Japan’s elections showcase constraints on its democracy

Issei Kato/Reuters
A candidate from Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party waves to voters in Tokyo from a van on the first day of campaigning for Sunday's lower house election. The party has governed Japan almost continuously since it was formed in 1955.
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The conservative Liberal Democratic Party has governed Japan almost continuously since the LDP was formed in 1955, and that is not likely to change as a result of this Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

This does not exactly make Japan a one-party state: It has all the trappings of a democracy. But it has led to a certain ossification, and the erection of many barriers to a diverse and modern political culture.

Why We Wrote This

Can democratic values thrive when one political party enjoys an almost unbreakable grip on government? Japan’s upcoming elections will offer new evidence.

There is little room for women, for example. Japan, the third largest economy in the world, ranks 165th out of 190 countries by female representation in parliaments. Almost one-third of LDP members of parliament are the children or grandchildren – often both – of earlier LDP lawmakers. Candidates can only run for parliament if they put up a $26,000 deposit, which they lose if they do not win at least 10% of the vote.

That dissuades independents, or small new parties, and favors the status quo. That in turn spreads apathy and low voter turnouts.

Under these circumstances, says Utsunomiya Kenji, a lawyer who has challenged the deposit system, “naturally, politics does not play a role in invigorating society.”

Wearing a bright pink sash bearing her party’s name across her chest, Watanabe Teruko cuts a striking figure as she harangues an election campaign crowd of several hundred people outside a railway station in central Tokyo.

She stands for the working poor people, she declares, and she knows what she is talking about. Ms. Watanabe, a formerly homeless single mother, has relied on precarious jobs for decades.

A candidate for Reiwa Shinsengumi, a small left-wing party, Ms. Watanabe stands very little chance of being elected in Japan’s parliamentary elections this Sunday. But neither do many far-more mainstream candidates – unless they are members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and male.

Why We Wrote This

Can democratic values thrive when one political party enjoys an almost unbreakable grip on government? Japan’s upcoming elections will offer new evidence.

The conservative LDP has governed Japan continuously since it was formed in 1955, except for two brief breaks adding up to four years. It is widely expected to win again on Sunday. Only 21 of its 276 members in the last parliament were women.

Japan has all the trappings of a democratic political system, such as opposition parties and regular elections. But it also has many barriers to a more diverse and modern political culture.

“I do not believe that a government led by the LDP can bring transformational change to the country,” says Satoh Haruko, a professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy. “The LDP itself needs transformational change.”

An expensive proposition

In only a few constituencies are more than two candidates running in Sunday’s vote, the result of a century-old law setting a high bar for would-be politicians. Candidates in single-seat districts must put up a three million yen ($26,300) deposit, which they lose if they do not win at least 10% of the vote. Candidates for proportional representation seats, such as Ms. Watanabe, have to deposit twice as much.

Sakura Murakami/Reuters
Kenichi Hosoda, standing for parliament on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ticket in Sunday's elections, gives a speech during his campaign run in Nagaoka, Japan.

“Six million yen?” Ms. Watanabe asks the crowd rhetorically. “That’s three times more than I used to earn in a year!” (Her party is paying her deposit with funds collected from the public.)

Japan’s election deposits are “by far the most expensive in the world,” says lawyer Utsunomiya Kenji, who filed a constitutional challenge against the system and lost.

The system is “undemocratic and unconstitutional because it takes away one’s freedom to run for office,” argues Mr. Utsunomiya, a former president of the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations.

It poses a major stumbling block to independents and new parties trying to make a foray into politics, and favors existing parties and incumbent lawmakers, he adds. “We need to democratize the election system.”

The LDP benefits from this artificially narrowed field of electoral rivals, and does not lack for funds; in 2019, according to government figures, the party received $21 million in corporate donations. The main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, has made a policy of refusing such funds.

The LDP also benefits from being a key element in the “iron triangle” among the ruling party, the bureaucracy, and big business that controls much of Japanese life. That is a system in which many leading party figures, as members of hereditary political dynasties, are heavily invested.

Thirty percent of LDP members of the last parliament were children or grandchildren – often both – of earlier LDP lawmakers. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, who is leading the LDP into the elections, is himself the son and grandson of parliamentarians.

In those circumstances, says Mr. Utsunomiya, “naturally, politics does not play a role in invigorating society.”

Dull candidates, apathetic voters

The lack of women in Japanese politics is striking, and not only among LDP ranks. Despite a 2014 pledge by Abe Shinzo, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister who stepped down last year, to create a society in which “all women shine,” he changed little.

Issei Kato/AP
Leaders of the main political parties contesting Sunday's parliamentary elections in Japan pose for a photograph. Women made up only 10% of the last parliament's lower house.

In the last parliament, only 10% of the 465 members of Japan’s lower house were women, and only 18% of the candidates in this weekend’s elections are female. Japan ranks 165th out of 190 countries for female representation in parliaments, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. (The United States ranks 72nd.)

The sluggish pace of change in Japanese political life appears to owe something to public apathy, which reinforces the status quo. In the 2017 parliamentary elections, which saw a turnout of only 53%, the LDP won 75% of the single-seat constituencies at stake with just 25% of the electorate’s votes.

Some observers attribute this apathy to Japan’s postwar history, when the LDP oversaw Japan’s rise as a major economic power, encouraging Japanese companies to catch up with their Western counterparts. As companies took good care of their employees and their families, offering lifetime employment and seniority-based wages, many men dedicated their lives to their jobs and gave little thought to politics. Neither did their wives.

Others trace the phenomenon back further, to the Constitution and political system largely drawn up and imposed by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his occupation staff after World War II.

“Japan was forced to accept democracy because of its defeat,” says Takashima Nobuyoshi, a historian and professor emeritus at the University of the Ryukyus on Okinawa. “As basic human rights were not gained through the sweat and blood of the people, many Japanese people lack a real appreciation of their own rights and are often unaware when they are infringed upon.”

Professor Takashima admits to feeling that he and his fellow social studies teachers are partly to blame. “We failed to thoroughly impart democratic ideas and behavior to younger generations,” he regrets.

At the same time, suggests Hatakeyama Michiyoshi, an award-winning author and journalist, voter apathy is unsurprising given the dearth of attractive candidates with innovative ideas.

Many Japanese voters think that “only a particular group of people” can run for office, he says. “But we have a legitimate right to be involved in politics,” he insists. “We need a diverse group of candidates to reflect society. Even if some candidates are not elected, at least it would mean that diverse ideas were shared and discussed.”

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