Politics in Japan can be a circus — just as it is in other countries — full of political clowns and juicy scandals. Here are seven quick facts to get you started on your political journey of discovery.
1. Japan has only had their current political system for 71 years
Similar to England, Japan is a constitutional monarchy; meaning, their government consists of the National Diet (like the British Parliament or the US Senate) and the Emperor (a decorative figurehead without much political power).
But this wasn’t always the case. Japan has a long, long history, and has changed governmental structures numerous times.
Japan has seen itself as an aristocracy and as a military state. It’s seen itself through a period of political turmoil during the Meiji Era; as an empire during the early and mid-1900s; and finally as the current Japan we see today. Essentially, Japan has only had their current political system for 71 years.
2. Japanese politics is like a Christmas Tree
A constitutional monarchy is one where the powers of government are split into the basic legislative, judiciary, and executive branches, with an added “royal” branch. Think of a Christmas tree: the legislative, judiciary, and executive branches are the tree itself – they pass the laws and provide the support necessary for the government to work; the Emperor is all the decorations on the tree.
In a constitutional monarchy, the Emperor has little to no political power. He can’t make/endorse laws or political parties; instead, he’ll often attend charity events, and sometimes meets with foreign heads of state for non-political, mostly goodwill-type missions.
3. Thinking of running for councillor? You’ll need to be older than 30
Those running for the House of Representatives must be 25 years or older, while the House of Councillors (equivalent to the US’s Senate) requires those running to be 30 years or older; both must have Japanese citizenship.
4. People vote for parties not politicians
When it comes to choosing the prime minister, the public doesn’t get a direct vote. Instead, they cast their ballot for the political party they want; then, whichever party gains the majority of the House of Representatives elects the prime minister from among their party.
So, the public may like what the party stands for but they could dislike their prime minister.
5. The voting age recently changed
An election for a large portion of the National Diet was held in July of this year, and all of my Japanese friends voted at their local polling office for the party they wanted. It was a hugely talked about election because it was the first time 18-year-olds could vote after the voting age was lowered from 20.
6. But young people don’t vote
In recent years Japan has seen a decrease in people actually going to the polls, so the new law is seen as a last ditch effort to increase voter turnout. However, young people feel their interests are underrepresented by the current political system. So despite the added 2.4 million eligible voters, the turnout only gained barely 2% compared to the last Diet election three years ago.
7. Japanese politics is just as scandalous as in other countries
Given the revolving door of the prime minister’s office, with successive leaders seemingly resigning at the drop of an honorable hat (citing unpopularity or minor indiscretions that would make politicians abroad shrug), Japan is no stranger to the concept of political scandal. But this year’s infamy can only belong to ex-Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe and his misuse of political funds. Constantly made fun of by Japanese comedians, Masuzoe’s scandal erupted into a media circus. Everyone called him a “sekoi” (petty) man.
At every turn Masuzoe had some wild excuse: there was a meeting at a fancy beach hotel (for which they used his hotel room?) and his family just happened to come along; funds were used to buy a silk Chinese, loose-fitting shirt for “writing calligraphy.” The news ripped him apart by performing an experiment showing how obnoxious it is to actually write in a loose-sleeved shirt – the sleeves kept getting in the way. Fellow politicians and the public called for his resignation. Masuzoe held on for as long as possible and just when everyone thought they’d have to force him to quit, he finally resigned.
While no one beats the US in embarrassing sex scandals, dick pics, or buffoons on the ballot, Japan’s politics is not as stoic as you might think. Plus, not only is it fun to watch, it’s also important to stay up to date as decisions being made could affect you if you’re living in Japan.
Next time: We’re taking it to the streets to find out what Japanese people think of their political system. Is it as taboo to talk about as it is abroad? Are there things they’d like to change?
Any other facts we should know about Japanese politics? What else about the system differs from your home country?