Boston University

A sign of Discreet Democratic Erosion in Japan by Takatoshi Sawayama

The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan(LDP) has controlled the government for over sixty years, excluding brief interruption in 1993 and 2009. LDP reassumed power in 2012 led by reelected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Under the second Abe administration, signs of eroding democracy including forcible passage of bills, a rapid declines in global press freedom rankings, and disregard for democratic procedures apparently at odds with the LDP’s previous approach to one-party predominance have begun to emerge. The Abe Administration does not, however, conform to the typical model of eroding democracy outlined in “How Democracies Die.” Abe is neither a populist nor a political outsider; rather, he is a clear embodiment of the Japanese political elite. This raises the question: what has enabled him to erode Japan’s democratic system? One plausible answer involves Abe’s unprecedented seizing of authority over personnel matters while maintaining existing policymaking structure.

The source of LDP’s predominance in the twentieth century was the so-called “Iron Triangle”: an alliance between “Zoku” the lobbying lawmakers, rural interest groups, and Japan’s strong bureaucracy[i]. This system had contributed to rapid post-war reconstruction and miraculous economic growth. However, its side effects included corruption, inflexible policymaking processes, and sectionalism that weakened the PM’s political leadership. In addition, demographic changes followed by rapid urbanization had weakened rural interest groups’ roles in supporting LDP. Facing decline, LDP sought to reform its policymaking procedures by weakening the bureaucracy and transferring its decision-making authority to the PM. When the opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan(DPJ) once came to power in 2009, it implemented similar political reforms, establishing a “politician-led” agenda. Nevertheless, DPJ devoted too much effort to its “scrap and build” approach to the existing policymaking system and its reforms finally stuck at the deadlock.

After his 2013 reelection, Prime Minister Abe sought to weaken bureaucratic influence over government function by exerting authority over government personnel. Simply assuming the power to shuffle personnel did not require major reform of the political system, even though it contributed substantially to the centralization of power in the hands of the PM. By adopting this strategy, Abe succeeded in appointing a great number of official personnel that mostly follow Abe’s instruction.

1. Implementation of Quantitative Easing 

Prime Minister Abe’s first and foremost aggressive intervention in government personnel affairs was his appointment of a new Bank of Japan (BoJ) governor. Backed by a high approval rating, Abe sought to implement a controversial quantitative easing plan to forestall further deflation; a primary step in achieving this goal was his appointment of Haruhiko Kuroda, a former financial bureaucrat who supported quantitative easing. It is relatively easy for PM to appoint BoJ governors because appointments to the post usually require the approval of both houses of Diet following cabinet recommendation. Bucking an implicit convention that has prevented governors from retaining office for multiple terms, Kuroda has remained in office for two sequential terms for the first time in sixty years, continuing to support Abe’s large-scale monetary easing policies.

2. Relaxation of Military Limitations

Abe’s long-awaited dream has been an amendment to Article 9 of the constitution, which strictly limits Japan’s Self Defense Force (the de-facto national army) to an exclusively defensive role. As a first step toward achieving this goal, Abe set out to enact a bill that allows the SDF to exercise the right of collective self-defense. In 1981, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB), which examines drafts of bills, stated that exercising of the power of collective self-defense was unconstitutional. Abe therefore decided to appoint a bureaucrat who supports the bill as its director, even though the CLB directors are customarily selected via internal promotion. He thereby cleared the road for the passage of a bill that had previously identified as unconstitutional. In September 2014, the bill was enacted despite scathing dissent from opposing parties and large-scale public demonstration.

3. Control over Personnel Affairs of Exclusive Bureaucrats

In 2014, following a revision of the National Civil Service law, the newly established the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs (CBPA) took charge of the high-level bureaucrat’s designation which was previously held within each ministry. In the wake of this change, ministerial bureaucrats became increasingly sensitive to the cabinet’s moods and intentions. The extensive governmental authorities it has assumed under this new arrangement makes the CBPA far too powerful. In fact, in a recent cronyism scandal related to the Abe Administration, several bureaucrats are suspected of destroying evidence out of a desire to please Abe.

4. Intervention to Broadcasters

The cabinet has also begun exerting considerable influence over the Japanese national public broadcast organization (NHK)’s personnel matters. Its Board of Governance includes four “friends of Abe”, a group of novel writers and professors. They meet the board’s minimum veto number requirement to impeach the chairman. 

In addition to controlling public broadcasting, the expanded influence of the CBPA has enabled the cabinet to exert gradually more control over private broadcasters via the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which oversees mass media. In fact, the cabinet sent out notifications requiring domestic broadcasters to provide “fair coverage of elections” several times. Such actions evidently cause broadcasters to engage less rigorously in free newsgathering activities. This series of events has pushed down Japan’s global freedom of the press ranking. (it dropped from 11th in 2011 to 72nd in 2017, out of 180 countries).


Prime Minister Abe promotes his policymaking ambitions by exercising centralized authority over personnel affairs. However, excessive centralization has placed too much individual power in the hands of the PM. Moreover, the increasing pressure applied by the cabinet on various ministries and official organizations has fueled suspicions regarding information concealment and falsification.

When Japanese voters are continually prevented from accessing accurate governmental information to evaluate if its outcome and policy-making process meet voters’ intentions, Japan will have faced “flashing red” warning signs of its democratic erosion.  

[i]“A Zoku is a group of LDP politicians, mostly Diet members, organized around a policy area, such as agriculture, construction, and postal business, who exchange information, make decisions, and act in concert at one of LDP’s policy committees. Bureaucrat of a ministry in the distributive networks are in constant communication with members of the policy committee who specialize in the ministry’s policy area, and gain assistance in passing Diet bills or competing for budget allocation. “(Kawabata, Eiji. Contemporary government reform in Japan: the dual state in flux. Springer, 2006, p56)

Photo by Xinhua News Agency


  1. Jennifer Varela

    February 28, 2019 at 11:19 pm

    This was such an interesting and informative post. I enjoyed the main areas in which the demonstration of democratic erosion is slowly being implemented. The main point I noticed is that the Prime Minister’s power and influence has increased exponentially. I wonder if this could eventually backfire on the current administration once an opposition party takes control and uses that same power for their own gains. Although that is unlikely since the LDP has been in power for so long, it is something to consider. I wonder if Abe and his administration have weighed these options with their new power-grabbing moves like influencing broadcasts and intervening in bureaucrats personal affairs.

  2. Markyle West

    March 1, 2019 at 12:23 am

    This is a perfect example of how democracies decline through legal means in many cases, and how they can decline under the direction of one person in certain cases. While different, the manner in which Abe has seized power is similar to that of how Hugo Chávez seized power in Venezuela in that it has been slow, systematic and legal for the most part. In the case of Hugo Chávez, the erosion snowballed- it increased in intensity as more democratic institutions fell or were corrupted. It will be interesting to see what course Japan takes under Abe given that their circumstances are very different, but I think that the chance of this discreet erosion to snowball Japan into an authoritarian state is not out of the question.

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