How do elections work in Japan?

Matthew Mathias, ERS Cymru Campaigns and Projects Officer

Posted on the 19th September 2019

For the next six weeks the eyes of the world will be fixed on Japan. Ok, probably not all the eyes just the ones that enjoy watching rugby. This week marks the beginning of the ninth Rugby World Cup, which is being hosted by the Land of the Rising Sun. Much as I would love to wax lyrical about the progression to the final by Wales, I have been informed that I have to stick to politics.

At a glance, the UK and Japan are quite similar in terms of institutional set-up. Both are constitutional monarchies. Emperor Naruhito acceded to the ‘Chrysanthemum Throne’, as it is called, in May 2019 and – very much like our Queen – his role as head of state is purely ceremonial. Like the UK, Japan has a bicameral parliament called the National Diet that consists of an upper house – the House of Councillors – and a lower house, the House of Representatives, similar to our House of Commons.

Japan has a population of 126.8 million compared to the UK’s 66.4 million. Despite having almost double the population, the House of Representatives only has 465 members compared to the House of Commons’ 650.

Japan uses a semi-proportional mixed electoral system to elect members of the House of Representatives. General elections take place every four years. Just over 60% of members (289) are elected from single-seat constituencies. Like in the UK, these MPs are elected by first past the post – voters in a constituency have one vote and the candidate who receives the most votes wins and becomes the MP. The remaining 176 members are elected by the Party List system of proportional representation in 11 regional blocs that return between six and 30 members depending on the region’s size and population. In this case, electors vote not for an individual candidate, but for a party, and the number of seats a party receives is based on the percentage of votes received. Each party gives its seats to the candidates at the top of its list, who are ranked from highest to lowest prior to the election. Unlike in the Additional Member System used in Scotland, Wales and London, the party-list seats don’t compensate for the disproportionality of the first past the post seats.

The House of Representatives currently consists of seven parties and a small number of independents, with the largest party being the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The LDP are a conservative political party which, not counting a few years, has held power in the country since its founding in 1955.

In Japan’s last election in 2017, Abe’s LDP again cementing its historical control. I am sure you will be shocked to find the party finds itself in this envious position because of the chasm of disparity between votes and seats gained through the first past the post system used for most MPs. While they did have a good election, they gained an oversized 75% of constituency seats (218) on just 48% of the vote. The 11 electoral blocs using PR gave them 37% of seats (66) on 33% of the votes, a much more proportional result.

With such a one-party state, facilitated by a lack of PR in the majority of seats, it’s pretty obvious why voters may be put off. Japan dips into the category of a flawed democracy on the 2018 EIU Democracy Index pushed down by a low rating on political participation. Without fairness in votes you can see why.

The total membership of the House of Councillors, Japan’s upper chamber, is 248 which highlights the absurdity of our equivalent (electoral law was changed in 2018 which means that 245 members are currently sitting in the chamber, with the remaining three joining in 2022). Despite having 60 million fewer people, our House of Lords can only function with nearly 800 peers (increased by another 19 in the last couple of weeks). What’s more, we as the electorate have no say in who gets to sit in the Lords. In Japan, by contrast, members are directly elected, again, using a mixed system. 148 are elected from 47 multi-seat constituencies using the Single Non-Transferable Vote, and 100 are – more sensibly – elected using the Open Party List system of PR  with the entire nation considered a single electoral district.

It will be winner takes all when the two teams meet in the final on 2nd November. A great way to decide the outcome of a sport but an awful way to hear as many people’s voices in a democracy. Because that’s what our system, First Past the Post is really. It’s a winner takes all system built for a two-party system from the 19th century, not for the multi-party Britain we are today. It’s a system that leaves people voiceless and frustrated. Politics should be about consensus, not winning at all costs. Let’s leave that to the rugby.

In both rugby and politics, it’s New Zealand who are the team to beat. The Haka and a beautiful combination of skills and power on the field, it is the highest-rated country on the Democracy Index outside Scandinavia with full marks on electoral process, pluralism and civil liberties.

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