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Author: Jiro Yamaguchi, Hosei University
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has long dominated Japanese politics, losing power on only two occasions since 1955. But despite this dominance, it has not always been easy for LDP prime ministers to implement key policies. At least until the mid-1990s, a series of check-and-balance mechanisms embedded in the party and the bureaucracy prevented them from doing so.
First, there are competing factions within the LDP. With constant factional competition for party leadership, non-mainstream politicians in the party took advantage of the mismanagement and corruption of those holding top party positions to seek intra-party regime change. This ‘pseudo-change of power’ within the LDP brought about policy shifts, preventing continuity. For instance, Kakuei Tanaka achieved rapprochement with China after defeating conservative Takeo Fukuda in the 1972 LDP presidential election, and Takeo Miki implemented stricter regulations over political fundraising in 1975 after Tanaka stepped down because of a money scandal.
Second, the bureaucracy was characterised by the vigorous independence of each ministry. Turf-minded bureaucrats maintained a strong ‘vertically siloed administrative system’. Ministries pursued their own interests over broader public interests, resulting in a lack of national strategy.
Lastly, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB) served as the guardian of the law by reviewing bills to be submitted by the Cabinet while interpreting the Constitution. In particular, the CLB was instrumental in putting a brake on security policies that were inconsistent with the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.
In the 1990s the LDP was toppled from power temporarily and institutional reforms were carried out across both the electoral and administrative systems. A single-seat constituency system was introduced in lower house elections, along with the political party subsidy system. These reforms significantly changed how LDP politicians now behave.
Traditionally, politicians won Lower House elections by personally organising their own supporters and collecting their own political funds. Now, politicians rely heavily on the subsidy paid by the government to political parties and distributed to each politician by party headquarters. The LDP leadership also officially endorses candidates running on the LDP ticket, wielding increased authority over members. This constrains the amount of intra-party factional fighting and debate 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 fully utilise these institutional reforms in the early 2000s, promoting policy changes such as the privatisation of postal services.
Prime minister Shinzo Abe made use of a more centralised LDP and government. He intervened in the appointment of key posts in agencies previously known for their well-entrenched independence, thus, placing them under political control. Abe’s violation of the independence of the CLB forced it to change its interpretation of Article 9 to pave the way for the enactment of security legislation.
A strong opposition is indispensable to ensure contestability through the possibility of a change of power as a counterbalancing force against a powerful ruling party. But after two brief periods in power, no major reorganisation of opposition forces has been achieved so far. With average voter turnout in national elections languishing at around 50 per cent, the ruling LDP–Komeito coalition wins easy victories.
The dominance of power by the LDP brought about the collapse of healthy parliamentary deliberations based on careful argument. 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 enabled the Abe administration to enact a series of constitutionally questionable bills. When allegations of political corruption involving Abe and his wife unfolded, government officials refused to provide explanations in good faith.
Government officials are rarely held responsible for their actions despite the enormous power they enjoy. Japanese courts are reluctant to scrutinise the constitutionality of specific legislation, and rarely annul government policies as unconstitutional. The government denies the significance of the Diet and does not fulfil its accountability obligations in sincere debate. Government officials often survive corruption scandals as major newspapers and TV stations fail to hold the government to account, scandals which produce only a temporary decline in approval rates.
An irresponsible government means increased abuse of power and a decline in policymaking capacity. Bureaucrats in charge of policymaking are more obedient to those holding power for reasons of self-preservation and career advancement and avoid providing advice that might offend their political bosses. These same bosses attempt to achieve self-serving policy goals without sufficient elaboration and explanation in the Diet.
This is why the Japanese government continues to drift in the face of difficult challenges. Japan saw four waves of COVID-19 in a year and a half. As of September 2021, the total death toll was over 17,000.
The number of COVID-19 tests performed in Japan is low, and the isolation of infected persons is not being managed properly. In the last quarter of 2020, when the number of infected people decreased temporarily, the government implemented a nationwide subsidy program to encourage people to travel and eat at restaurants. The GoTo travel campaign ended up spreading the infection across the country.
Reckless policies, including the holding of the Olympics despite the pandemic, ignore science and disregard informed criticism. The government led by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appeared in control because of its overwhelming majority in the Diet. But the threat to Japanese policy capacity and the functioning of democracy caused the consecutive decline of the administration’s approval rating. On 3 September, Suga was obliged to announce his resignation as most LDP Diet members wanted a change of the leadership to survive the coming October general election of the Lower House.
Jiro Yamaguchi is Professor at the Faculty of Law, Department of Political Science at Hosei University.
An extended version of this article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Confronting crisis in Japan’, Vol 13, No 3.