The Government of Modern Japan:
The Branches and Their Functions


The emperor is the ceremonial head of state. Executive powers are vested exclusively in the Cabinet, which consists of a prime minister and the ministers he or she appoints. The prime minister, who is the majority party leader, is appointed by the emperor upon nomination by the Diet. The prime minister appoints the other members of the Cabinet, all of whom must be members of the legislature. The Cabinet is responsible to the Diet and must resign if the House of Representatives passes a vote of no-confidence.


The bicameral Diet (Kokkai, or Parliament) has authority over all legislative matters. As a result of an electoral reform law that came into effect in December 1994, the House of Representatives (Shugiin, or lower house) now comprises a combination of 300 single-seat constituencies and 200 seats determined by proportional representation. Formerly, Parliament consisted of a 512-member House of Representatives and a 252-member House of Councillors (Sangiin, or upper house). Both houses are directly elected by the people, with representatives serving four-year terms unless the house is dissolved, and councilors half of whom are elected every three years serving six-year terms. Fifty national seats in the House of Councillors are determined by the number of votes each party gains in general elections. The House of Representatives is the dominant house in the legislature, possessing the authority to enact laws, approve treaties, pass the budget, and select the prime minister. The 1994 reforms also strictly limit the money corporations can contribute to a party's electoral campaign an issue that for many years has fed the Japanese government's image as corrupt and fueled by business interests.


The Supreme Court, the highest judicial authority, consists of a chief justice and 14 associate judges. The emperor appoints the chief justice upon designation by the Cabinet, which also appoints the other justices. The judges may be removed only by public impeachment. The Supreme Court determines the constitutionality of laws and all its decisions are final. It supervises a system of four inferior courts: a High Court, which rules on appeals of judgments by the lower courts; a District Court; a Family Court; and a Summary Court.

Local Government

For administrative purposes, the nation is divided into 47 prefectures, each with its own popularly elected governor or mayor and representative assembly. Cities, towns, and villages also elect representative assemblies. Due to 1994 electoral reforms, Japan is also divided into 11 blocks at election time for government posts determined by proportional representation.

© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University |