The Electoral System

Japan Table of Contents

The Japanese political system has three types of elections: general elections to the House of Representatives held every four years (unless the lower house is dissolved earlier), elections to the House of Councillors held every three years to choose one-half of its members, and local elections held every four years for offices in prefectures, cities, and villages. Elections are supervised by election committees at each administrative level under the general direction of the Central Election Administration Committee. The minimum voting age for persons of both sexes is twenty years; voters must satisfy a three-month residency requirement before being allowed to cast a ballot. For those seeking office, there are two sets of age requirements: twenty-five years of age for admission to the House of Representatives and most local offices, and thirty years of age for admission to the House of Councillors and the prefectural governorship.

In the general election of February 18, 1990, the thirty-ninth held since the first parliamentary election in July 1890, the 130 multiple-seat election districts of the House of Representatives returned two to five representatives, depending on their population. There were two exceptions: the district encompassing the Amami Islands, south of Kyushu, elected only one representative to the lower house, while the first district of Hokkaido elected six. Successful candidates were those who won at least the fifth largest aggregation of votes in a five-person district, the fourth largest in a four-person district, and so on. Voters cast their ballots for only one candidate. Competition for lower house seats in the February 1990 general election varied from district to district. Tokyo's fourth district had seventeen candidates running for five seats, while the second district in Ibaraki Prefecture had only four persons running for three seats. In Okinawa Prefecture's single five-seat district, there were only six candidates.

In House of Councillors elections, the prefectural constituencies elect from two to eight councillors, depending on their population. Each voter casts one ballot for a prefectural candidate and a second one for a party in the national constituency system.

Percentages of eligible voters casting ballots in postwar elections for the House of Representatives had varied within a rather narrow range, from 76.9 percent in May 1958 to 67.9 percent in December 1983, but the 67.3 percent turnout in the July 1993 lower house election set a new low. The figure for the February 18, 1990, general election was 72.4 percent. Although interest in politics is greater in urban areas than in rural areas, voter turnout in the latter is generally higher, probably because constituents have a greater personal stake in such elections.

Elections and Political Funding

Partly as a result of revelations following the Recruit scandal of 1988-89, the problem of political funding was intensely debated during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The scandal arose as a result of the dealings of Ezoe Hiromasa, the ambitious chairman of the board of the Recruit Corporation (a professional search service that had diversified into finance and real estate and had become involved in politics), who sold large blocks of untraded shares in a subsidiary, Recruit Cosmos, to seventy-six individuals. When the stock was traded over the counter in 1986, its price jumped, earning individual investors as much as 100 million in after-sales profits. The persons involved included the most influential leaders of the LDP (usually through their aides or spouses) and a smaller number of opposition party figures. Although such insider trading was not strictly illegal, it caused public outrage at a time when the ruling party was considering a highly controversial consumption tax. Before the scandal ran its course, Takeshita Noboru was obliged to resign as prime minister in April 1989, a senior aide committed suicide in expiation for his leader's humiliation, and former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro resigned from the LDP--becoming an "independent" Diet member--to spare the much-tainted party further shame.

Regarding the background issue of political funding, a group of parliamentarians belonging to the ruling LDP estimated in 1987 that annual expenses for ten newly elected members of the Diet averaged 120 million each, or about US$800,000. This figure, which included expenses for staff and constituent services in a member's home district, was less than the average for Diet members as a whole, because long-term incumbents tended to incur higher expenses. Yet in the late 1980s, the government provided each Diet member with only 20 million for annual operating expenses, leaving 100 million to be obtained through private contributions, political party faction bosses, or other means. The lack of public funding meant that politicians--especially, but not exclusively, members of the LDP-- needed constant infusions of cash to stay in office.

Maintaining staff and offices in Tokyo and the home district constituted the biggest expense for Diet members. Near-obligatory attendance at the weddings and funerals of constituents and their families, however, was another large financial drain: the Japanese custom requires that attendees contribute cash, handed over discreetly in elaborately decorated envelopes, to the parents of the bride and groom or to the bereaved.

After revelations of corrupt activities forced the resignation of Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei, postwar Japan's most skillful practitioner of "money politics," in 1974, the 1948 Political Funds Control Law was amended to establish ceilings for contributions from corporations, other organizations, and individuals. This change forced Diet members to seek a larger number of smaller contributions to maintain cash flow. Fund- raising parties to which tickets were sold were a major revenue source during the 1980s, and the abuse of these ticket sales became a public concern. Another related problem was the secrecy surrounding political funds and their use. Although many politicians, including members of newly appointed cabinets, voluntarily disclosed their personal finances, such disclosure is not compulsory and many sources of revenue remain obscure.

Proposals for system reform in the early 1990s included compulsory full disclosure of campaign funding, more generous public allowances for Diet members to reduce (or, ideally, to eliminate) their reliance on under-the-table contributions, and stricter penalties for violators, including lengthy periods of being barred from running for public office. Some commentators advocated replacement of the lower house's multiple-seat election district system with single-seat constituencies like those found in Britain and the United States. It was argued that the multiple-seat districts made election campaigning more expensive because party members from the same district had to compete among themselves for the votes of the same constituents. It was hoped that the smaller size of single-seat districts would also reduce the expense of staff, offices, and constituent services. Critics argued, however, that the creation of single-seat constituencies would virtually eliminate the smaller opposition parties and would either create a United States-style two-party system or give the LDP an even greater majority in the lower house than it enjoyed under the multiple-seat system.

In contrast with multimillion-dollar United States political campaigns, direct expenses for the comparatively short campaigns before Japanese general, upper house, and local elections were relatively modest. The use of posters and pamphlets was strictly regulated, and candidates appeared on the noncommercial public television station, NHK, to give short campaign speeches. Most of this activity was publicly funded. Campaign sound-trucks wove their way through urban and rural streets, often bombarding residents with earsplitting harangues from candidates or their supporters. No politician, however, could expect to remain in office without considering expenses for constituent services the most important component of campaign expenses.

In the summer of 1993, the LDP government of Miyazawa Kiichi was brought down largely as a result of its failure to pass effective political reform legislation. The minority government of Hosokawa Morihiro that succeeded it proposed legislation to ban direct contributions by companies or unions to parliamentary candidates and to divide the Diet equally between 250 single-seat constituencies and 250 seats distributed by proportional representation.

Electoral Districts

The apportionment of electoral districts still reflects the distribution of the population in the years following World War II, when only one-third of the people lived in urban areas and twothirds lived in rural areas. In the next forty-five years, the population became more than three-quarters urban, as people deserted rural communities to seek economic opportunities in Tokyo and other large cities. The lack of reapportionment led to a serious underrepresentation of urban voters. Urban districts in the House of Representatives were increased by five in 1964, bringing nineteen new representatives to the lower house; in 1975 six more urban districts were established, with a total of twenty new representatives allocated to them and to other urban districts. Yet great inequities remained between urban and rural voters.

In the early 1980s, as many as five times the votes were needed to elect a representative from an urban district compared with those needed for a rural district. Similar disparities existed in the prefectural constituencies of the House of Councillors. The Supreme Court had ruled on several occasions that the imbalance violated the constitutional principle of one person-one vote. The Supreme Court mandated the addition of eight representatives to urban districts and the removal of seven from rural districts in 1986. Several lower house districts' boundaries were redrawn. Yet the disparity is still as much as three urban votes to one rural vote.

After the 1986 change, the average number of persons per lower house representative was 236,424. However, the figure varied from 427,761 persons per representative in the fourth district of Kanagawa Prefecture, which contains the large city of Yokohama, to 142,932 persons in the third district of largely rural and mountainous Nagano Prefecture. A major reapportionment seemed unlikely in the near future because rural voters remained a major source of support for the LDP.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress