First published in Vernon Bogdanor and David Butler (eds), Democracy and Elections: Electoral Systems and their Political Consequences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983
FEW COUNTRIES in the world today have had longer or more extensive experience with elections than Japan. Elections for the House of Representatives have been held regularly, even during wartime, since 1890. 1 While it is true that until after the Second World War Parliament had a severely limited part to play in the political system as a whole, its role was not completely negligible, and the experience gained over a long period in both the holding of elections and the organising of political parties was of lasting value. Although in early elections under the Meiji constitution, 2 the size of the electorate was small as a result of imposition of a strict property franchise, the number of those males entitled to vote grew by several stages until in 1925 universal male franchise was introduced, with a lower age limit for voting of twenty-five years. 3 Under American auspices following the Japanese defeat of 1945, both men and women over the age of twenty obtained the vote, while a battery of other reforms were introduced, including a new constitution, enshrining the principle of popular sovereignty, and designed to ensure freedom of political organisation with a role for Parliament in the centre of the political stage. 4
A principal concern of those who have investigated Japan's social, economic and political development since the American Occupation following the end of the Second World War has been the question of continuity and discontinuity. How far did the reforms of the Occupation open up a different path for Japan from that which she had been pursuing before? Or did indigenous norms and practices reassert themselves through the veneer of institutional reforms enacted under American auspices? The argument, indeed, is part of a broader concern about Japanese modernisation from the nineteenth century onwards. Japan was virtually a closed country for some two and a half centuries before the 1850s, and the sociopolitical culture of Japan, emerging as a member of the comity of nations in the late nineteenth century, was highly idiosyncratic from a Western point of view, or even by comparison with most of the rest of Asia. The opening of the country to the outside world involved much absorption of Western norms and ways of doing things, but indigenous values and modes of socio-economic organisation and behaviour proved persistent in many spheres.