Photo:Junpei Abe on Flickr

Japanese Government: An Introduction

We have those kinds of friends. The ones who say: “Oh, I don’t do politics.” or “Who cares? Whichever party we vote for, it’s all the same.”

There’s also the old gripes about: “Politics is boring, it’s just a bunch of boring, middle-aged twits, out of touch with reality, constantly trying to one-up each other with clever speeches.” Actually in this case my friend may have a point.

However, the success of TV shows like “The West Wing” and “Game of Thrones” shows that, as people, we do love a bit of political maneuvering and intrigue.

Japanese politics may not have a “President Bartlet” or a “Tyrion Lannister” but there’s certainly no shortage of colourful characters in the Japanese parliament.

Photo : Danny Choo on Flickr

To understand politics in Japan, one must understand not just the players, but also the nature of the game itself. So how does politics work in Japan, today I hope to shed some light on this very subject.

Japan’s economic boom of the post war years was helped in at least a small part by the stability of its government. Indeed until the 1990s, Japan was, for the most part, a one-party system. Of course like in any other free and open democracy, dissenting voices and opposition were allowed, but the all-powerful Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) called the shots, and it did so almost unchallenged.

Of course one of the remaining relics of Japan’s Imperial past is the retention of an Emperor and a royal family of sorts. However, unlike other well known royal houses like the Saxe-Coburgs of England or the Sultan of Brunei, The Emperor of Japan is not a sovereign monarch. In other words, he has no actual political power. The Local Autonomy Law, adopted shortly after the end of World War 2, enshrines in Japanese law the idea of popular sovereignty. In other words, it is the people of Japan to whom the government has to answer, not the Emperor. Hence, elections in Japan are purely political affairs, with the formation and dissolution of government requiring none of the outmoded, elaborate, nonsensical rituals we see from The Queen in the UK parliament.

Photo : Reinhard Link on Flickr

In some ways similar to the UK parliament, the Japanese system has two houses in which politicians will sit. The House of Representatives (known informally as the Lower House) and the House of Councillors (Upper House). On the surface this would appear to function the same way as the House of Commons and the House of Lords do in the UK. However there are a number of subtle differences. As in the UK, in order for a bill to be enacted into law, it must clear a vote by majority in both houses. The level of majority required varies in accordance with the nature of the law being proposed or amended. Unlike its UK equivalent The House of Lords, Japan’s Upper House is elected by popular vote rather than by hereditary or royal appointment. Members of the Upper House serve terms of 6 years, with half of the house standing for re-election every 3 years.

In the lower house, things run along a similar parallel to that of the UK House of Commons. Elections must be held at least every 4 years. However, unlike the UK which has always used a “First Past the Post” system for constituency elections, the Japanese lower house elections use a blend of single-member constituency elections (first past the post) for 295 members to be elected to the house. In addition another 180 members are elected using a party-list system of proportional representation.

In proportional representation, seats are allocated to each party based on their percentage of the overall national vote rather than on their performance in individual constituency elections. Supporters of this system believe that it lessens the possibility of one party getting too much power and also ensures that every vote counts.

Combined this gives a total of 475 seats in the house, meaning that 238 are needed to ensure an overall majority.

Likewise, The Upper House also utlilizes a blend of prefectural district direct elections and proportional representation to ensure that voters’ views are more closely reflected.

While the prime minister can technically be a member of either the lower or upper house, in most cases he will be a member from the lower house, as the office of Prime Minister has the authority to dissolve the lower house for elections, as PM Shinzo Abe did in late 2014, but not the upper house. Unlike in the US system, neither the Prime Minister nor any other government ministers are subject to term limits. However, the PM must stand for re-election every time the lower house is dissolved.

There are a number of political parties in Japan, however only two have ever formed a government in recent times. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has won all but one of the lower house elections held in Japan since 1945. Their only credible rival is the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). However as the DPJ was actually formed from a disgruntled group of former LDP members in the 1990s, the criticism often levelled at Japan’s political system is that these two main parties are merely two sides of the same coin.

The LDP identifies itself as right of centre, the DPJ as left of centre. They are both undoubtedly centrist parties in principal, but in recent times the LDP has shifted more to the conservative right of the political spectrum, and in keeping pace, the DPJ has also lurched a little right of centre in their efforts to woo potential LDP converts.

Other prominent, though far less popular parties include the left-leaning Japanese Communist Party, the Osaka-based New Japan Party and the New Komeito Party. Komeito’s origins stem from a particular sect of Buddhism and is reflected in many of its policy ideas. Komeito is still a conservative party by nature though and it has in the past formed numerous coalition pacts with the LDP. At the moment, after Shinzo Abe’s decisive victory in last year’s lower house election the LDP finds itself in the rare and enviable position of having an overall majority in both houses. While some worry that this gives Abe himself too much power to push his own agendas, others say that this will give Japan a much needed period of political stability. In the 10 years since I first visited Japan as a university student, Japan has had 7 Prime Ministers, 8 if you count Abe’s 2 terms separately.

To vote in Japan you need to be over 20 years old and have Japanese nationality. You don’t necessarily have to be born in Japan to attain this.

Photo : Keith Ivey on Flickr

To stand as an election candidate, you need to have Japanese nationality and be over 25 years old for the lower house, and over 30 years old for the upper house.

Whatever your views on how Mr Abe is running Japan at the moment, I hope this little article has given you some insight into how he got there. Now, if we could just convince a few more of our Japanese friends to get out and vote…..

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