Sam Seitz

Japanese political history spans over a thousand years. From small city-states to the Shogunate to the Meiji Restoration, Japan has experimented with a plethora of regime types. The most recent iteration of Japanese political organization emerged after World War II, as the victorious Americans forced the Japanese to implement a new, more democratic regime.[1] The post-war constitution, excepting a few amendments, remains in effect today, and it has proven to be a remarkably effective system given that it was written primarily by the American military.[2] Nevertheless, recent electoral reforms have severely stunted Japan’s political system. To ameliorate the volatile and chaotic nature of the Japanese House of Representatives, Japan should fully embrace a single member plurality electoral system for its lower house. However, Japan should retain its parallel plurality-PR electoral system for the House of Councilors – the upper house – to ensure that all interest groups are able to influence policy.

Japanese Political History: 1947-2016

The American-engineered Japanese political system had two primary goals. First, it attempted to create a more liberal political system. After the brutal military regime of Imperial Japan, the U.S. sought to impose a more durable and democratic system onto the country. Second, the United States sought to constrain Japanese militarism. Specifically, the Americans created Article 9, a constitutional provision which denounced war as a legitimate or legal tool to achieve policy ends. After months of negotiations, the constitution was adopted in 1947. The constitution created a bicameral parliamentary system and included provisions guaranteeing equality between men and women, providing broad social rights, and limiting Japan’s ability to engage in offensive warfare.[3] After the new constitution was ratified, Japan became a Western-style liberal democracy with all power vested in the democratically elected Diet as opposed to the emperor. Moreover, instead of the prime minister being appointed by the Emperor, as was the case under the Meiji Constitution, the American-designed constitution dictated that the prime minister be chosen directly by the legislature.[4]

Japan is somewhat unique, however, in that throughout most of its postwar history the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has almost always held an absolute majority in the lower house. Excepting a brief period in the 1990s, Japan has been a moderate multiparty democracy with one preeminent ruling party. This dynamic primarily occurred because Japan used, until recently, a multimember electoral system in which only two major parties successfully competed for votes. The LDP’s major opposition party – JSP – was a socialist party. While the socialists enjoyed a strong core base of support, their opposition to the U.S.-Japan Alliance and their ideological similarity with China and the U.S.S.R. effectively prevented them from garnering mass support, especially during the Cold War.[5]

Recently, however, Japan has been subject to far more political volatility. In the early 1990s, for example, the JDP lost its hegemonic position in the Japanese lower house, the House of Representatives. While it recovered by the early 2000s, it lost its majority again in 2009, only to then regain it in the landslide election of 2012.[6] Moreover, the Japanese legislature has seen a significant increase in the number of parties holding seats. Much of this tumult is due to the electoral reforms of 1994. Specifically, Japan changed the method of seat distribution for the House of Representatives from a multimember district system to a parallel plurality-PR system, allocating 60% of the seats based on plurality voting and 40% based on PR voting.[7] This electoral change has had a lasting impact on modern Japanese politics, and it will be further analyzed later in this paper.

Quantifying the Japanese System

Japan’s bicameral system is composed of an upper House of Councilors and a lower House of Representatives. The House of Representatives is the more powerful of the two house due to its ability to override the House of Councilors’ veto and its preeminence regarding budgetary matters, treaties, and the selection of a prime minister.[8] Thus, while the House of Councilors certainly has a meaningful impact on Japanese politics, the true power lies in the House of Representatives. As noted previously, the Japanese House of Representatives is historically unique in that the LDP has been the preeminent party throughout most of Japanese history.[9] This pattern of LDP dominance was especially true before 1994, the year that Japan changed their electoral system.

Even after 1994, however, the LDP has generally maintained its absolute majority in the House of Representatives. Indeed, what is interesting about the 1994 reforms is that they did little to alter the balance of power in the House of Representatives. While the total number of parties with seats went up moderately – going from an average of 4.92 to an average of 6.43 – the total number of effective parties barely changed at all. To calculate effective parties, I used the formula N=1/(Σp²).[10] In the 1958 election, for example, I first summed .6322², .3656², and .0022² – the squares of the seat percentages held by the LDP, JSP, and JCP respectively. Summing these numbers yielded .5334. I then divides 1 by .5334, resulting in 1.87 effective parties.

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From 1958 to 1993, the average number of effective parties was 2.50. Then, after the electoral reforms, the average number of effective parties actually decreased to 2.42.[11] This outcome is somewhat surprising given that PR systems generally yield a greater number of effective parties.[12] In Japan, however, the parallel system only succeeded in fracturing the Left into smaller, less cohesive parties. Thus, while the number of parties has increased, the number of parties capable of influencing legislative outcomes has remained relatively constant.

What has not remained constant, however, is the seat volatility in the House of Representatives. While the post-1994 volatility score is likely exaggerated by the landslide elections of 2009 and 2012, the data clearly demonstrates that the 1994 reforms increased volatility by allowing a number of smaller parties to gain seats in the House of Representatives, creating a more diverse and fragmented legislature.[13] To calculate volatility, I summed the net change in seats for each party and divided by two to account for double counting. In other words, because one party losing a seat necessarily means another party gaining a seat, it is necessary to divide by 2. Numerically, this can be represented by the equation Vt = ½ (Σ │P(t-1) –  Pt │).[14] For example, to calculate the volatility of the 1960 election, I first calculated the difference between 287 from 296, 145 and 166, 17 and 0, and 1 and 3 – the change in seats for the LDP, JSP, DSP, and JCP respectively. Then, I summed these differences, yielding a value of 49. Finally, I divided 49 by 2, calculating a volatility score of 24.5.

Capture

What is interesting about this volatility, though, is that the LDP party has remained dominant. Even with the constantly changing seat distributions and opposition coalitions, no party – except the DPJ between 2009 and 2012 – has been able to eliminate the LDP’s majority in the House of Representatives. In other words, while the smaller opposition parties have been impacted by the high seat volatility of the Japanese system, the seat share of the LDP has remained relatively stable.

The electoral changes also resulted in decreased proportionality. That is, by embracing a parallel plurality-PR system, the Japanese government actually created a parliament which is less representative of voters’ wishes. To calculate disproportionality, I used The Least Squares Index developed by Michael Gallagher. The mathematical equation for this method is LSq= √ ( (∑(Si-Vi)²)/2). To use the 1958 election as an example again, I first calculated the difference in vote percentage and seat percentage for each party. This yielded 5.42, 3.66, and 2.38 for the LDP, JSP, and the JCP respectively. Then, I squared each of these numbers and summed them. This resulted in a value of 46.4364. Finally, I took the square root of 46.4364 to get 6.96 – the deviation from proportionality.

abcd

At first glance, it is puzzling that the use of a PR system decreased proportionality. After all, PR systems are usually far more representative of the voting public because they do not artificially constrain the number of parties. In theory, at least, PR systems make every vote count.[15] It seems reasonable to assume that the reason for this decreased proportionality is the dual structure of Japanese electoral law. However, this is only partially correct. For example, Germany uses a mixed system that utilizes both direct voting and proportional seat allocation. Germany, however, has an average disproportionality score of only 2.67, making it far more proportional than Japan.[16] The likely explanation for this disparity is that unlike Germany, Japan’s two different ballot systems – the direct voting component and the PR component – are entirely divorced from each other. In other words, these components are determined separately and do not influence each other. In Germany, by contrast, the PR vote is linked to the direct vote. The PR ballot determines the number of seats each party receives while the direct ballot determines which politicians will occupy their party’s seats. This linked system generates a far more representative and proportional legislature. Japan is, therefore, highly unusual in that it has a highly disproportional PR system.[17]

The Problems of Instability

PR systems are generally associated with decreased disproportionality but increased volatility.[18] Japan’s shift to a parallel plurality-PR system certainly increased volatility, but it did not lower the degree of disproportionality in the House of Representatives. On the contrary, it made the Japanese lower house even less proportional than it was before the 1994 reforms. In short, Japan has created a system with all of the costs of proportional representation and none of the benefits. Unsurprisingly, Japan’s electoral system has generated a plethora of problems for the country.

Specifically, the electoral reforms created a political environment characterized by a number of very small parties focusing on just one or two fringe issues. These parties are never held accountable because they are never powerful enough to capture a majority, instead swinging back and forth on policy issues.[19] While this system certainly has its benefits – allowing intense, highly focused parties to concentrate solely on the particular problems their constituencies face – it also leads to a highly fractious and unstable parliament.

This wouldn’t usually be a problem. After all, despite the many fringe parties in the House of Representatives, the LDP has almost always held an absolute majority. The problem is that the House of Councilors – which also uses a parallel plurality-PR system – is even more fractured than the House of Representatives.[20] Even though the LDP is able to use its majority to pass decisive legislation in the lower house, the more fractious upper house often delays or vetoes. In order for the LDP-controlled lower house to override the veto, the LDP majority must cobble together a 2/3 majority coalition. This allows the myriad microparties in the House of Representatives to join the coalition and acquire leverage over other policy concerns. The results in a legislative process that is both hectic and unpredictable, making it difficult for voters to hold their representatives accountable. Moreover, it impedes effective, decisive governance.[21]

As the data above suggests, this volatile and chaotic dynamic of shifting parties is not a transitory phase. Instead, it represents the norm in post-reform Japan. This muddled process can be demonstrated anecdotally by the quick turnover rate of Japanese prime ministers. Indeed, from 2006 to 2010, no Japanese Prime Minister remained in office for over one year. This suggests low cabinet and party support for prime ministers.[22] What is particularly concerning about this volatility is the vicious cycle that it feeds. Increased volatility and fragmentation of the Diet make it more challenging for the majority party to pass significant legislation. But by failing to accomplish major agenda items, voters lose confidence in the majority party, leading to increased volatility. Japan, through its legislative reform, has inadvertently created a perpetual cycle of volatility and gridlock.

This dynamic is not just inconvenient; it is dangerous for Japan as a country. Japan is currently experiencing a number of significant challenges. Economically, Japan has been in a rut for over a decade. Its economy has experienced low growth and severe deflationary pressures, and Japan has an enormously high debt to GDP ratio.[23] In the security realm, Japan is also facing difficult decisions. An increasingly assertive and belligerent China is rising in Asia, and Japan is facing tough choices in how to cope. Japan’s pacifist constitution makes the dilemma even more pronounced, as more assertive foreign policy stances would require an amendment to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution.[24] These challenges demand resolve and strong leadership. Japanese voters need clear choices and parties that can be held accountable, not a Byzantine collection of single-issue parties that constantly shift from one ad hoc coalition to the next.

Of course, Japan could return to its pre-reform system of multimember districts. The empirical data listed above certainly suggests that this system would create a more stable and effective House of Representatives. Nevertheless, there were clear and obvious problems inherent in the pre-1994 system. For example, by having multi-member districts, pre-reform Japan saw candidates from the same party running against each other. This dynamic often led to corruption as candidates used pork barrel spending and corrupt practices to differentiate themselves from ideologically similar candidates in their own party. By changing the non-PR portion of the ballot to single member districts, the 1994 reforms forced voters to select candidates based on issues.

Thus, to correct for the harm done by the 1994 reforms, Japan should be strategic. The single member districts should be expanded and used as the exclusive method for determining the composition of the Japanese House of Representative. Duverger’s Law, one of the most tested and well-supported laws of political science, holds that electoral systems which utilize single member plurality to allocate seats result in two-party legislatures. Because plurality systems are winner take all, only the two strongest parties regularly win. While smaller parties do win occasionally, this happens so infrequently that these smaller parties are severely underrepresented, granting them negligible influence.[25] Thus, by embracing a single member plurality system for the lower house, Japan will once again possess a powerful, unified government capable of making controversial policy decisions. Moreover, because single member plurality systems almost always create two party systems, Japanese voters will have a clear vision of what each party represents, and they will be able to hold the parties accountable – something that is impossible with the current chaotic system.

Japan should, however, maintain the PR element of its upper house elections. Because the House of Councilors functions mostly to review lower house legislation, it makes sense to include a broad group of parties and stakeholders to ensure that all interest groups are capable of weighing in. While the more diverse upper house would still not possess the same power as the lower house, it could still send costly signals and force debate on issues deemed important or controversial by the Japanese public by vetoing or delaying lower house bills. Ultimately, combining a decisive, more powerful lower house with a weaker but more representative upper house would create a far more efficient and representative system. The House of Representatives will be able to more easily pass important bills including budgets and international treaties, while less vital legislation will be able to be parsed and debated by many different interest groups and sectors. In short, decisive governance can be maintained while still allowing stakeholders ample ability to voice concerns and influence policy.

Japan’s reformers tried to create a more representative, less corrupt system when they altered the voting laws in 1994. While they were able to effectively end the corrupting effects of multimember districts, the reformers unfortunately also ended up creating a confusing and inefficient system characterized by high volatility and a proliferation of small parties. By utilizing a single member plurality system for the House of Representatives while continuing to use a parallel plurality-PR system for the House of Councilors, the Japanese Diet will incorporate the benefits of a strong government with the advantages of proportional representation. As Rosenbluth so eloquently summarizes, “A two-party system will foster political competition at the level of big ideas and wholesale policies rather than narrow, single-issue politics that trap legislatures in an endless blame game… A responsible party system in Japan will not only make for a better Japan but also for happier neighbors and a safer world.”[26]

Endnotes

[1] For a comprehensive history of East Asian cultural and political development, see Holcombe, Charles. A History of East Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Dower, John W. (1999). Embracing defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co/New Press. pp. 365–367. and Gordon, A., “Society and Politics from Transwar through Postwar Japan,” in Historical Perspectives on Contemporary East Asia, ed. M. Goldman and A. Gordon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 279– 280.

[3] “The Constitution of Japan.” Office of the Japanese Prime Minister. Accessed March 23, 2016.

[4] Holcombe, Charles. (2010). A History of East Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 279-280.

[5] Ibid, pp. 280

[6] Kushida, Kenji E. and Phillip Y. Lipscy. (2013). Japan Under the DPJ: The Politics of transition and Governance. Palo Alto: Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. pp. 3-4.

[7] Maeda, Ko. “Has the Electoral System Reform Made Japanese Elections Party-Centered?” Presentation, Stanford Conference on Electoral and Legislative Politics in Japan, Palo Alto, CA, June 2007. pp. 3-5. Also, note that the exact size of the Diet changes from year to year on account of redistricting.

[8] “Fundamental Structure of the Government of Japan.” Office of the Japanese Prime Minister. Accessed April 4, 2016.

[9] Maeda, Ko. “Has the Electoral System Reform Made Japanese Elections Party-Centered?” Presentation, Stanford Conference on Electoral and Legislative Politics in Japan, Palo Alto, CA, June 2007. pp. 1.

[10] p=proportion of seats

[11] Averages are calculated by summing the number of parties/effective parties in the House of Representatives and dividing by the number of elections.

[12] Lijphardt, Arend. (2012). Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 131-145.

[13] For data, see Fig. 1.2 and Fig 1.3

[14] P represents seat totals, not vote totals

[15] Lijphardt, Arend. (2012). Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 131-145.

[16] Ibid, pp. 150

[17] Ibid, pp. 153

[18] Ibid, pp. 255

[19] Rosenbluth, Frances McCall. “For Stability, Japan Needs Political Reform.” YaleGlobal Online. July 30, 2013. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/stability-japan-needs-political-reform

[20] Rosenbluth, Frances McCall and Michael F. Thies. (2010). Japan Transformed: Political Change and Economic Restructuring. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 201-205.

[21] Rosenbluth, Frances McCall. “For Stability, Japan Needs Political Reform.” YaleGlobal Online. July 30, 2013. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/stability-japan-needs-political-reform

[22] Nyblade, Benjamin. (2011). “The 21st Century Japanese Prime Minister: An Unusually Precarious Perch.” Journal of Social Science 61(2): 195-209.

[23] Delong, Brad. “The Japanese tragedy.” The Economist. August 3, 2012. http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2012/08/lost-decades

[24] Ford, Matt. “Japan Curtails Its Pacifist Stance.” The Atlantic. September 19, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/japan-pacifism-article-nine/406318/

[25] Lijphardt, Arend. (2012). Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 153

[26] Rosenbluth, Frances McCall. “For Stability, Japan Needs Political Reform.” YaleGlobal Online. July 30, 2013. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/stability-japan-needs-political-reform

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Lijphardt, Arend. (2012). Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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