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A proud and cultured nation which has quickly modernized and absorbed Western ideas, Japan has recovered from a devastating loss in World War II to become an economic power and a staunch ally of the United States (the main victor of the war against Japan). Slightly smaller than California, Japan has the tenth-largest population in the world and the second-largest national GDP (about $4.5 trillion).

Under the Tokugawa Shogunate from 1603 to 1858 Japan was among the most isolated countries on the planet. Within a generation of the modernizing Meiji Restoration, it was a world power.


Government Overview

Japan has a parliamentary and unitary political system similar to the United Kingdom. The Japanese national legislature is the Diet (Kokkai in Japanese) and is divided into two chambers, the dominant House of Representatives and the subirdinate House of Councillors. Members of both chambers are elected in a mixed member electoral system from both single-seat electoral constituenceis and multi-seat proportional representation constituencies. The Diet elects a Prime Minister, who appoints a cabinet. Unlike Britain, Japan has written constitution and a Supreme Court independent of the national legislature, which controls several tiers of lower courts. Law is based on the civil law of Germany.

Japan is subdivided into 47 prefectures, which are further subdivided into city, town and village municipalities. There is no unincorprated territory in Japan. Both prefectures and municiplaiites exercise local government functions as directed by the national government in which they are dependent for most of their revenues. As a unitary political system Japan does not have a federal system like that in the United States.

Interestingly, Japan's many small island territories in the western pacific are part of the prefecture of Tokyo. This example suggests a possible solution to the problem in the United States of providing representation in the U.S. Congress for the residents of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin islands, which might be combined as an effective state for the purposes of national legislative representation.

Political Overview

One of the salient facts about Japanese politics is that the government has been dominated by a single party, the center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), (Jimminto in Japanese) since the organization of the party in 1955. Until 1993, the LDP was strong enough to rule on its own: after a year of opposition rule, it has continued to lead the government in coalition with other parties. Explanations for its dominance include the following:

  • Strong Economic Performance. The LDP is widely credited with providing political cover for the senior bureaucrats who made economic policy that produced high economic growth rates that resulted in improvements in Japanese living standards and provided a economic policy model for other countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia.
  • Iron Iriangle Policy Making. Economic policy-making has favored the interests of Big Business, Small Business and Agriculture, effectively excluding organized labor and urban consumers, and thus rewarding key electoral constituencies for the LDP.
  • Legislative Malapportionment. Rural and suburban voters who are more likely to vote for the LDP are overrepresented in the Diet.
  • Pork Barreling. Massive public spending by the LDP on projects benefiting LDP constituencies made the party a powerful political machine. This pork barrel spending is commonly thought to take only the form of public works spending. Although much has been spent on public works another form of pork barrel spending takes the much lss visible form of Ordinary and Special Local Allocation Taxes, or revenue transfers from the national to prefectural and municipal governments.
  • Patron-client Politics. LDP politicians maintain permanent campaign organizations called Koenkai that conduct case work for constituents and distribute benefits and favors to maintain personal voter attachments. The funds supporting the Koenkai come from Big Business.

The LDP currently controls the government in coalition with the New Komeito (or new Clean Government Party), which is affiliated with the Buddhist Soka Gakkai denomination. In contrast to the two major political parties in the United States, the LDP is highly factionalized, and much political action depends on the opinions of key faction leaders. Some of these include ex-PM Ryutaro Hashimoto, ex-PM Yoshiro Mori, Shizuka Kamei, and Taku Yamasaki.

The current president of the LDP and prime minister of Japan is Junichiro Koizumi, a "reformist" from Kanagawa Prefecture (around the cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki). He is a member of Mori's faction and was chosen to succeed Mori following a string of gaffes in 2000.

The largest opposition party is the Democratic Party of Japan, led by Katsuya Okada. Other parties include the Social Democratic Party and Japan Communist Party.

Key Issues


  • Chilly relations with neighboring China, as of late 2005.
  • Deployment of Japanese troops to Iraq. Article 9 of Japan's constitution forbids Japan from engaging in war. However, the country has maintained a de facto military since the late 1940's, and has sent logistics personnel to assist the Coalition of the Willing. This has led to controversy over whether the intervention is justified, and also over whether Article 9 is still pertinent.
  • Relations with the United States, particularly in regard to the large number of U.S. troops stationed in Japan.
  • Permanent membership in the Security Council.
  • Long disputes with China over atrocities committed during World War II.
  • Territorial disputes with Russia over the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin, which have precluded normalized relations between the two countries.
  • Japan is also a major player in negotiations with North Korea.

Japanese ODA

Either Japan and the United States have typically been the world's largest annual contributors of Official Development Assistance (ODA) or foreign aid. Of the total $561 billion given to African countries betwen 1994 and 2003, Japan contributed $111 billion (20%), the United States contributed $101 billion (18%), France and Germany each contributed $62 billion (11%).

Major Domestic Policy Issues

  • Postal Savings Reform: Privatization of the postal service, a government-run enterprise that provides savings and insurance services as well as delivering the mail.
  • Pension reform. Japan is currently experiencing zero population growth, and its elderly population is expected to outgrow the limits of the current social insurance system.
  • Financial services reform, particularly to fix several failing banks.
  • Immigration: work force is shrinking to the point where the Immigration Bureau estimates that Japan withing the next generation would have to rely upon millions of migrant workers to fill DDD (difficult, dirty, dangerous) jobs known as KKK jobs in Japan (kistui, kitanai, liken)

The Lost Decades Myth


Is know to have people die from Karōshi[1], or overwork.

cnn on Karoshi



Further Reading

  • Constitution
    • Tetsuya Kataoaka. 1991. The Price of a Constitution: The Origin of Japan's Postwar Politics. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0844817147.
    • Percy R. Luney, et al. ed.s, 1993. Japanese Constitutional Law. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press. ISBN 4130370189.
  • Environmentalism
    • Jeffrey Broadbent. 1998. Environmental Politics in Japan: Networks of Power and Protest. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521564247. Pp. 186-187.
  • Factionalism
    • Gerald L. Curtis. 1999. The Logic of Japanese Politics: Leaders, Institutions, and the Limits of Change. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231108427.
    • Kap Yun Lee. 1983. Political Competition and the Party System in Japan. Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University.
  • Koenkai
    • Hitoshi Abe, et al, 1994. The Government and Politics of Japan. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press. ISBN 0860085015. Pp. 172-181.
  • Political Culture
    • Steven R. Reed. 1993. Making Common Sense of Japan. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0822955105.
    • Patrick Smith. 1998. Japan: A Reinterpretation. New York: Random House. ISBN 0679745114.
    • Karel van Wolferen. 1989. The Enigma of Japanese Power. New York: Random House. ISBN 0679728023.
  • Political History
    • Conrad Totman. 2000. A History of Japan. Malden, MA: Blackwell. ISBN 1557860769. (exhaustive survey)
    • Gregory Kasza. 1988. The State and the Mass Media in Japan, 1918-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBn 0520082737.
    • Shu Kishida. 2004. A Place for Apology: War, Guilt, and U.S.-Japan Relations. Lanhm, MD: Hamilton Books. ISBN 0761828404.
  • Pork Barreling
    • Tadahide Ikuta. 1995. Kanryo: Japan's Hidden Government. Tokyo: NHK Publishing. ISBN 4925080334.
    • Chalmers Johnson. 1995. Japan: Who Governs?: The Rise of the Developmental State. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0393314502.
    • Junshichiro Yonehara. "Financial Relations Between National and Local Governments," in Public Finance in Japan. Tokue Shibata, ed., 1986. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press. ISBN 086008387X.
    • John Hickman. 1993. Pork Barrel Politics in the Japanese House of Representatives. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Iowa.
  • Postal Savings Reform
    • Jennifer Amyx, et al. "The Politics of Postal Savings Reform in Japan," Asian Perspective. Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 23-48.
  • Yen Bloc
    • C.H. Kwan. 2001. Yen Bloc: Toward Economic Integration in Asia. Washignton, DC: Brookings Institution Press. ISBN 0815700830.
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