Yale University

Stagnation as Erosion: Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s Monopoly by Ginger Li @ Yale University

Since 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan has enjoyed near complete control of the Japanese government. It has only failed to hold a majority for four of the past sixty-three years.[1] This long-standing supremacy by one political party raises questions of how democratic the Japanese system really is, and if sustained single party-domination is a sign of democracy eroding.

Most definitions of democracy share a few common key elements, such as free and fair elections, protected civil liberties, and responsive institutions. This should result in a government that is trusted by its citizens to effectively represent their interests and considered legitimate. What these definitions leave out is the need for a functioning democratic system to yield some degree of leadership alternation. Alternation demonstrates that the electoral system is responsive to both changes in the will of the people and the shifting societal, economic and political context. Lack of alternation, as Japan is experiencing, points to a lack of responsiveness. This may in turn be linked to an outsize and potentially dangerous amount of political power concentrated in one party.

The LDP has come to enjoy key advantages over potential competing political parties, while simultaneously gaining the ability, consciously or not, to erode democratic values and practices. Some signs of an emerging democratic erosion caused by this lack of alternation are recent corruption scandals, a weakening of freedom of the press, and declining political participation.

Corruption

Scandal has plagued Abe’s administration since his first term as prime minister in September 2006, and many have asserted that corruption allegations led to his resignation of his post one year later.[2] Later reelected and now in his fourth term as prime minister, after a snap election that many believe Abe called so he could be confirmed before the impact of recent cronyism scandals, Abe’s approval rating continues to plummet as accusations of his corruption continues to dominate news coverage.[3]

The prevalence of corruption is an indication of a failure of checks and balances in a democratic system, which may be enabled by the LDP’s domination over the system, which Abe is the leader of. [4] Lack of legitimate opposition means LDP representatives are selected over and over, which was particularly evident in the last election for prime minister when the sole competitive candidate represented a party formed months prior.[5] These corruption allegations, concentrated at the highest echelons of the Japanese government, could have a dangerous effect on citizens’ trust in government and perceptions of government legitimacy, which points to an erosion of democracy.

Freedom of the press

Another notable manifestation of democracy eroding is the drop of ratings of Japan’s freedom of the press, as measured by organizations like Freedom House.[6] With legislation such as the 2014 Specially Designed Secrets Act, the Japanese government reserves the power to punish journalists for speaking out against the government or bringing to light potentially damaging information. This results in self-censoring tendencies by journalists and the media, derived potentially from a fear of being punished under this new legislation or out of a sense of loyalty to protect the government. [7]

The LDP’s power again could be seen as to blame for this weakened civil liberty. When a single party commands control for as long as it has, it gains the political clout to legislate in such a way that reinforces its own power. This is an identifiable form of democratic erosion in the same vein as Nancy Bermeo’s conception of executive aggrandizement: an institutional change that is legally decreed and thus which seems to be the result of the popular will, when in fact a single political entity is entrenching itself in a position of power.[8] 

Political participation

Data shows a decline in political participation in Japan, not only in voter turnout but in other metrics such as contacting elected officials and joining political demonstrations.[9] This decline points to a general apathy about politics among Japanese citizens. This lack of civic engagement may suggest a political culture of potentially growing distrust and disengagement caused by negative perceptions towards government responsiveness.

The continued strength of the LDP may lead voters to withdraw from the democratic process. History suggests that the possibility of alternation from an LDP majority is slim, and meanwhile other parties may not have the political space to blossom and develop as a formidable opposition. When not given strong alternatives, for voters the benefits of political participation may not override its costs. Once citizens stop caring about the government and participating, electoral effectiveness declines and democratic legitimacy diminishes. As long as the LDP monopolizes elected seats, democracy may continuously erode.

Appeal of the LDP

One may argue that keeping the LDP in power is in fact a conscious and renewed choice by Japanese voters, who continue to agree with and vote for the party’s platform. The party has its merits regarding issues such as its militaristic stance towards North Korea and its historic success in guiding economic growth. The LDP has come up with solutions for these salient issues: a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate pacifism in Japan’s constitution, and Abe’s “Abenomics” plan. Perhaps the party’s size and lack of legitimate opposition is a strength in enabling a diversity of opinions within its ranks and flexibility to adapt its platform to the people’s will.

Despite this more positive outlook on the lack of alternation, there may still be damage being done to Japan’s democracy that points to erosion. The disconnect forming between Japan’s government and its governed could be seen at best as apathy and at worst as distrust. This severing relationship threatens the underlying principle of democracy as the people’s government. While it may not be solely to blame, the side effects of the LDP’s entrenchment do not seem to be bolstering the people’s faith in their government.

[1] “The Liberal Democratic Party.” Japan: A Country Study. 1994. http://countrystudies.us/japan/122.htm; Fackler, Martin. “Japan Election Returns Power to Old Guard.” New York Times, December 16, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/world/asia/conservative-liberal-democratic-party-nearing-a-return-to-power-in-japan.html.

[2] Nakata, Hiroko. “Abe Announces He Will Resign.” Japan Times, September 13, 2007. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2007/09/13/national/abe-announces-he-will-resign/#.WruoltPwbOR; Onishi, Norimitsu. “Prime Minister of Japan to Step Down.” New York Times, September 12, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/12/world/asia/12cnd-japan.html.

[3] Repeta, Lawrence. “Backstory to Abe’s Snap Election–the Secrets of Moritomo, Kake and the “Missing” Japan SDF Activity Logs.” ASIA-PACIFIC JOURNAL-JAPAN FOCUS 15, no. 20 (2017).

[4] Brown, James D. J. “Shinzo Abe and the Arrogance of Power.” Japan Times, June 1, 2017. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2017/06/01/commentary/japan-commentary/shinzo-abe-arrogance-power/#.Wrub8tPwbOR.

[5] Harding, Robin. “Japan’s Yuriko Koike Resigns as Party of Hope Leader.” Financial Times, November 14, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/882eaf8e-c912-11e7-ab18-7a9fb7d6163e.

[6] “Freedom of the Press 2017 | Japan | Freedom House.” Freedom House. 2017; Adelstein, Jake. “How Japan Came to Rank Worse than Tanzania on Press Freedom.” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-japan-press-freedom-20160420-story.html; https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/japan.

[7] Simon, Joel. “Will the Japanese Media Stand up for Press Freedom?” Columbia Journalism Review. June 9, 2017. https://www.cjr.org/opinion/japanese-media-shinzo-abe.php.

[8] Bermeo, Nancy. “On democratic backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 9.

[9] Jou, Willy, and Masahisa Endo. “Political participation in Japan: A longitudinal analysis.” Asian Journal of Comparative Politics 2, no. 2 (2017): 199.

4 Comments

  1. Sonia Jeambon

    April 23, 2018 at 10:38 pm

    Thank you Ginger for your post. I think the longstanding supremacy of the LDP has enabled many pillars of democracy to fall, especially freedom of the press. You note that most Japanese voters have become apathetic. Not only are voters not showing up to the polls, but they are not engaging with their repressive or showing any signs of resistance towards to the power of the LDP. Much of this can be accounted for by the lack of media coverage and press, which the LDP for the past almost sixty-three years has worked towards inhibiting journalist from speaking out against the government, which has created an environment where journalists are self-policing themselves in fear of getting in trouble by the state. If citizens are not exposed to the realities of their government, such as the multiple corruption scandals of their current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, how might they understand the dangers of the LDP and find reason to mobilize? You also note the LDP has been successful at keeping sustained a growing an economy due to the success of Abe’s “Abenomics” plan. How do you reconcile the threats to Japans democracy including lack of checks of balances, free press and absence of opposition parties, when the public has not voiced much concern? Is Japan complacent with the state of their democracy or eroding democracy? Shinzo Abe has approval ratings continue to plummet, perhaps this may be used as an indicator of how the public perceives the quality of their government, as well as distrust.

  2. Jonah Echols

    April 30, 2018 at 6:14 pm

    Ginger, great thoughts on the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan. You organized your post in a way that flowed very smoothly and was easy to understand. Comparative studies of democracies (particularly democracies that are outside the popular academic conversation) are always very interesting. You referenced three signs of democratic erosion in the Japanese democracy: corruption in the political party, a weakening of freedom of the press, and the declining of political participation. I appreciate your including an optimistic interpretation of the current state of the Japanese democracy – it helped to bring some new ideas to the table. I agree with the majority of your argument. A weak system of checks and balances almost always leads to leaders taking steps to ensure their own power; seldom does it lead to a more fervent effort to serve the people of that country best. Lack of freedom of the press often goes hand in hand with the stability of political figures in systems such as this – bribes, threats, and collusion between the heads of media outlets and entrenched political figures is a big signifier of democratic erosion. Lack of responsivity that leads to a lack of political participation is almost always a sign of democratic erosion. Careful and diligent observation must be maintained to gauge the actual amount of political participation (for example, the false numbers publicized by the Russian government saying that Putin achieved almost universal approval). One method used by authoritarian leaders trying to stay in power is to falsify and give the appearance of responsivity to the public and large amounts of public approval. Overall, great thoughts! I enjoyed reading your post.

  3. Zitian

    May 3, 2019 at 8:06 am

    Greeting, Ginger Li:

    I am in a 100% agreement on “stagnation as erosion” of democracy in Japan. But in particular, I would like to elaborate on the “1955 system” of LDP and its implication on domestic democratic stagnation.

    Historically, the domination of LDP in early 1950s and 1960s was a combination between U.S. occupying policies and political struggles led by the communist party in West Japan. The adaption of the Dodge Line in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War compelled the U.S. to quickly stabilize Japanese economy by relying on traditional government-business structure, where politician and business elites had been cooperative since the Meiji Restoration. Chalmers Johnson made explicitly clear on this path dependency when he coined the word “developmental state.”

    However, this state-society relation came with price by assaulting against communist leadership, breaking up labor unions, and discouraging grass root organizations, causing the lack of legitimate opposition within the Japanese political establishment. The post-WWII economic “miracle” overshadowed those democratic deficits up to 1990s because, when the economy was growing, these democratic rollbacks did not become sufficiently salient.

    Unfortunately, these deficits have resurfaced after the “lost decade,” as Japanese economy has become less robust. Aging society, long working hours among the middle class, and increasing conservative agenda proposed by LDP have further dramatized the Japanese politics, giving observers the impression of democratic erosion.

    However, I am fairly optimistic for Japanese democracy specifically after seeing a united opposition against LDP constitutional revision in 2012. Civil societies that previous remained silent starts to speak up; the Akihito emperor has shown opposition against the LDP leadership; and LDP itself has been facing new challenge of incorporating young generation of voters. These trends indicate the resilience of democratic norms in Japan and they are likely to become a force for greater chances.

  4. Leon Chin

    May 7, 2019 at 6:12 pm

    This is an incredibly interesting account regarding Japan’s democratic backsliding. It definitely is interesting to see that Japan, one of the United States’ closest allies around the world and especially in Asia, possesses these worrisome indicators regarding the potential for democratic backsliding. The United States and the West has continued to portray Japan as a hallmark nation with regards to democratic practices and most likely is the leading nation in Asia in terms of how democratic it is. The reasons you have provided for democratic backsliding are very engaging and I definitely agree with them. I also think it would be interesting to see if culture plays an important as to why there hasn’t been great democratic change or additional parties. For example, I know that Japan is a very reserved country, which could potentially result into why people choose not to participate in politics and it could explain why one political party has remained in power throughout the last 60 years. It would be interesting also to see why political participation has continued to decline in recent years as that appears to be quite alarming.

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