Japan’s Lower House elections will occur in a few days time on August 30. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has run Japan more or less continuously since its formation since 1955, is widely expected to go down to defeat. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is expected to take the lead role in a new government, probably in cooperation with coalition partners.
How much of a difference will this make? It is hard to tell. The DPJ is led by former members of the LDP and it is hard to see significant policy differences between the LDP and DPJ. On constitutional reform, for example, when the revisionist faction of the LDP called for amendments a few years ago, the DPJ followed suit with its own proposals for reform that were fairly similar to those pushed by the LDP. (The main symbolic issue there is changing Article Nine, which prohibits maintenance of an army, to reflect current “understandings” of the role of the Self-Defense Forces.) In the current election, there are minor differences between the parties, for example on the size of subsidy per child being offered to spur Japan’s low birthrate, but mostly the issue seems to be about competence rather than policy.
In other ways, however, the prospect of alternation in power is likely to significantly affect the operation of Japan’s political system, in many ways bringing it closer to the formal description of the processes in the Japanese Constitution of 1946. Consider two examples: the role of the Diet and the position of the courts. The Diet is formally the supreme organ of state power and the sole law-making body (Article 41). In reality, Japanese statutes are nearly always drafted by the bureaucracy in cooperation with the LDP, and so the formal legislative process is just that–a mere formality. The Diet has virtually no independent impact on the laws that it passes (and I’m told that legal publishers have been known to publish statutes even before passage, since they are confident the Diet won’t change them). Recently, however, the LDP’s loss of the Upper House has meant that the opposition can block legislation, and in a couple cases this has forced some modification of bills after introduction into the Diet. This trend may continue with the presence of a non-LDP government, perhaps involving a coalition. So the legislature may begin to “matter” in the sense of serving as a true forum for deliberation and policy-making.
Another structural feature concerns the courts. The Constitution (Article 76) provides that all judges shall be independent and bound only by the law. Yet, as Mark Ramseyer and co-authors have demonstrated, Japanese judges pay attention to their superiors in the bureaucratic hierarchy, who in turn are responsive to certain LDP policy interests. What will the fall of the LDP, should it materialize, do for judicial independence? One can imagine that the prospect of alternation in power will, eventually, produce a more independent judiciary, as no political party is in position to consistently discipline the courts.
These are just two ways in which we might see political practice shift more toward the apparent requirements of the constitutional text. On the more visible symbolic issue of Article Nine, however, there is little difference between the DPJ and LDP: both read the clause to allow for a fairly significant defense capability.
Stay tuned and we’ll see what happens August 30!