First published in Takeshi Ishida and Ellis S. Krauss (eds), Democracy in Japan. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989)
THE FAILURE OF the opposition parties to take power in Japan over a very long period raises questions of fundamental importance, not only about the politics of Japan, but also about parliamentary democracy in general. 1 Between 1945 and 1955 the national government was controlled by various groups that in 1955 joined to form the Liberal Democratic party (LDP) which has monopolized national political office since that time. (For about eighteen months in 1947-48 there were two successive coalition governments which included the Japan Socialist party; and from December 1983 to July 1986 the LDP ruled in coalition with a tiny conservative fragment, the New Liberal Club.) Conservatives and conservative independents have formed a majority in every election since the war for both the lower and the upper houses of the National Diet. Japan, to borrow Giovanni Sartori's terminology, has a predominant party system which is of unusual longevity. 2 Sweden provides a somewhat comparable example of longevity in power by a single party (the Social Democrats), but Japan is arguably the industrialized world's only unambiguous example of conservative longevity.
The most important question which this raises for the understanding of parliamentary democracy is whether it really matters. Can a predominant party system like that of Japan sit easily within the category of 'parliamentary democracy or should it be a matter of serious complaint that the party in power does not change over several decades? If parties in opposition never take office, does this mean that the system ceases to be genuinely democratic?
Two contrasting kinds of answers may be given to these questions. The first would deny that a predominant party system is necessarily undemocratic: even though the same party always takes power, this occurs on the basis of the freely expressed will of the electorate, which has the freedom to dismiss the government and replace it with the opposition should it so wish. The electorate, however, has not so chosen, and this ought to be interpreted as indicating electoral satisfaction, rather than a defect in the system. Reinforcing this argument