation. It is the duty of all the members of Japanese society today to address this political void, which has come at such a terrible cost to the nation, so that future generations will not have to lament a wasted opportunity.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

Noda Yoshihiko politics Diet change reform Koizumi Jun'ichirō DPJ Democrats LDP Liberal Democrats political parties electoral districts