Author: Jiro Yamaguchi, Hosei University
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has long dominated Japanese politics, losing power only twice since 1955. But despite this domination, it has not always been easy for LDP prime ministers to implement key policies. At least until the mid-1990s, a series of checks and balances built into the party and the bureaucracy prevented them from doing so.
First, there are competing factions within the PLD. With constant factional competition for party leadership, non-traditional party politicians took advantage of the mismanagement and corruption of those in leadership positions to demand regime change within the party. This “pseudo-change of power” within the PLD has resulted in policy changes, preventing continuity. For example, Kakuei Tanaka moved closer to China after defeating conservative Takeo Fukuda in the 1972 LDP presidential election, and Takeo Miki implemented stricter regulations on political fundraising in 1975 after the Tanaka’s resignation due to a financial scandal.
Second, the bureaucracy was characterized by the vigorous independence of each department. The territory-conscious bureaucrats maintained a strong “vertically compartmentalized administrative system”. Ministries pursued their own interests at the expense of broader public interests, resulting in a lack of a national strategy.
Finally, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB) served as the guardian of the law by reviewing bills to be submitted by Cabinet while interpreting the Constitution. In particular, the CLB helped curb security policies that were incompatible with article 9 of the Constitution on renunciation of war.
In the 1990s, the PLD was temporarily removed from power and institutional reforms were carried out in the electoral and administrative systems. A single-member constituency system was introduced in the lower house elections, as well as the political party subsidy system. These reforms have significantly changed the current behavior of LDP politicians.
Traditionally, politicians won lower house elections by personally organizing their own supporters and raising their own political funds. Now politicians are heavily dependent on government grants to political parties distributed to each politician by party headquarters. LDP leadership also formally approves candidates running on the LDP ticket, exerting increased authority over members. This limits the amount of factional fighting and debate within the party over policies.
The Hashimoto administration in the late 1990s also implemented administrative reforms to strengthen the Prime Minister’s office through the Cabinet Secretariat and the Cabinet Office. Junichiro Koizumi was the first prime minister to make full use of these institutional reforms in the early 2000s, promoting policy changes such as the privatization of postal services.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used a more centralized LDP and government. He has intervened in the appointment of key positions in agencies previously known for their entrenched independence, thus placing them under political control. Abe’s violation of the independence of the CLB forced him to change his interpretation of Article 9 to pave the way for the enactment of safety legislation.
Strong opposition is essential to ensure contestability through the possibility of a change of power as a counterbalance force against a powerful ruling party. But after two brief periods in power, no major reorganization of the opposition forces has been carried out so far. With an average turnout in national elections of around 50%, the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition is winning easy victories.
The domination of power by the LDP led to the collapse of sound parliamentary deliberations based on cautious argument. The parliamentary debate became a political farce because everyone knew that the majority held by the LDP-led coalition meant that they had everything under their control. This allowed the Abe administration to pass a series of constitutionally questionable bills. When allegations of political corruption involving Abe and his wife came to light, government officials refused to provide good faith explanations.
Government officials are rarely held accountable for their actions despite the enormous power they enjoy. Japanese courts are reluctant to examine the constitutionality of specific legislation and rarely overturn government policies as unconstitutional. The government denies the importance of the Diet and fails to meet its accountability obligations in candid debate. Government officials often survive corruption scandals as major newspapers and television stations fail to hold the government to account, scandals that only produce a temporary drop in approval ratings.
Irresponsible government means an increase in the abuse of power and a decline in policy-making capacity. Policy-making bureaucrats are more obedient to those in power for reasons of conservation and career advancement and avoid giving advice that might offend their political leaders. These same bosses attempt to achieve selfish political goals without sufficient elaboration and explanation to the Diet.
This is why the Japanese government continues to drift in the face of difficult challenges. Japan has experienced four waves of COVID-19 in a year and a half. In September 2021, the total death toll exceeded 17,000.
The number of COVID-19 tests carried out in Japan is low and the isolation of those infected is not being managed properly. In the last quarter of 2020, when the number of people infected temporarily declined, the government implemented a nationwide subsidy program to encourage people to travel and eat out. The GoTo travel campaign ended up spreading the infection across the country.
Reckless policies, including holding the Olympics despite the pandemic, ignore science and ignore informed criticism. The government headed by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appeared to be in power due to its overwhelming majority in the Diet. But the threat to Japan’s political capacity and the functioning of democracy has caused the administration’s approval rating to drop as a result. On September 3, Suga was forced to announce his resignation as most of the PLD Diet members wanted a change of leadership to survive the upcoming October general election in the Lower House.
Jiro Yamaguchi is Professor at the Faculty of Law, Department of Political Science, Hosei University.
An extended version of this article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Quarterly Forum, ‘Dealing with the Crisis in Japan’, Vol 13, No 3.