Parliamentary Democracy in Japan

Japan in Pursuit of Westminster Democracy


Since the 1990s Japan has undertaken a raft of political reforms designed to foster more efficient and effective government. Takenaka Harukata assesses the outcome of these institutional changes, the lingering obstacles to majoritarian democracy in Japan, and the implications for policymaking under the second Abe cabinet.

From 1994 on, Japan implemented a series of political and administrative reforms that have had a pronounced impact on the workings of parliamentary democracy in this country. Below I explore the challenges built into Japan’s parliamentary system and the degree to which recent reforms have addressed them. For this purpose, I assess the key features of the Japanese system before and after reform in relation to the so-called Westminster (majoritarian) and consensus models of democracy. After identifying the system’s lingering anomalies, I examine their effect on the political situation in recent years. Finally, I offer my own forecast for politics under the second cabinet of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō in the light of the recent House of Councillors election.

Character of Japanese Parliamentary Democracy

Japan’s system of government is considered to be a parliamentary cabinet system. The essence of such a system lies in the following relationship between the cabinet and the legislature: on the one hand, the cabinet relies on the confidence of the legislature; on the other hand, the cabinet has the power to dissolve the legislature.(*1)

Now, how can we characterize Japan’s parliamentary system from a comparative perspective? The typology proposed by political scientist Arend Lijphart provides a useful framework. He classifies democracies in relation to two contrasting models of democratic rule: the Westminster (or majoritarian) model, which gives maximum decision-making power to a simple majority, and the consensus model, which attempts to incorporate multiple minority viewpoints in the decision-making process.(*2) Bearing in mind the classification proposed by Lijphart, a number of Japanese scholars have classified democracies into two categories. The following summary incorporates elements of their analysis.(*3)

Westminster democracy is characterized by (1) single-seat electoral constituencies, (2) a two-party political system, (3) concentration of executive power in single-party majority cabinets, (4) unity of the cabinet and the majority party, (5) dominance of the executive over the legislature, (6) a unicameral legislature, and (7) a strong leadership by the prime minister.

In contrast, consensus democracy is distinguished by (1) proportional representation, (2) a multiparty political system, (3) executive power sharing in multiparty coalitions, (4) duality of the cabinet and majority party, (5) balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, (6) a bicameral legislature, and (7) a prime minister with weak executive power.

Features of Westminster and Consensus Democracy

Westminster Consensus
Single-seat constituencies Proportional representation
Two-party political system Multiparty political system
Concentration of power in single-party cabinet Power sharing in multiparty coalitions
Unity of cabinet and majority party Duality of cabinet and majority party
Dominance of the executive over legislature Executive-legislative power balance
Unicameral legislature Bicameral legislature
Strong prime minister Weak prime minister

Shifts in the Japanese System

How can Japan’s parliamentary democracy be classified?

Under the so-called 1955 system, a period of uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party lasting from 1955 to 1993, Japanese parliamentary government conformed overall to the consensus model, notwithstanding certain discrepancies. Although the Japanese electoral system did not use proportional representation, Japan’s “medium-sized” multiseat districts had a similar effect, supporting a multiparty system, albeit one dominated by the LDP.

Unlike the typical consensus democracy, Japan was under the control of single-party cabinets throughout the period. But because the LDP was a political party consisting of competitive factions, LDP cabinets were similar to coalition governments in many ways.(*4) From an institutional standpoint, the Diet has a high degree of independence vis-à-vis the cabinet. This fact, combined with the clout of the LDP’s internal factions, gave the party apparatus a powerful voice in the decision-making process, which resulted in a dual policymaking process, with one strand led by the cabinet and the other by the LDP. Because the cabinet had relatively little power over the party, it was unable to dominate the legislature. Given the influence wielded by senior LDP lawmakers, it seems fair to say that power was balanced more or less evenly between the executive and the legislature.

In terms of the legislature’s composition, the Diet is a bicameral body, consisting of the House of Representatives (lower house) and the House of Councillors (upper house). While the former is the stronger of the two, the latter has considerable power to block legislation. Even during the years when the LDP controlled both houses of the Diet, the upper house leveraged this power to exercise significant influence on policy behind the scenes. Finally, as a consequence of the foregoing features, the power of the Japanese prime minister was conspicuously weak.

During the 1990s, the system underwent a number of reforms. The most important of these were the electoral reform of 1994 and the 2001 reorganization of the cabinet and government agencies, deliberated and planned from 1996 to 1998. The 1994 electoral reform replaced the system of medium-sized constituencies with a parallel system combining single-seat districts and proportional representation. The administrative reforms implemented in 2001 beefed up the prime minister’s advisory and support staff while expanding the powers of the prime minister and his office. (There were other key reforms during this era, including the reform of the political funding system that accompanied the 1994 electoral reform, but I will not address them here.)

How have these reforms transformed Japan’s parliamentary system?

The replacement of multiseat constituencies with single-seat districts had the intended effect of moving Japan toward a two-party system. Soon after the reform was passed, non-LDP forces began to coalesce, first under the New Frontier Party and then, following the NFP’s breakup, under the Democratic Party of Japan. In the November 2003 general election, 86% of the seats in the House of Representatives fell to either the LDP or the DPJ. In the wake of the July 2004 House of Councillors election, the two largest parties controlled 81% of the seats in upper house. For the next eight years, the LDP and the DPJ would vie for control of the government in something approaching a two-party system.

Electoral reform also had the effect of reducing inter-factional competition within the LDP, since it was no longer possible for multiple LDP candidates to run and win in a single district. As a result, what was once little more than a coalition of factions began to take on the character of a cohesive party.

To be sure, as the LDP’s Diet strength declined, it was obliged to forge coalitions with other parties, particularly the New Kōmeitō. The DPJ also relied on coalitions with the New People’s Party and other small parties to form a cabinet after it ousted the LDP in 2009. In fact, every cabinet formed since January 1999 has been a coalition. Still, compared with the LDP cabinets formed under the 1955 system, they functioned more like one-party cabinets and served to centralize and strengthen the power of the executive.

Because winning election as an independent is more difficult in single-seat districts than in medium-sized districts, party endorsements assumed greater importance under the new electoral system. And since the party’s top leader has final authority when it comes to endorsing candidates, party presidents began to hold more sway within their parties. At the same time, administrative reforms bolstered the prime minister’s influence, particularly in regard to policymaking. The new rules accorded the prime minister the right to float new policies at Cabinet meetings and officially empowered the Cabinet Secretariat to draft legislation.

The Limits of Reform

The institutional reforms of the past two decades have often been credited with bringing Japanese parliamentary democracy closer to the Westminster model.(*5) But the Japanese system still diverges from the Westminster model in two crucial respects, both of them affecting the balance of power between the executive and the legislature. One disparity has to do with the power of the cabinet over the legislative organization as well as parliamentary business and legislation—that is, the progress of bills and resolutions through the two chambers of the Diet. The second concerns the Diet’s structure as a bicameral legislature and the relative powers of the two chambers. In both respects, the Japanese system still retains the character of a consensus democracy.

To better understand how these features define the character of Japan’s parliamentary system, let us see compare the Japanese Diet with the British Parliament, from which the Westminster model derives its name.

When it comes to controlling the legislative agenda and steering bills through Parliament, the British cabinet has far greater power than the Japanese cabinet. First, it is the government (that is, the cabinet) that determines priorities in the legislative agenda at the beginning of a session. The government can determine the timetable of legislation by filing a “program motion” after a bill’s second reading. Another means the government has of influencing legislative outcomes is the use of whips. Whips are appointed by each party to monitor the votes of members of parliament and impose party discipline. In Britain, the chief whip of the governing party also holds a ministerial position. Moreover, appointment to public bill committees is largely in the hands of the whips, making it highly unlikely that a member of the governing party who opposes a particular government bill will have a seat in the committee for the bill. Such mechanisms minimize the chances that government bills will become stalled in committee and help ensure their smooth passage.

In Japan, by contrast, the cabinet has no power to set the Diet’s legislative agenda and very little influence over the way the Diet conducts its business. Under the Japanese system, these powers belong primarily to the steering committees of both chambers and the Diet standing committees.

The steering committees of the upper and lower houses are effectively empowered to decide whether a plenary sitting will meet at all on any given day and to set the business of the day when it does. They also rule on requests from Diet members for ministers to appear before a plenary sitting to explain a government bill. As such requests from the opposition have become routine, and as a bill cannot be referred to committee until the steering committee makes its decision, this authority in effect allows the committee to control when deliberation of a bill begins. Within these powerful steering committees, the chairs and directors wield enormous authority. In practice, behind-the-scenes negotiations between the ruling and opposition parties also play a large part in the prioritization of Diet business. The chair of the ruling party’s Diet Affairs Committee and his counterparts in the opposition are charged with negotiating the order in which bills are taken up and the time allocated to each.

In the Japanese Diet, bills are referred to standing committees devoted to various policy areas, rather than public bill committees established expressly for the deliberation of each bill on an ad hoc basis, as in Britain. Within each Diet committee, the order in which bills are taken up and the time allocated to each are decided in informal negotiations among that committee’s chair and directors.

By taking advantage of these institutional features, ranking lawmakers in the ruling party are able to play a pivotal role in setting the Diet’s agenda, while the cabinet has little power to advance legislation after it is introduced.

Despite this, the Diet and the cabinet rarely came into conflict over government bills before 2009. The reason is that the LDP, via the longstanding custom of its “prior review system,” examines all legislation before the cabinet submits bills to the Diet. As a result, in principle, the only bills an LDP cabinet ever submits are those enjoying approval of the party’s Diet politicians.(*6) No doubt this system served the purpose of averting legislative snafus caused by the machinations of a few powerful Diet members.(*7) It also meant that bills likely to meet strong opposition from ruling party members were preempted in the process of prior review within the LDP. The custom also had the effect of masking the potential problems of a system in which the cabinet’s input in Diet affairs is so limited.

These problems emerged with a vengeance after the Democratic Party of Japan took the helm in 2009, and the government began introducing bills to the Diet without submitting them to the governing party for prior review. The consequences were particularly striking during the fledgling DPJ administration of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio. Under Hatoyama, the cabinet repeatedly introduced key legislation to the Diet only to see it die there for lack of cooperation from the DPJ’s own lawmakers. Cognizant of the problem, the cabinet of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko reversed course and began submitting bills to the DPJ for approval.

The Diet’s power to control its own business virtually free of executive interference is one of the defining features of Japan’s parliamentary democracy. It gives ranking Diet members significant power to affect the legislative agenda and schedule, which in turn gives them leverage over the entire policymaking process. Instead of fusing the government with the majority party, it has been conducive to the emergence of two separate policymaking processes. As a result, the Diet has continued to retain a high degree of independence, and the executive has failed to establish the kind of dominance over the legislature typical of a true Westminster democracy.

The Upper House’s Powers of Obstruction

The other main discrepancy between the Japanese system and the Westminster model lies in the bicameral makeup of the Diet and the relationship between the two chambers. While Britain has a bicameral legislature as well, the powers of the House of Commons dwarf those of the House of Lords. The House of Commons can vote “money bills”—legislation pertaining to taxation and government spending—into law unilaterally, without the consent of the upper house. In regard to other legislation, the House of Lords can delay a bill passed by the Commons by voting against it, but only for a year, after which the lower house can force it through.

The powers of the Japanese Diet’s two chambers are much more evenly matched, even though the House of Representatives is the stronger of the two. When it comes to approval of budgets and treaties, the decision of the House of Representatives prevails. But in regard to other legislation, the lower house is severely limited in its ability to override a contrary decision by the upper house. If the upper house rejects a bill passed by the lower house or passes it in modified form, the lower house can only prevail by passing the original bill a second time with the approval of two-thirds of all members present. This is a high hurdle for any majority party to overcome. In addition, the House of Councillors can delay action on a bill it receives from the House of Representatives for up to 60 days. After that, the lower house can consider the bill rejected by the upper house and vote on it again.

Since the upper house yields to the lower house in the designation of the prime minister and is not empowered to present resolutions of confidence or no confidence in the cabinet, there is nothing to guarantee that the cabinet will enjoy the support of a majority in the House of Councillors. Moreover, the cabinet has no power to dissolve the House of Councillors and call an election. From an institutional standpoint, the upper house poses a greater obstacle to government legislation than the lower house.

Impact on Government Turnover

These disparities between the Japanese parliamentary system and the Westminster model help explain much of the turmoil afflicting Japanese politics in recent years. From September 2006 to the present, Japan has replaced its prime ministers at the rate of one a year. For much of that time, the policymaking and legislative process has been at a virtual standstill. These circumstances are largely a result of the institutional features discussed in the previous section, particularly the strength of the House of Councillors.

A key factor contributing to the early resignations of Prime Ministers Fukuda Yasuo, Kan Naoto, and Noda Yoshihiko was the cabinet’s inability to push legislation through the Diet after the ruling party lost control of the House of Councillors. The LDP-Kōmeitō coalition held more than two-thirds of the seats in the lower house when Fukuda came to power in 2007, but it had lost its majority in the upper house the previous summer. In this “divided government” situation, progress on new policy initiatives stalled. The lower house was obliged to override the upper house with a two-thirds majority to push through an important bill reauthorizing refueling operations in the Indian Ocean to support the US war on terror. Moreover, because the precedence of the lower house does not apply to appointments requiring Diet approval, Fukuda struggled to find a replacement for Bank of Japan Governor Fukui Toshihiko when the latter’s term ended in March 2008, with the result that the position lay vacant for several weeks. Fukuda tendered his resignation in September the same year, citing political gridlock.

Prime Minister Kan faced similar obstacles when the DPJ-led coalition lost its majority in the House of Councillors following the July 2010 upper house election. Because of this Kan was unable to secure Diet approval for a continuation of the child allowance, one of the DPJ’s signature policies. He finally bowed to opposition pressure to resign in order to secure the LDP’s support for a critical bill allowing the government to issue deficit-financing bonds. To be sure, internal divisions in the DPJ hastened Kan’s resignation. But there is no question that legislative gridlock caused by a divided government seriously undermined the cabinet’s authority within the party.

Prime Minister Noda’s tenure was also severely undermined by the divided government. He was forced to reach an agreement with LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu to dissolve the lower house in exchange for the LDP’s cooperation in pushing through his cabinet’s top legislative priority, a package of fiscal and social security bills centered on an increase in the consumption tax. Respecting this agreement, Noda ended up dissolving the House of Representatives in November 2012 and calling a general election under circumstances that placed the DPJ at a severe disadvantage.

The most important factor behind Hatoyama’s resignation was unquestionably the prime minister’s handling of the
relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which ended by backing the government into a corner. But the lack of a mechanism for bringing the Diet into line with cabinet policies contributed to his downfall. Because of this, the government was unable to enact legislation crucial to its agenda, including key campaign pledges. This contributed to eroding valuable political momentum and public support.

Prospects for the Second Abe Cabinet

What are the prospects for Abe Shinzō’s cabinet under Japan’s partially reformed political system?

In the July 21 House of Councillors election, the ruling LDP scored a landslide victory, winning 65 of the 121 seats up for election. This gave the LDP-Kōmeitō coalition 135 seats in the 242-seat upper house, putting both chambers of the Diet under the control of the ruling party.

In the divided government scenario, the opposition’s prime objective was to obstruct the government and alienate the public from the ruling party. To this end, it would frequently oppose bills and halt or tie up deliberations over relatively minor differences. Now that the July House of Councillors election has put an end to this partisan gridlock, Prime Minister Abe should find it much easier to get legislation enacted and pursue his policy agenda.

But the two defining features of Japan’s parliamentary system will continue to affect the political process. The Diet’s independence vis-à-vis the cabinet still permits ranking lawmakers in the ruling party to retain significant influence over the fate of important government legislation. The unique position of the House of Councillors allows upper house politicians to throw their weight around without risking dissolution of the chamber.

As noted above, the LDP already has in place a system requiring bills to be cleared with the party in advance. This makes it less likely that cabinet bills will stall after being submitted to the Diet, as they did under the DPJ. At the same time, this system slows the pace of policymaking by necessitating the advice and consent of a large number of LDP politicians. The current Abe cabinet, like past LDP cabinets, will have to submit its agenda to this cumbersome decision-making process. For many of Abe’s policy initiatives, securing the cooperation of upper house LDP politicians will be essential.

The purpose of the reforms implemented from the 1990s on was to bring Japan’s parliamentary democracy closer to the Westminster model, and to some degree they were successful. In terms of the balance of power between the cabinet and the Diet and the relationship between the two legislative chambers, however, Japan is still very much a consensus democracy. This is hardly surprising, inasmuch as the reforms were aimed primarily at the electoral system and organization of the executive, not the legislature itself. As it stands, however, the Diet’s independence and its distinctive form of bicameralism are rigid barriers impeding Japan’s efforts in this direction. Any further progress toward the Westminster model will require institutional reform of the Diet in general and the bicameral system in particular.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

(*1) ^ As argued by Satō Kōji in Kenpō (The Constitution) (Tokyo: Seirin Shoin, 1981), p. 190.

(*2) ^ Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

(*3) ^ See, for example, Ōyama Reiko, Hikaku gikai seiji ron (Comparative Parliamentary Government) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2003); Ryū Kyōko, “Nihon kanryō sei—Nihon-gata kara Wesutominsutā-gata e” (The Japanese Bureaucracy: From Japanese-style to Westminster-style), in Muramatsu Michio and Kume Kunio, eds., Nihon seiji hendō no 30-nen (Thirty Years of Political Change in Japan) (Tokyo: Tōyō Keizai Shinpō Sha, 2006), pp. 223–55; and Yamaguchi Jirō, Naikaku seido (The Cabinet System) (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2007).

(*4) ^ See Iseri Hirofumi, Habatsu saihensei (Realigning the Party Factions) (Tokyo: Chūōkōron-sha, 1988), p. 82.

(*5) ^ As argued by, for example, Ryū, op. cit., p. 223 and p. 235; Yamaguchi, op. cit., p. 203; and Machidori Satoshi, Shushō seiji no seido bunseki (A Systems Analysis of Prime Ministerial Government) (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2012), p. 139.

(*6) ^ As noted by Iio Jun in Nihon no tōchi kōzō (Japanese Governance Structures) (Tokyo: Chūōkōron Shinsha, 2007), pp. 123–125.

(*7) ^ A point covered by Ōyama Reiko in Nihon no Kokkai (The Japanese Diet) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2011).

Kan Naoto Noda Yoshihiko Takenaka Harukata politics Diet election Hatoyama Yukio Abe Shinzō DPJ LDP New Kōmeitō political party political reform House of Representatives House of Councillors prime minister Fukuda Yasuo administrative reform cabinet