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The Japanese political system

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.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had dominated the political system beginning in 1955, when it was established as a coalition of smaller conservative groups. Until 1993 all of Japan's prime ministers came from its ranks as did, with one exception, other cabinet ministers.

The LDP has a complex genealogy. Its roots can be traced to the groups established by Itagaki Taisuke and Okuma Shigenobu in the 1880s. It attained its present form in November 1955, when the conservative Liberal Party (Jiyuto) and the Japan Democratic Party (Nihon Minshuto) united in response to the threat posed by a unified Japan Socialist Party, which had been established the month before. The union of the Liberal Party and the Japan Democratic Party has often been described as a "shotgun marriage." Both had strong leaders and had previously competed with each other. The Japan Democratic Party, which had been established only a year before, in November 1954, was a coalition of different groups in which farmers were prominent. The result of the new amalgamation was a large party that represented a broad spectrum of interests but had minimal organization compared with the socialist and other leftist parties. In 1976, in the wake of the Lockheed bribery scandal, a handful of younger LDP Diet members broke away and established their own party, the New Liberal Club (Shin Jiyu Kurabu). A decade later, however, it was reabsorbed by the LDP.

Unlike the leftist parties, the LDP did not espouse a well-defined ideology or political philosophy. Its members held a variety of positions that could be broadly defined as being to the right of the opposition parties, yet more moderate than those of Japan's numerous rightist splinter groups. The LDP traditionally identified itself with a number of general goals: rapid, export-based economic growth; close cooperation with the United States in foreign and defense policies; and several newer issues, such as administrative reform. Administrative reform encompassed several themes: simplification and streamlining of government bureaucracy; privatization of state owned enterprises; and adoption of measures, including tax reform, needed to prepare for the strain on the economy posed by an aging society. Other priorities in the early 1990s included promoting a more active and positive role for Japan in the rapidly developing Asia-Pacific region, internationalizing Japan's economy by liberalizing and promoting domestic demand, creating a high technology information society, and promoting scientific research. A business-inspired commitment to free enterprise was tempered by the insistence of important small business and agricultural constituencies on some form of protectionism.

By the early 1990s, the LDP's nearly four decades in power allowed it to establish a highly stable process of policy formation. This process would not have been possible if other parties had secured parliamentary majorities. LDP strength was based on an enduring, although not unchallenged, coalition of big business, small business, agriculture, professional groups, and other interests. Elite bureaucrats collaborated closely with the party and interest groups in drafting and implementing policy. In a sense, the party's success was a result not of its internal strength but of its weakness. It lacked a strong, nationwide organization or consistent ideology with which to attract voters. Its leaders were rarely decisive, charismatic, or popular. But it functioned efficiently as a locus for matching interest group money and votes with bureaucratic power and expertise. This arrangement resulted in corruption, but the party could claim credit for helping to create economic growth and a stable, middle-class Japan.

In 1993 the LDP split and lost control of the main chamber of the Japanese Diet in the general election that followed. After a money scandal involving former LDP secretary general Ichiro Ozawa, left the party and created a new one called Shinsei-To. In the Lower House election following this, the LDP could not give a majority without the Ozawa faction. It formed a coalition government with all the anti-LDP parties except the Japan Communist Party. One of the achievements of the new coalition was the reform of the electoral system, which had been widely viewed as a source of corruption and the basis of the LDP's long-standing dominance. For a better understanding, a history on the electoral voting in Japan is needed.

Under the old electoral system (SNTV), the 511 members of the House of Representatives (the lower house) were elected from 129 districts of between one and six seats each. This system had been in use since 1947 and had produced a distinctive approach to elections among the major parties, particularly the LDP. Under this system any party that hoped to win enough seats to obtain a majority or a significant minority of seats needed to put up multiple candidates in most districts. Thus, in order to maximize their representation, parties needed to find methods of ensuring that each candidate would poll the minimum number of votes required to be elected, rather than having each candidate follow his natural instincts by attempting to maximize his vote. A candidate who received more than his 'fair share' of the vote could actually hurt colleagues who received fewer votes: candidate A's 'unnecessary votes' could be enough to prevent candidate B of the same party from gaining a seat. The combination of multi-member districts with SNTV forced LDP politicians to compete against each other in the same district. Since they must espouse the same party's ideological differences became irrelevant and they were led into pork-barrel politics, of which we will discuss later on.

The reformed electoral system is a Parallel system consisting of two tiers—List PR and FPTP single-member districts. Each voter casts one vote in each tier. For the first election under this system, in 1996, there were 200 seats in the PR tier divided between 11 regional districts, ranging in size from seven to 33 seats, and 300 SMDs in the second tier. Efforts at rationalization led the Diet to reduce the number of PR seats to 180 prior to the second election in 2000. The 11 PR districts now range in size from six to 29 seats. In a Parallel system, there is no compensatory mechanism that adjusts the overall number of seats won by each party to better reflect the proportion of the vote actually received. The predominance of SMD seats over PR seats thus advantages larger parties that can win SMD seats. The two tiers of the Japanese electoral system are related in another, more unusual, way, however. Japan's electoral laws allow candidates to mount dual candidacies by standing both on a PR list and for an SMD seat.

While the PR tier is technically closed-list, there is also a provision that allows for some degree of voter influence over the ranking of candidates on the lists. Parties are allowed to present lists that give equal rankings to some or all of those candidates who are nominated both on a party list and for an SMD. After those who win in the SMDs are removed from consideration, the final ranking of the SMD losers on the PR list is determined by how well each polled in comparison to the winner in his or her district.

This provision has a number of benefits for parties. First, it allows them to abdicate the politically challenging job of ranking candidates. Second, it encourages candidates who are ranked equally on the PR lists to campaign more vigorously to win votes in their districts. While parties do make much use of equal ranking, they also retain the option to give some candidates firm rankings. This is also useful, as a higher or 'safe' ranking on the PR list can be used as an incentive to convince a candidate to run in a single-member district in which there is little chance of winning.

The first trial of the system came in 1996, and the results were largely seen as disappointing. In the years since the new electoral laws were passed, the LDP had re-established itself in power and the opposition parties had undergone a number of realignments. This instability led to the persistence of previous patterns, an overall win for the LDP, and little movement towards the hoped-for two-party system. The somewhat complicated nature of the system also produced dissatisfaction among the electorate, particularly regarding the phenomenon of losing SMD candidates being 'resurrected' in the PR tier. The results were especially counter-intuitive in cases in which the first- and third- (and occasionally fourth-) placed candidates from a single-member district won seats but the second-placed candidate (usually from the most competitive of the opposition parties) failed to win a place. It was also unclear that any significant decline in corruption and money politics had taken place.

By the time of the second election under the new system, in 2000, there had been a reduction in the number of competitive candidates vying for each SMD seat. However, the move towards a two-party system again made only slight progress as the non-communist opposition was still splintered and the centrist Komeito party had switched sides and joined the LDP-led coalition.

The third test of the new system took place in November 2003. In September, the small Liberal Party merged with the dominant opposition Democratic Party (DPJ). The merged party (which retained the DPJ name) gained an impressive 40 seats in an election that featured the use of party manifestos for the first time. The remaining opposition parties of significant size lost all but a few of their seats. On the government side, the LDP and the smaller of its two coalition parties also lost seats, leading to the smaller party being absorbed by the LDP. With most seats concentrated in the hands of the two leading parties, only Komeito remains as a significant small party. The LDP is still in coalition with Komeito, in part because it needs Komeito support in the upper house, but also because support from the well-organized Komeito played a large part in the victories of many of its SMD candidates.

The results of the legislative elections of 2003 support the idea that the effects of electoral system reform are not felt immediately and that entrenched habits and processes require time to change. These outcomes also suggest that the mixed-member system may not be likely to produce a complete consolidation into a US-style two-party system, as the existence of the PR tier allows third parties to persist.

The study of the relationship between the polity and the economy is very important today and Japan is a very good example in this light. Though Japan and France may be the only major developed countries with a remarkable distribution of their lower houses, there are several countries, such as the United States, that have an upper house with highly unequal representation of votes in different jurisdictions. It is also notable that Japan and France are notorious for their protection of agriculture. Thus, we will assume the following:

There are two areas in a country. Food is produced in the agricultural area by land and labor. Industrial goods are produced in the industrial area by capital and labor. To produce food and industrial goods efficiently and maximize the gross national product (G.N.P.), labor, which is assumed to be homogeneous, must be assigned between areas so that the value of the marginal product of labor (V.M.P.L.) in the agricultural area equals that in the industrial area. If the V.M.P.L. in the agricultural area is lower than in the industrial area. we can increase G.N.P. by moving some labor from the agricultural area to the industrial area. If the V.M.P.L. in the industrial area is lower than in the agricultural area, we can increase G.N.P. by moving some labor from the industrial area to the agricultural area. If the G.N.P. is maximized, the V.M.P.L. must be the same between two areas. If both industries are competitive, the wage paid to a laborer is the same as the V.M.P.L. A profit-maximizing firm employs more laborers if the V.M.P.L. is higher than the wage, and fires some laborers if the V.M.P.L. is lower than the wage.

Laborers move to the area where they can get a higher wage. At equilibrium the wages in both areas are equal. So the V.M.P.L. in both areas is equal. This means that the country's G.N.P. is maximized by the movement of laborers in pursuit of higher wages. The wages are equal. There is no problem regarding the fairness of the distribution.

If we introduce government into this country, what will happen? What will the politicians do? English has the term "pork-barrel" of which we spoke earlier, which means that in most countries, politicians try to attract as many financial resources as possible to their districts. Politicians present their achievements in terms of attracting government funds to the voters.

What will the voters or laborers do? Voters or laborers decide where to live or to work by considering not only their wages but also these benefits. They will choose the lower wage area if they can get bigger benefits to compensate for the lower wage. This means that the bigger benefits brought by politicians attract too many laborers and the V.M.P.L. in that area becomes lower than in the other area. This makes the production efficiency worse and the G.N.P. becomes smaller.

In conclusion, people who protect their benefits by political pressure may increase their own welfare level by unilaterally throwing away their excess political power (even if there are sunk human capital costs). This happens because the excess political power brought too much per capita benefit to the favored area and kept too many laborers in that area. It made the value of the marginal product or the wage in that area too low.

It may sound paradoxical and even odd to economists, who are used to seeing a tradeoff between efficiency and equity, that seeking simple equity can raise efficiency. But this is reasonable when simple political equity is necessary to avoid distortion of the economy.

The consequences of the new election system have not been studied enough by politicians, journalists or even by political scientists or economists specializing in collective choice. This situation shows that the analytical level of Japanese work in collective choice and political science is not high enough. We need more theoretical studies.

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