The Electoral System and Japan's Partial Transformation: Party System Consolidation without Policy Realignment

By Scheiner, Ethan | Journal of East Asian Studies, September-December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Electoral System and Japan's Partial Transformation: Party System Consolidation without Policy Realignment


Scheiner, Ethan, Journal of East Asian Studies


Japan's electoral system, which emphasizes first-past-the-post, single-member district rules, has led the country's party system to become consolidated around the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). At the same time, Japan's electoral rules also made it likely that the two parties would not differ markedly in their policy positions, as well as hinder the emergence of new partisan alignments that could offer more clearly distinct policy options. Put differently, Japan's electoral rules have encouraged the development of what is essentially a two-party system, but one in which party alternation in power need not produce sharp policy change. KEYWORDS: electoral systems, Japan, policy change, party realignment, party alternation in power, reform, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Downs, Duverger

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OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, JAPANESE POLITICS HAVE BEEN TRANSFORMED--but in a way that remains unsatisfying to a significant portion of the Japanese public that yearns for bold policy change. Once a party system dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) with only awkward opposition from a fragmented group of challengers, Japan now approximates a two-party system where party alternation is possible in any given election. Indeed, for the first time since its formation in 1955, the LDP lost its position as the largest party in Japan's House of Representatives (HR) when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) overwhelmingly won the 2009 election. Nevertheless, as highlighted in the article introducing this issue (Lipscy and Scheiner 2012) and in the specific article on transportation policy (Lipscy 2012), despite the transformation of the party system and three years of non-LDP government, the DPJ has not instituted a major shift away from the policies of the LDP.

I argue that the electoral system governing elections to the HR not only has played a significant part in promoting the transformation of the party system, but also has helped limit the impact on policy of these partisan changes. Japan's now defunct single nontransferable vote (SNTV) system in the HR had helped keep Japan's opposition parties fragmented. But the country's post-1993 electoral system--a "mixed-member majoritarian" (MMM) system, which focuses especially on first-past-the-post (FPTP), single-member district (SMD) rules--has helped the opposition come together around a single party. I highlight how the FPTP rules have led to a consolidated party system in which electoral competition in each district now tends to be between two principal candidates, and with those two candidates usually representing the LDP and DPJ. Moreover, the considerable power held by the central government in Japan, along with shifts in policy and campaign behavior by both the LDP and DPJ, has meant that the leading parties are nationalized parties (see McElwain 2012), genuinely competing throughout most of the country.

I also highlight two important reasons--related to the electoral system itself--that the new rules did not quickly push the DPJ to promote major policy change. First, Japan's SMD system did in fact appear to promote party efforts to make policy appeals to the Japanese median voter (see Rosenbluth and Thies 2010) as expected by the classic work of Anthony Downs (1957), but these efforts actually have made it likely that elections would be decided by "valence" issues rather than policy positions. More specifically, as I show in this article, LDP and DPJ candidates who compete in a given SMD are likely to converge in the policy appeals that they make to their constituents. However, this convergence actually has made it difficult for voters to distinguish between the two candidates/parties on policy. As a result, just as has been the case in other countries that use FPTP, such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the Downsian convergence has meant that since 2005, elections in Japan have centered not on policy positions, but rather on general notions of "party image"--including voters' sense of which party is most competent or most oriented toward reform (Reed, Scheiner, and Thies 2012). …

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