Democracy in Japan

Examining Japan’s democracy, the role of the monarchy, its history and political system.

Explainer Updated 12 October 2022 Published 8 September 2022 10 minute READ

Dr John Nilsson-Wright

Former Korea Foundation Korea Fellow and Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme

Is Japan a democracy?

Japan is a successful democratic state with strong institutions, regular elections, and a thriving free press. The democracy is remarkably stable and has not experienced populist movements which have rocked the US, India, and some European nations.

Critics of Japan’s system point to the weakness of the opposition as a serious flaw in the democracy.

Critics of Japan’s system point to the weakness of the opposition as a serious flaw in the democracy. One party – the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – has been dominant in government since the 1950s, enjoying almost unbroken power to the present day.

However, this is not unlike the ‘one party dominance’ seen in other democracies in the past, such as the Christian Democrats in Italy and the Social Democratic party in Sweden.

But there has been a steady decline in electoral participation in Japan. Turnout in elections to the House of Representatives has declined from around 75 per cent in the 1950s to around 53 per cent in 2014 and 2017.

This could be viewed as a warning sign about the health of Japan’s democratic system. But it also reflects the challenges many countries face in delivering democracy where the value of participation is clear to all citizens.

What kind of democracy does Japan have?

Japan’s democracy features a hybrid system of government, with elements that reflect both the US (a supreme court and written constitution) and the UK models (a monarch as a symbolic head of state and cabinet government).

The legislature is formed by elected representatives in the National Diet, with a House of Councillors forming the upper house and a House of Representatives forming the lower.

The government is formed by the party with a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. The leader of that party is the prime minister of Japan and head of the executive branch. The judiciary is headed by a Supreme Court which has the power to interpret the constitution.

Japan’s democracy is characterized by the unique role of the emperor. He is a constitutional monarch but is still described by some Japanese conservatives as ‘ruler of a divine nation’.

The current democratic system and constitution are the legacy of Japan’s defeat in World War Two. The country was occupied by US forces from 1945-52 and the new constitution was drafted by the US victors with limited Japanese input.

What is the role of the monarchy in Japan’s democracy?

Before World War Two the emperor was supreme in Japan but he governed in a political system where the balance of power was ambiguous, shared with a cabinet, the military, and elder statesmen.

Arguably Japan’s 1930s military expansion into Asia happened because factions within the government were able to exploit this ambiguity and appropriate the emperor’s ‘divine’ position for their agenda.

The emperor is a constitutional monarch but is still described by some Japanese conservatives as ‘ruler of a divine nation’.

The new constitution imposed at the end of World War Two retained the emperor as a source of cultural stability. But it enshrined checks and balances to prevent his position being used in factional politics again.

Perhaps the greatest change was the emperor’s status as Emperor Hirohito was reduced to a purely ceremonial head of state. He reigned until 1989, providing extraordinary continuity through the US occupation, the politically tumultuous 1950s, and Japan’s development into an economic superpower.

His successor Emperor Akihito was educated privately in Japan but tutored by an American quaker. Prior to Akihito’s succession there had been some debate about whether there should even be another emperor as the Japanese public’s relationship with the emperor had changed substantially.

Japan’s political establishment engaged in considerable introspection on how to handle a succession under the new constitution, but the transition was smooth. Akihito abdicated in 2019 due to ill health which prompted renewed controversy, but the transition to his successor Emperor Naruhito was a success.

Both the last two emperors have been staunch defenders of the 1947 constitution, rejecting any idea of rehabilitating Japanese conduct during World War Two or returning the country to great power status.

Article part 2

History of democracy in Japan

Japan began an extensive process of democratic modernization in the late 19th century, during Emperor Meiji’s reign from 1868 to 1912. Until that point, Japan was divided into feudal domains, with authority split between the emperor and shoguns.

However, with the threat of colonization, a group of enlightened powerful men began unifying the country. Missions were sent abroad to learn how to build a modern nation, and Japan set about developing a unified state.

A constitution was proclaimed in 1889, a foreign ministry and standing army were established, and various other reforms instituted. The intent was to create a representative democracy built on a sense of national Japanese identity and tradition.

During the reign of Meiji’s successor, Emperor Taishō from 1912-26 these reforms were brought to fruition with a functioning party system and elections. However, it was an imperfect system with limited suffrage and poorly-defined central authority.

Following the financial crash of 1929, nationalistic military forces seized power in Japan and the new emperor Hirohito became an instrument of nationalist ambitions.

Japan’s constitution is regarded as more liberal than the US constitution in many respects.

After Japan’s defeat in World War Two, the US drafted a new Japanese constitution in just ten days. The Americans who wrote it were primarily ‘New Deal’ Democrats influenced by the reformist policies of former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The constitution is regarded as more liberal than the US constitution in many respects.

During the 1950s political polarization in Japan reached its peak. Left and right fought fiercely over ideas, especially over Japan’s potential Cold War alliance with the US against the Soviet Union and Communist China.

Conservatives saw the alliance as a way to reclaim Japan’s place as a great power. The left saw it as a dangerous path back to the militarist mistakes of the 1930s. The upheaval was so divisive and violent that it led to the resignation of Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister from 1957-60 and leader of the LDP.

Kishi embodied some of the tensions in Japanese society, having been a colonial bureaucrat serving Japan’s wartime governments during the 1930s. His past made him a controversial figure as prime minister, as did his push for closer collaboration with the US via a Mutual Security Treaty – which his progressive opponents claimed was ratified in an undemocratic way.

His successor Hayato Ikeda, prime minister from 1960-64, embraced a policy which sidelined questions of cultural identity in favour of economic development. This settlement has lasted, but issues around national identity are unresolved.

The constitution has never been revised which raises questions about how much political sovereignty Japan has. For many of Japan’s post-war conservatives the constitution appeared to ‘reek of butter’ – meaning it is ‘Western in flavour’.

They have argued – with some justification – that a constitution based upon an imposed settlement cannot be democratic and that for Japan to recover a full sense of sovereignty, the constitution should be revised.

The left sees the unchanged constitution as emblematic of the country’s democratic transformation, a guarantee against democratic backsliding, and a brake on conservative impulses to restore Japan to great power status.

Article 9 of the constitution – known as the ‘Peace Clause’ – permits Japan to maintain a standing army, navy, and air force but limits their use to defensive purposes only. But this has not prevented Japan from developing a relatively large, highly sophisticated military.

Meanwhile, approximately 26,000 US armed forces personnel remain in the prefecture of Okinawa, part of some 50,000 US military personnel stationed in Japan as a whole. Many Okinawans would like to see US marines leave but feel their democratic rights are denied by Tokyo in favour of the US alliance.

As the only country in the world to have suffered nuclear attacks – on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the Japanese population is highly sensitive to the issue of nuclear weapons.

But as memories of World War Two recede, perceived foreign threats increase, and doubts about the reliability of the US alliance grow, public opinion is shifting. Recent polls show 54 per cent of Japanese people back the idea of strengthening Japan’s defence readiness.

Some LDP politicians, including former  prime minister Shinzo Abe who was the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, publicly suggested Japan should share nuclear weapons with the US as a deterrent to neighbouring nuclear powers, most notably North Korea and China.

Such a change, while in principle consistent with the constitution, would represent a seismic shift in Japan’s post-war defence norms.

Japan’s new prime minister Fumio Kishida, whose family comes from Hiroshima, opposes the idea of nuclear-sharing. But like Shinzo Abe, he is committed to increasing Japan’s defence spending from one to two per cent of GDP over the next five years. He also signalled his interest in modifying Japan’s defence doctrine to allow preventative strikes against adversaries such as North Korea.

In this regard Japan’s defence norms are gradually being relaxed, raising fears the country is revisiting the militarism of the pre-1945 period.

The Japanese political system

Japan’s political system is characterized by the domination of the LDP. The party has governed continually since its founding in 1955, with only brief losses of power between 1993-94 and 2009-12. However, much of the LDP’s success has been down to its adaptability.

Some of the divisions which shape political contests in Western nations – between conservative and progressive or between organized labour and big business – are relatively unimportant in Japan.

Electors define themselves less along schisms of class, religion, or individual rights and more along the lines of economic self-interest, reflecting the settlement of the 1960s. This homogeneity can sometimes obscure the divisions between parties over issues of national identity, the constitution, or economic competency.

Some conservatives continue to feel a sense of unsettled business from World War Two. Shinzo Abe, prime minister from 2012-20, was associated with moves to amend the constitution and rehabilitate Japan’s 20th century history.

At a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, he talked about the need to ‘look to the future’. This was interpreted by some commentators, particularly in countries that had experienced Japanese occupation, as avoiding recognition of Japan’s culpability for the war.

Abe also pursued a proactive foreign policy and his government was successful in devising legislation to limit the constraints of Article 9.

He introduced laws which provided a looser interpretation of the clause allowing for ‘collective’ self-defence, and for cooperation with countries other than the US – Japan’s sole formal alliance partner – to defend Japan.

This interpretation enabled Japan’s Self Defence Forces to deploy in principle whenever the national integrity of Japan might be threatened – for example, to defend access to vital raw materials or to protect Japanese citizens overseas.

The Supreme Court could have ruled on such moves, especially given the objections raised by progressive legal scholars, but it has tended to avoid politically-contested issues.

Meanwhile, conservative politicians including Abe have tried to limit public resistance to constitutional amendments by exploring a range of other revisions separate from article 9, including addressing women’s rights.

It remains an open question whether public opinion will support constitutional revision.

However, amending the constitution is extremely hard to do, requiring a two-thirds majority in both houses and a referendum. Only recently has the LDP, with some of its coalition partners, commanded the necessary legislative majority. It remains an open question whether public opinion will support constitutional revision.

Kishida echoes the language of Japan’s 1960s governments. He talks about a new model of capitalism, shifting Japan away from neoliberal economics towards a greater role for the public sector, and increasing opportunities for small and medium-sized companies.

Japan’s status as a democracy is playing a more important role in its foreign policy, alongside its commitment to upholding the rules-based international order. Other nations increasingly refer to an international democratic alliance in opposition to autocratic regimes in China and Russia, and Japan is often cited as a leading champion of democracy in the Pacific.

However, some critics view Japanese politicians as opportunistic or partial in their defence of democratic values. Japan was arguably slow to impose sanctions on Myanmar, where it has extensive interests, following the military coup of February 2021. Under prime minister Abe there was also considerable expansion of ties with India, where serious questions about democratic protections exist.

Opposition political parties in Japan

Japan’s left embraced the idea of a new kind of internationalism for Japan in the aftermath of World War Two. As the only country to have experienced two nuclear attacks, it was appealing to embrace the idea of pacifism, renounce a standing army, and focus attention on international institutions such as the United Nations (UN).

The left has broadly believed in the defence of Japan’s new constitution and the pursuit of a non-aligned policy, avoiding great power conflict. However the traditional left is shrinking in size as its traditional support base ages and its influence reduces.

Opposition parties have generally failed to come up with convincing alternatives to the LDP.

Opposition parties have generally failed to come up with convincing alternatives to the LDP. The electoral system for the lower house is a mixed combination of ‘first past the post’ and proportional representation (PR).

The opposition has been content to use the PR element to retain representatives in the Diet without being compelled to coalesce into a serious, alternative party. The opposition therefore remains smaller, weaker, and less able to contest elections than the LDP despite periodic efforts to field joint candidates in recent elections.

From 2009-12 the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won control of the lower house, but it failed in government. This was partly due to an overly ambitious reform agenda but the government also faced the triple disasters of ‘3/11’ – the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Since then, the electorate has been reluctant to give the opposition their support.

In the lower house election of 2021, the opposition fielded unified slates of candidates. There was some expectation that they might again mount a serious challenge. But this effort at unity was rejected by the electorate.

The future of democracy in Japan

Many of Japan’s young people are increasingly receptive to a more identity-based politics, sometimes with an authoritarian flavour. This is partly driven by domestic discourse around lowered living standards, and partly by perceived external threats such as China and North Korea.

However stable Japan’s democracy has proven to be, the possibility of a populist movement cannot be ruled out.

Governors and local politicians in Tokyo and Osaka have been increasingly explicit in using nationalist, sometimes anti-foreign, rhetoric. Japan also restricted foreign travel into the country more stringently and for longer than other nations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Notwithstanding Japan’s success in hosting the 2021 Olympics, this has created a sense of closedness to foreign contact that some observers argue is reminiscent of the pre-Meiji period.

However stable Japan’s democracy has proven to be, the possibility of a populist movement cannot be ruled out. Economic hardship, threats from abroad or global pandemics might all cause Japan to seek answers for its problems by invoking the type of identity politics associated with an idealised ‘glorious’ past.