Japan’s Democracy Comes of Age

After decades of near
paralysis, Japan’s stultified political system starts to get

Photo by Andrew James

samourai1A slow motion political
evolution that commenced some 15 years ago in Japan is beginning to
bear fruit. The long quest to transform the country into a
competitive, two-party democracy is closer to realization than some,
including longtime Japan watchers, are willing to admit. It was first
manifested in the Liberal Democratic Party’s blowout in 2005.
Last week the opposition Democratic Party of Japan returned the
favor, handing the LDP an historic defeat in the election for half of
the House of Councilors, Japan’s senate.

To understand what has
happened, it is necessary to look back to the situation that
prevailed from the founding of the LDP in 1955 to the 1990s. Japan’s
Diet was essentially gerrymandered to ensure that the LDP maintained
a firm grip on government. Parliamentarians were chosen from large,
multi-member districts. That meant that successful candidates often
won with only about 10 per cent of the vote, or less. This system put
a premium on local connections and pork barrel politics. Issues? Who
needs issues?

Rigged for Decades

Electoral boundaries
drawn in the 1950s remained unchanged, even as rural areas emptied
due to urban migration. The main “opposition,” the
Socialist Party of Japan, was stuck in Cold War thinking, often more
Marxist than the Japanese Communists. The party had no real interest
in governing, only in maintaining enough seats to deny the LDP the
two-thirds majority needed to change the Japan’s pacifist
constitution. It seldom ran enough candidates to form a majority even
if they were all successful.

It was fashionable at
the time to say that the fault lay somewhere in the Japanese psyche,
that the country was not suited to the give-and take of real
democracy, or democracy was not suited to it. Never mind that the
voters often displayed a healthy “throw-the-bums-out”
attitude at the local and prefecture levels.

Things started to
change in 1993 with a successful no-confidence motion against the
government of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who recently died. That
ushered in several years of confusion, including the absurdity of a
socialist premier supported by an LDP majority. Nevertheless, change
was in the offing.

First, the Diet junked
the multi-member districts and replaced them with 300 single-member
seats (the rest of the 480-seat House of Representatives elected
through proportional representation).

Second, the opposition
went through several metamorphoses, finally coalescing into the
present Democratic Party. In doing so it abandoned its knee-jerk
opposition to the self-defense forces and the US-Japan Security
Agreement in pursuit of votes.

The Democrats have not
yet sealed the deal in convincing the Japanese people that they are a
viable alternative government. Their big win last week doesn’t
change that since the government depends on a majority in the lower
house, whose members were not up for re-election. But they are
getting closer.

Meanwhile, politics are
undergoing a sea change.

The rise of issues
For one thing Japanese
elections have become much more issue-oriented than before. Former
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the Diet and called a
general election on the sole issue of privatizing the postal system
in 2005 and picked up more than 80 seats.

Of course, Koizumi was
shrewd enough to add some dramatics to the election by expelling
dissident members from his own party and recruiting celebrities to
run against them with official party endorsements, giving the press
plenty to feast on.

There was perhaps no
overriding issue involved in the recent election, unless anger over a
big screw-up in pension accounting constitutes an “issue”.
But the voters sent a clear message that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s
priorities were not theirs.

Abe is a curious figure
to lead Japan in this new political era. He is the youngest prime
minister since the end of World War II and the first born after the
war. Yet he seems very much a part of the old order.

The grandson of a prime
minister and the son of a prominent politician whose rise to prime
minister was cut short by death, Abe grew up closely cosseted by his
family’s advisers and hangers on, and he seems to have absorbed
their obsession with nationalist ideas such as rewriting the

As of this writing Abe
is resisting demands that he resign (previous premiers have resigned
over lesser defeats), but one can imagine that he will change his
tune. A major test comes with the anniversary of the end of World War
II when Abe will have to decide whether to follow his predecessor’s
footsteps by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. So far, he has finessed
that sensitive issue.

As issues have become
more important in elections, the influence of geography also has
declined. It is hard to think of the LDP as being beholden to rural
interests when in 2005 the party captured every one of Tokyo’s
25 Diet seats, save two – unseating 10 Democrats in the

At the same time in the
House of Councilors election, the Democrats knocked off LDP stalwarts
in many rural and depopulated districts that had been LDP strongholds
for generations.

As many political
observers have noted, the most important political development is the
emergence of a large floating electorate with no strong attachment to
any party. As this phenomenon grows, expect to see many more wild
swings in Japanese elections.

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