The Government of Modern Japan: Elections

Essay: Comparing the Japanese and American Electoral Systems

Japan has a democratic system of government as does the United States. The electoral system in Japan is different, however.

The Diet

In Japan, representatives are elected to the national parliament, the Diet. The Diet is divided into an upper house (the House of Councillors) and a lower house (the House of Representatives). The lower house is the more powerful of the two. If the upper house rejects a bill passed by the lower house, it becomes law if passed again by the lower house in a two-thirds vote. Because Japan has a parliamentary political system like that of England, members of the House of Representatives elect a prime minister from among themselves by majority vote. The prime minister is usually a leader of the majority party. The prime minister is the head of the government. To help him direct the government, the prime minister forms a cabinet made up of people who are his political allies.

The Electoral System

The Japanese electoral system is very different from the American electoral system. The House of Representatives in Japan has 500 members, who are elected for a four-year term. Three hundred of these members come from single-seat constituencies, meaning that, as in the United States, voters in a given district have one vote, and the candidate who receives the most votes wins and becomes the sole representative of that district. However, the remaining 200 members of Japan's House of Representatives are elected by proportional representation in 11 regional blocs. Under a proportional representation system, voters in a given region vote not for an individual candidate, but for a party. The number of Diet seats that a party receives is based on the percentage of votes that it receives. Each party gives its seats to its top candidates, who are ranked from highest to lowest prior to elections. Thus, for example, in a district with 20 seats available, if a party running 25 candidates gets 50 percent of the vote, the party gets 10 seats in principle and gives them to the top 10 candidates on its list.

The House of Councillors (upper house) has 252 members, who are elected for six-year terms. Elections are held for half of all upper house seats every three years. Thus, for example, elections will be held in 1998 to fill 126 upper house seats; then in 2001, there will be another set of elections to fill the remaining 126 upper house seats. In every House of Councillors election (with 126 seats at stake), 24 politicians are elected from single-seat constituencies, 52 are elected from multi-seat constituencies, and 50 are elected by proportional representation In a multi-seat constituency, there are 3-5 representatives in each district (as opposed to just one, as is the case in the U.S.), so in an election the 3-5 top votegetters are all "winners." Each voter still only has one vote. Thus, for example, in a three-member district with candidates A, B, C, D, and E running for election, the winners would be B with 52 percent of the vote, C with 25 percent of the vote, and E with 10 percent of the vote. A with 7 percent and D with 6 percent of the vote would not win seats.

Methods of Campaigning and Electoral Reform

Because the election system is different, Japanese election candidates have different problems and use different methods from those of American candidates.

Kôenkai (Personal Support Groups)

Because Japanese political parties have traditionally been weak organizationally and have few rank and file members, individual candidates cannot rely heavily on their parties for electoral support. Instead, candidates will often try to build a personal organization of supporters (a kôenkai) among voters in their districts. Candidates encourage people to join their personal support groups by doing them small favors — helping their children get into a good school or get a good job, sending flowers if they open a new store, sending them cards on holidays — and by financing kôenkai parties and vacation trips. Candidates also try to recruit leaders of local organizations, such as agricultural cooperatives, temple associations, small and medium-sized business groups, and women's groups, in the hope that they will encourage their members to join the kôenkai and vote for the candidate in elections.

Campaign Rules

There is strict government control over campaigns. Candidates are allowed only one campaign car and a small number of posters and other printed material. The campaign itself lasts only 12 days. In American elections, many candidates pay for television and radio commercials to communicate with the voters. Strict rules in Japan control such advertisements, and candidates are only allowed a few, government-financed commercials or television appearances. They thus spend less money than American candidates on commercials but more on their personal support organizations. As in the United States, elections in Japan can be very expensive for the candidates.

Electoral Reform

In 1993, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) temporarily lost control of its Diet majority — hence losing control of the government — because some LDP members defected from the party and formed a new party. This was a very significant event because up until that point, the LDP had controlled the government for almost 40 years without interruption. A long period of political realignment ensued after 1993, even though the LDP regained control of the government in 1994. Many small new political parties sprang up, then disappeared or merged with other parties, while some existing parties, such as the Japan Socialist Party, renamed themselves in an effort to change with the changing times.

Perhaps the most important result of the LDP's temporary loss of power was the coalition government's reform of the election system, enacted in 1994. The reformers' primary goal was to create a system in which there are two main parties that regularly alternate power, as is the case in the United States. Up until that time, the Japanese system has consisted of one lopsidedly large party (the LDP) dominating three or four smaller opposition parties that were never able to win control of the government.

However, the reformers were forced to make political compromises that allowed certain aspects of the old system to remain. Consequently, many analysts do not believe that the electoral reforms will lead to the creation of a two-party system.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the difference between how American presidents and Japanese prime ministers are elected?
  2. What is a kôenkai? Why do politicians find them necessary? How do politicians and kôenkai members both benefit from the relationship?
  3. What is the difference between a single-seat constituency and a multi-seat constituency?
  4. How does a proportional representation system work?
  5. Why and how was the Japanese electoral system reformed in 1993?

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Student Exercise: School Elections

Different election rules affect candidates campaign strategies. Suppose you are running for class president at your school. Write a plan of how you would run your campaign under the two different sets of campaign rules given below. Explain your reasoning.

Rule Set One

  • you may only campaign for 12 days prior to the election
  • you are allowed only one poster in the school cafeteria
  • you may not make any announcements over the school intercom
  • there will be no debates with other candidates

Rule Set Two

  • you may campaign for an unlimited amount of time prior to the campaign
  • you may advertise as much as you wish in any way that you can think of
  • you will have debates with other candidates

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