What type of democracy is Japan?
Japan is an island country located in East Asia. The politics of Japan are conducted in a framework of parliamentary constitutional monarchy whereby the Emperor of Japan is limited to a more or less ceremonial role who holds no real power, and the Prime Minister is the head of the government and the cabinet, and the chief of the executive branch. As Japan is commonly considered as a democratic country, this paper will include how exactly Japan fits into the democratic regime type, what the quality of its democratic system is as evaluated under a continuous measure model, the political development, and the democratization of Japan.
Japan Political Set-up
The government of Japan runs under three branches according to the Constitution of Japan: the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. The executive branch consists of the prime minister and the Cabinet of Ministers. The prime minister is the head of the executive branch and the cabinet who also gets to choose the cabinet’s ministers. He or she is designated by the legislature, the National Diet, to lead and control the activities of the executive branch.1
The legislative branch is the National Diet. It is a bicameral organ comprising two houses with the House of Councilors being the upper House and the House of the Representatives being the lower house. Their members are selected directly from the people. The Constitution endorses it as the highest and sole law-making organ in the country. 2
The judicial branch of the Japanese government consists of the Supreme Court, the high courts,
1 The Constitution of Japan (1947)
2 Benjamin Sawe “What Type Of Government Does Japan Have?”(WorldAtlas, 2019)
district courts, family courts, and summary courts. They are independent from the legislative and the executive branches. 3
Democracy Quality of Japan
The political system of Japan fits well to the minimalist definition of democracy. The minimalist definitions are also called procedural definitions because they rely very much on elections. According to Przeworski, all a democracy is a system in which parties lose elections; for democracy to be a democracy, the seats in the effective legislative body have to be elected, the chief executive office has to be elected, there has to be more than one party, and parties must have alternated power.4 In Japan’s case, it fits all these four requirements.
Firstly, the legislators are elected through 2 types of elections. The general elections to the House of Representatives are held every four years, and the elections of the House of Councilors are held every three years. The people elect the legislative.5
Secondly, the executive offices are selected through local elections. Japan has 47 administrative divisions including 43 rural prefectures, one district, one metropolitan district, and two urban prefectures. The prefectures are further divided into municipalities. Each jurisdiction has a governor in the municipalities. The local elections are held every four years to choose offices in the prefectures and municipalities. Thus, the executives are elected. As for the chief executive, he or she must be selected through a two-round election by both Houses of the Diet to become a prime minister. In other words, the chief executive is elected indirectly by the people since the seats in the House of the Diet are elected by the people.
3 The Constitution of Japan (1947)
4 Przeworski et al., Ch. 1: Democracies and Dictatorships, Democracy and Development(New York: Yale University Press, 2000) p16
5 The Constitution of Japan (1947)
Thirdly, there is more than one party in Japan. The dominant party is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which has been in power for a majority of periods. Other parties, such as the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Democratic Party for the people, the Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, are also active.6
Finally, the parties alternate in power. Even though the dominant party LDP had been in power almost continuously till the 1993 election, they finally lost to the Japan Democratic Party and lawfully allowed the opposition to assume office, which shows that the Japan regime system meets the alternation requirement.7
Japan seems to fit quite well to the minimalist definitions of democracy regime. However, the maximalist definitions conceptualize democracy much more expansively. They look beyond elections when compared to minimalist definitions. According to Dahl, there are some required guarantees for the opportunity to formulate preferences, signify preferences, and have preferences weighted equally in the conduct of government under a democracy regime8.
As is mentioned above, Japan meets multiple requirements to formulate and signify preferences since the freedom to form and join organizations, the freedom of expression, the right to vote, the right of political leaders to compete for support, and free and fair elections are ensured under their current conditions. The only thing that may be flawed is the requirement of alternative sources of information. Japanese media are mainly free to report the news without significant interference. However, many journalists are hesitant to make arguments against the government or to expose political scandals. The State Secrets Act which became effective in
6 Taro Sakamoto, Yasuo Masai, Japan(Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.), https://www.britannica.com/place/Japan 7 Michael Underdown, Japanese politics and the July 1993 election(1993), p1
8 Robert A. Dahl, Ch. 1 (pp. 1-9), Ch. 2, Polyarchy(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), p3
2014, declares that “journalists charged with leaking relevant information now face jail sentences of up to five years.” 10 Additionally, the media structure in Japan is relatively oligopolistic, with five conglomerates dominating the leading media. These media groups also tend to cover issues mildly, which takes some points off Japan’s democracy system. 11
Moreover, does Japan have preferences weighted equally in the conduct of the government? Generally, yes. The political leaders in Japan have the right and need to compete for support and votes. They need to win elections among the three types to hold offices, which is adequately free and fair. However, the Japanese government doesn’t rely enough on popular preferences while making decisions. The Local Autonomy Law regulates the referendums, and they can be called when 2% of the population demands them, but the local assembly is not bound by them and keeps the right to refuse them12 . These aspects prevent Japan from being an ideal democracy. Conclusively, Japan generally fits into the definition of maximalists, but there are still flaws in its system that can be improved to be more democratic.
A measure of democracy of Japan
After a discussion of how democratic Japan is qualitatively, this section states how democratic Japan is quantitatively based on the democracy measure index. In the V-Dem model, the democracy is divided into five sub-components, the electoral, the liberal, the participatory, the deliberative, and the egalitarian components. The electoral component represents the value of “making rulers responsive to citizens through competition during elections,” and it’s the fundamental component of democracy since it doesn’t make sense without it.13 Japan scored
10 Justin McCurry, Japan accused of eroding press freedom by UN special rapporteur(The Guardian, 2017) 11 Griseldis Kirsch, Controlling the Media in Japan(2016)
12 Werner Pascha, Patrick Köllner, Aurel Croissant, 2018 Japan Country Report(SGI Sustainable Governance Indicators, 2018)
13 Staffan Lindberg et al., V-Dem: A New Way to Measure Democracy(Journal of Democracy, 2014) p159-169
0.8114 on this component in 2018, which is unsurprisingly high as I explained above about its elections. The liberal component “embodies the value of protecting individual and minority rights against a potential tyranny of the majority 15,” and Japan scored 0.7316. The egalitarian component which Japan also scored 0.7317 measures the distribution of resources across socioeconomic groups. These components scores are not as high as electoral because in Japan, there’s still a level of discrimination against some minorities, such as women or immigrants.18
The deliberative component explains the value that “political decisions should be informed by respectful and reasonable dialogue19.” Japan scored 0.7120 on this component, meaning there might be possible improvements for the Japanese government to be done, in order to deliberate policies more clearly. The last component is the participatory component, meaning the active participation by citizens in all political processes. Japan only scored 0.5221 on this. The reason behind is, as I mentioned above, the lack of direct democracy mechanisms in Japan society, and the preferences of the citizens have not been valued enough at least through political procedures. Another point worth mentioning is that the voter turnout rate has been relatively low (around 50%) in recent years.22
When US Commodore Matthew C. Perry came to Japan in 1853 in large warships with advanced armaments and technology, the Japanese knew they were behind the world.23 The
14 V-Dem Institute
15 Staffan Lindberg et al., V-Dem: A New Way to Measure Democracy(Journal of Democracy, 2014) p159-169 16 V-Dem Institute
18 Werner Pascha, Patrick Köllner, Aurel Croissant, 2018 Japan Country Report(SGI Sustainable Governance Indicators, 2018)
19 Staffan Lindberg et al., V-Dem: A New Way to Measure Democracy(Journal of Democracy, 2014) p159-169 20 V-Dem Institute
22 Election turnout likely second-lowest in the postwar period, estimate says (The Japan Times, 2017) 23 Hunt, Lynn, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, R. Po-chia Hsia et al. The Making of the West, Peoples and
The inner struggle to import Western technology accelerated the revolution against the shogun, the last ruler of the Tokugawa regime, which had been in power continuously since it unified the country in 1600. In 1868, after a civil war, the emperor Meiji defeated the ancient regime, marking the start of what came to be known as the Meiji Restoration. “The new regime started a modernization campaign while trying to preserve as much as the old feudal structure as possible.24” However, modernization progress had unexpected consequences. As the economy developed, the overwhelming rural population began to move to the cities to seek employment, which threatened the old social order. So many people concentrating in the cities allowed a more liberal environment to emerge.
“Growing business groups saw the interests in the parliamentary political process, which could allow their voices to be heard, and a burgeoning labor movement saw the possibility of unionization as a counterweight to the squalid conditions in factories and cities.25” In 1889, the Meiji constitution responded to this pressure from the people. The Diet was created to ensure the representation of the bourgeois while partial authority was still reserved for the Emperor and his cabinet. The Diet was formed with two chambers, the elected one and the hereditary elites’. This political arrangement entailed the formation of the first opposition party, the Liberals, who were trying to remove all remaining barriers to a more democratic regime.26
During the period of 1918-31, the growing labor movement and increasing demand for rights, which were “the byproducts of modernization,” required massive resources to sustain. Consequently, Japan shifted to war against its neighbors, China, Korea, and Russia, to gain
24 Kennon, Jacob, Democracy in Japan: From Meiji to MacArthur(2012), P18
resources it did not possess as an island country “with little arable land.27” Inevitably, the state of Japan shifted into a more authoritarian regime as militarism burst. After Japan’s defeat and unconditional surrender in 1945, the American Occupation forces under General McArthur conducted several policies to make Japan become reformed and democratized. Firstly, the military became blamed for the war – “war criminals” became executed. And armed forces and weapons became eliminated. 28 Secondly, the Americans reformed the Japanese economy.
The landlord class was wiped out, and only a huge population of small farmers were left. The family-owned zaibatsu companies were also seen as an opposition to democratization due to their large control of capital resources. The Japanese constitution, also newly drafted and included democratic terms and political freedom policies. The constitution included all men and women, renounced war, banned Japan from maintaining any armed forces, established a bicameral parliament that appointed the prime minister. The emperor himself remained as a ceremonial symbol of Japan. “With the formal adaptation of the constitution in 1947,” Japan transformed into a democracy.
Japan became democratized in the first wave of Huntington’s. As mentioned above, Japan finished its initial reform in 1868, starting the progress of democratization for a more liberal environment. However, in the first reverse wave, military coups ended democratic systems in Japan.29 With the increasing development of economy and society, Japan cities could not hold the immense labor movement and the increasing demand for more resources, resulting in a shift
27 Jacob Kennon, Democracy in Japan: From Meiji to MacArthur(2012), P20
29 Huntington, Democracy’s Third Wave(Journal of Democracy, 1991), P18
to wars against its neighbors. The emerging democracy was replaced by military authoritarianism and fascism, as Japan changed to violence and dictatorship. It waited till after World War 2 when Japan surrendered in 1945 and the American occupation forces conducted several policies to make Japan become reformed and democratized to a greater extent.
Theories of Democratization
In Ansell and Samuel’s theory of redistribution, the poor are a non-factor. Instead, the main focus is on the old elites and bourgeoisie, the new elites. Their theory suits the Japanese case very well. When there is economic development, a state will see an increase in the bourgeoisie or industrial elites. Wealth from the agriculture field in this setting will grow stagnant, so the old elites are not growing in wealth as much as the bourgeoisie. Though the new elites are growing wealthier, the landowners still have the monopoly on power.
This causes conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the old elites because the bourgeoisie’s interest is taxed, but they have no access to real power and resources, and therefore, no means to control taxation themselves. This growing industrial interest in Japan pushed parliamentary political processes as it allowed more voices to be heard in the ruling circles. The bourgeoisie advocates for a new system that will grant them a better place in politics, and they push for their own enfranchisement. They pressured the ruling government until the constitution became redrafted. And the Diet became created at the bourgeoisie’s demand. Just as stated in the theory, when industrial inequality is high, the probability of democracy increases.30
Alternatively, Boix argues that as inequality remains low, the probability of democracy goes up. This makes sense in the Japanese case, too. When the Japanese economy developed
30 Ansell and Samuels, Inequality and Democratization(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) Ch 1
In the 1890s, the inequality decreased as the upper class failed to oppress the industrial development of the bourgeoisie. When the inequality is low, the rich do not have as much to lose, so they are more likely to concede to the poor’s demand for democracy. The inequality and democratization appear negatively related, as Boix argued. However, there are still problems with this explanation.
In Boix’s theory, the rich with highly specific and non-liquid assets will also be anti-democracy, because their source of wealth is more threatened by democracy. In Japan’s case, the upper-class’s assets would be land, which is highly non-liquid. This may have slowed the democratization process as the rich were afraid of losing their status and power. They then tried to shift the conflict of the domestic economy and the problem of resource scarcity by going to war with the rest of Asia to gain more resources instead of solving the problem of power reallocation.
Possibilities of strengthening democracy in the future
As discussed above, the main flaws of Japan’s democracy system are the problems with minority rights and citizen participation. To strengthen egalitarian democracy, Japan needs to improve the condition and provide active support for immigrants. The participation of immigrants in the civil society and the pressure on institutions to respond to their needs are significant factors in driving democracy forward. In other words, better awareness and protection over basic liberties and freedom are always something to work on while speaking of social and democratic equality. There have been immigrant rights activists in Japan who are making effort to improve the liberal treatment of the worst-off community in Japan, which would likely continue to strengthen democracy.31
31 Apichai W. Shipper, Fighting for Foreigners: Immigration and Its Impact on Japanese Democracy(Cornell University Press, 2011), p3
As for participation, the voting rate in Japan has been declining as shown in the index.32 “Voting participation becomes plausibly considered as collective action. And appears to become affected by the social condition.”33 A possible reason for this declining trend could be the breakdown of social norms. Japan is often viewed as having a relatively low degree of heterogeneity, however, there have been evidences to suggest that the “economic and generational fractionalization appeared in Japan resulted in a lower voter turnout”.34
In conclusion, if Japan could get on a better place of civil society outside of the government to create a close-knit community, the turnout rate could be higher due to the fact that social capital and closer community enhance voting.35 However, based on the general trend of appearing in Japan society, odds are higher that the participation rate will continue to drop. Considering the reasons listed above, whether Japan could slide further away from democracy really depends, despite the fact that it probably won’t slide away too much as lastly, it’s already in a relatively good place right now.
1. Hunt, Lynn, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, R. Po-chia Hsia et al. “The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures” (2009) P712-13.
2. Kennon, Jacob, “Democracy in Japan: From Meiji to MacArthur” (2012). Volume 20 – 2012. Paper 17.
3. Huntington, “Democracy’s Third Wave,”(1991), Journal of Democracy 2(2) 4. Ansell and Samuels, Ch 1″Inequality and Democratization” (New York: Cambridge
32 V-Dem Institute
33 Eiji Yamamura “Effects of Social Norms and Fractionalization on Voting Behaviour in Japan.” Applied Economics 43, no. 11 (April 30, 2011) , p1396
35 Ibid, p1397
University Press, 2014)
5. The Constitution of Japan, 1947
6. Sawe, Benjamin Elisha. “What Type Of Government Does Japan Have?” (WorldAtlas, Aug.
https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-type-of-government-does-japan-have.html 7. Przeworski et al., Ch. 1: Democracies and Dictatorships, Democracy and Development(New York: Yale University Press, 2000)
8. Taro Sakamoto, Yasuo Masai, Japan(Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.), https://www.britannica.com/place/Japan
9. Michael Underdown, Japanese politics and the July 1993 election(1993) 10. Robert A. Dahl, Ch. 1 (pp. 1-9), Ch. 2, Polyarchy(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971),
11. McCurry, Justin “Japan accused of eroding press freedom by UN special rapporteur,” The Guardian, Jun. 13 2017
12. Griseldis Kirsch, “Controlling the Media in Japan”, July. 11 2016, Ballots & Bullets, School of Politics & IR, University of Nottingham
13. Werner Pascha, Patrick Köllner, Aurel Croissant, 2018 Japan Country Report, SGI Sustainable Governance Indicators
14. Staffan Lindberg et al., V-Dem: A New Way to Measure Democracy(Journal of Democracy, 2014)
15. 2018 Board of Principal Investigators, V-Dem Institute, University of Gothenburg. 16. “Election turnout likely second-lowest in postwar period, estimate says”(The Japan Times, 2017)
17. Apichai W. Shipper, Fighting for Foreigners: Immigration and Its Impact on Japanese Democracy(Cornell University Press, 2011)
18. Eiji Yamamura “Effects of Social Norms and Fractionalization on Voting Behaviour in Japan.” Applied Economics 43, no. 11 (April 30, 2011)