First published in Alan Ware (ed.), Political Parties: Electoral Change and Structural Response. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987
BY COMPARISON with many countries, Japan can boast a rich history of political parties. What may be called 'parties' were first formed during the 1870s, shortly after the opening of the country to the outside world following two and a half centuries of virtual isolation. Between the 1870s and the 1980s there is a continuous history of parties and of party competition, except for the period between 1940 and 1945, when the various parties were forced into a single officially sponsored organization. A recent count of political parties over the whole period puts the total number at more than 160. 1 These range from the ephemeral followings of particular leaders right up to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which has formed the government of Japan without interruption since 1955.
Japanese political parties have developed greatly in range and sophistication since the first groupings made their appearance. Moreover the political role which parties were able to play up to 1945 was far more restricted than it became under the new American-influenced Constitution of 1946. Even so, there is a surprising degree of continuity between pre-war and post-war parties, so that a number of broad generalizations about Japanese political parties may be put forward. These should not be taken as applying equally to all contemporary parties, but they will serve as a rough guide enabling the reader to orientate himself more easily to the discussion of particular parties.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Japanese parties in general is the importance of the leader-follower relationship as the essential building block of political organization. The best-known manifestation of this is the intra-party faction, but some small parties are themselves difficult to distinguish in their form of organization from factions operating within large parties, except for the absence of an overarching party organization encapsulating them. It follows that party organization based on large active membership has been slow to develop, although there are exceptions. Much more typically, parties at local level are based on networks of connections, where local organization is highly personalized and only loosely connected with party organization at the