State and politics
Japan is a constitutional monarchy, a democracy with a
people-elected parliament and a government led by a prime
minister. The emperor is now merely a symbol of the state.
In 2019, Akihito abdicated in favor of his son Naruhito.
The Japanese had little experience of democratic
processes before the war, although a parliament with limited
powers existed since 1890. The current system is based on
the constitution adopted under strong American pressure in
1946-47. Most debated in this is the famous ∫ 9, where Japan
waives the right to resolve international conflicts by force
and to hold military forces. Also see AbbreviationFinder for abbreviation of JA and its meanings of Japan.
The right to vote is general for citizens over the age of
18. Power is three-fold; Parliament, Diet/
Kokkai, has the legislature, the government the
executive and the Supreme Court the judiciary.
Parliament has two chambers. After the 2017 election, the
lower house had 465 members, who are elected according to
two systems. Of these, 289 are elected by means of
individual elections in one-man constituencies and the rest
are elected by a party in which the country is divided into
eleven constituencies. Thus, in the elections, each voter
has two votes. The term of office is four years, but few sit
for so long - the government can announce new elections when
it thinks it is appropriate. The 248 members of the upper
house are also elected according to two different systems.
100 are elected nationally and by party. The others are
elected through personal elections in 47 constituencies.
Each voter then casts two votes.
The term of office of the upper house is six years. Half
of the members are elected every three years. The lower
house is the strongest of the two chambers. It establishes a
budget and approves treaties with foreign powers, but a
change in the constitution requires a 2/3 majority in both
the upper and lower house. The Prime Minister is appointed
by Parliament. The Prime Minister appoints other members of
A number of new political parties have been formed since
the early 1990s, but the electoral reforms implemented in
1994 favor a two-party system or two blocks in politics.
Since World War II, conservative parties have dominated
Japanese politics. Jiyuminshuto (Liberal Democratic
Party, LDP), formed in 1955 through a coalition of the
Liberal and Democratic Party, is a conservative party
characterized by extensive factional formation. It has long
had strong support among the elderly and in the countryside
but nowadays also among the middle class in the cities.
Economic growth has been one of the party's core issues, the
security agreement with the US as well. The LDP resumed its
position as a state-carrying party in 1996 and then sat in
office until 2009 when the Democratic Party took power.
Since 2012, LDP has once again ruled the country with Shinzo
Abe as prime minister.
Japan's Socialist Party (Shakaito) was the
largest opposition party for a long time. To facilitate the
coalition government that started after the 1993 House
elections, when the LDP lost power, the party renounced many
of its heart issues and changed its name to the Social
Democratic Party (Shakaiminshuto). The party now
plays a marginal role.
The only party from the time before the Second World War
that still exists is Japan's Communist Party (Nippon
Kyosanto), founded in 1922. It has stood independently
from foreign Communist parties and during the 2000s has
commuted between just under ten and just over 20 seats in
the House of Representatives.
Members of the Social Democrats and people from the new
parties, many of whom were former LDP supporters, formed the
Democratic Party (Minshuto) in the late 1990s. It
was clearer liberal and was somewhat closer to the center
than LDP. Prior to the 2017 election, the Democratic Party
imploded and two new parties were formed.
In the Hope Party (Kibo no To), the right wing
positioned itself within the Democratic Party. The party is
characterized as a reformist conservative. The party stands
close to the LDP government party but wants to attract votes
from voters who are seeking an alternative to Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe's hard-line policy at times. Kibo no To was
founded by former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike (born 1952),
who in 2016 became Tokyo's first female governor.
The other party Japan's constitutional Democratic Party (Rikken
Minshuto) is led by Yukio Edano (born 1964) and is a
center-left split from the Democratic Party and brings
together more liberal forces.
Liberal conservative Komeito supports the LDP
and was previously the country's third party. It is
supported by the Buddhist Soka gakkai movement.
The Democratic Party went to elections in 2009 with the
promise of striving to increase political power in Japan at
the expense of the strong bureaucracy. However, the party's
government holdings were dominated by internal turbulence,
scandals and political failures. Three prime ministers -
Ichiro Ozawa (born 1942), Yukio Hatoyama (born 1947) and
Naoto Kan (born 1946) - were forced to leave their posts
The focus of politics shifted drastically following the
severe disaster that hit the country in March 2011, when an
earthquake caused a severe tsunami that swept across the
country's northeastern coast, causing major devastation. The
government and Prime Minister Naoto Kan were accused of
lacking leadership in connection with the nuclear accident
caused by the tsunami (see the Fukushima accident). Voters
quickly lost confidence in the government, and in the 2012
election, LDP regained government power. LDP's Shinzo Abe
re-became prime minister.
In September 2014, Abe carried out his first government
transformation since the election victory in December 2012.
Abe appointed five new female ministers as a step towards
his stated goal of more women in leadership positions.
However, of the total seven female ministers, two resigned
In November, Abe disbanded Parliament's House of Commons
and announced new elections for the following month, two
years in advance. The prime minister justified his decision
by saying he wanted to confirm that he supported his
policies among voters. LDP lost marginally and again became
by far the largest party with 291 of 475 seats in the lower
house. LDP's coalition partner Komeito got 35 seats. The
Democratic party was second largest with 73 seats, ten more
than in the last election. The turnout was low, only 52
In July 2014 elections were held for Parliament's upper
house. The election was the first held since changes in the
electoral law lowered the voting age from 20 to 18 years.
The election meant a success for LDP, which together Komeito
gained its own majority.
In 2016, the former TV profile and MP Renho Murata (born
1967) became the first woman chair of the Democratic Party;
two years later the party dissolved.
Shinzo Abe announced new elections to the lower house in
the fall of 2017. LDP chose to invest in, among other
things, education which will be financed through a VAT
increase. The LDP's political program ahead of the 2017
election also found a harsh sanctions policy against North
Korea as a result of the country's continued development of
nuclear weapons and an amendment to the constitution to
allow for further strengthening of Japan's military power.
The proposal is supported by Kibo no To but not by Rikken
Voter turnout in 2017 was low; only just over 50 per cent
of the country's voters voted. The result meant continued
support for LDP, which together with the support party
Komeito retained the qualified majority in the Japanese
lower house. The electoral victory is considered to have
contributed to Abe being re-elected in September 2018 for a
third term as party leader. LDP and Komeito also won again
in the elections to the upper house in July 2019 but failed
to get a qualified majority. This means that the changes in
the constitution that Abe seeks can be more difficult to get
In the 1950s, politics was characterized by the Cold War
with very great contradictions between the Conservative
government and the opposition. Perhaps the greatest
political turmoil arose when the 1951 security treaty with
the United States was revised in 1960.
In 1972, diplomatic relations with the People's Republic
of China were normalized. The Soviet Union was seen as a
threat during the Cold War. Japan has not yet signed a peace
treaty with the Russian Federation. You first want to have
four northern islands occupied by the Soviet Union at the
end of the Second World War (see also the Kurils).
In 1992, a law was enacted that allowed Japan to
participate in UN peacekeeping operations overseas. In 1997,
new guidelines for security cooperation between the US and
Japan were signed. This brought the two countries closer
Following the September 11 attacks in the United States
in 2001, Japan has given its support to the US-led war on
terror. The same year, a special legislation was passed that
allowed Japan to send warships to assist US vessels with
maintenance and supplies during operations in Afghanistan.
Japan also declared its support for US attacks on Iraq.
During the 2000s, there has been a shift in power in
northeast Asia. Japan has been politically and economically
in the shadow of China. Primarily, it is the great economic
growth in China that has changed the balance of power but
also the fact that China has become more politically active.
Japan and China have a territorial dispute regarding the
Diaoyu Islands/Senkaku Islands, which Taiwan also claims.
A number of incidents have occurred around these. In 2010, a
Chinese fishing boat crashed with the Japanese coastguard.
The captain was arrested and this led to a number of
anti-Japanese demonstrations at various locations in China.
The Chinese demanded an official Japanese apology, which led
to anti-Chinese demonstrations in Japan. In 2012, the
Japanese state bought the islands, which are under Japanese
control, by the private individual who owned them. This
triggered further protests from China and the
Japanese-Chinese relations were at a bottom level when the
heads of state did not meet for several years. Since then,
relations have improved somewhat.
Following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's entry into power at
the end of 2012, there has been a continuous upgrading of
the Japanese defense. In 2013, Japan established a national
security council, and the same year, the country also
adopted for the first time a national security strategy.
According to this, Japan should proactively contribute to
peace. In 2014, the Japanese Constitution was reinterpreted
to give Japanese troops the right to defend themselves if
they were under attack abroad. Nowadays, they are also
allowed to defend allied foreign troops in battle if vital
Japanese interests are at stake.
Understanding the transnational nature of security
threats has made Japan increasingly closer to the United
States. In 2015, new guidelines for defense cooperation
between Japan and the United States were adopted. The
situation on the Korean peninsula has further increased the
tension in the area. This is especially true of North
Korea's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. The North Korean
nuclear threat is taken very seriously in Japan, which has
been the strongest advocate for tougher sanctions on North
Korea. The threat is also one of the reasons why Abe wants
to increase investments in the Japanese defense.
Until the revolution of 1868, Japan lacked a developed
legal system, at least in the field of private law. This was
largely due to the prevailing Confucianism, with its
reluctance to resolve legal conflicts and a preference for
settlements and compromises based on moral rules.
At the end of the 19th century, Japanese law underwent a
modernization in the western direction. Both the Civil Code
of 1898 and the Trade Act of 1899 had German law as a model,
and the Japanese legal system stood until 1945 under a very
strong influence of German jurisprudence and doctrine,
which, however, was later partially replaced by American
legal ideas. The above two major laws are still in force,
let alone numerous changes. Other important legislation is
the Criminal Code, the Criminal Procedure Act and the Civil
The judicial organization consists of a supreme court,
appellate courts, district courts and small court courts.
Special courts are available for eg. family law cases. In
everyday life, however, legal rules play a secondary role,
as the population prefers more informal ways of resolving
conflicts over a court process. The death penalty is
punished for some serious crimes.
Prime Ministers since 1885
||Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni
Emperor after 1867
In parentheses, the posthumous names added to the
emperors after the names of their reign.