The Liberal Democratic Party in Japan: Explaining the Party's Ability to Dominate Japanese Politics

By Michael J. Norris
2010, Vol. 2 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

The Liberal Democratic Party’s largely uninterrupted dominance of Japanese must be ascribed to processes which transverse electoral systems and periods of economic vigour. This essay proposes that clientelistic behaviour within the Japanese political system best explains the LDP’s dominance of Japanese politics. Clientelism, an exchange of benefit for voter support (Scheiner 2006: 64) evolved from structural factors in the Japanese political system and was harnessed by the LDP to maximise its tenure.

Structural factors conducive to clientelism included fiscal centralisation, the pre-1994 electoral system and electoral malapportionment. Fiscal centralisation provided a context for the commoditisation of votes for material gains. The pre-1994 electoral system, Single Non-Transferable Vote in Multimember Districts (SNTV/MMD), encouraged the proliferation of koenkai networks and money politics, entrenching clientelistic behaviours in . Electoral malapportionment was a result of the pre-1994 electoral system and encouraged politicians to appeal to segments of the population through pork-barrel politics and protectionist policies. This structural defect also allowed the LDP to garner a majority of seats, without a majority of votes.

Whilst clientelism evolved from structural factors, its continuing presence in the post-1994 electoral system can be ascribed to the creation of a clientelistic ‘norm’, whereby the Japanese citizenry expect to receive dividends from their votes and candidates’ continue to see clientelism as tantamount to electoral success. Clientelism, therefore, has permeated the fabric of Japanese politics, especially in rural areas. Its presence has conditioned the electorate to prolong the LDP’s tenure in return for material benefit; allowing the LDP to retain power long after it failed to gain a majority of the popular vote.


A. Fiscal centralisation

The presence of clientelistic behaviours in Japanese politics originated from structural factors in the political system. The primary cause for the emergence of clientelistic behaviour was tight fiscal centralisation in Japan. It is rare for Japanese rural prefectures to have access to substantial fiscal resources, instead relying upon the national government (Fukui & Fukai 1996: 272; Scheiner 2006: 61). Indeed, Ethan Scheiner estimates that local prefectures source 70 per cent of their revenue from the national government (Scheiner 2005: 805). As such, the 47 prefectural governments are engaged in a constant struggle to obtain funds from national coffers. Hence, Diet members are not simply representatives of their constituents; they act as conduits, or “pipelines” between the national treasury and their respective prefectures (Hirano 2006: 57).

The LDP has capitalised significantly on fiscal centralisation. Electoral candidates are not judged qualitatively on policy considerations, rather, judgement is based on quantitative grounds; the ability to facilitate the transfer of financial benefit to constituents. J.A.A. Stockwin describes the perception of politicians as ‘monetary or material distributionists’ (Stockwin 2008: 178). Nowhere is this more salient than the case of Tanaka Etsuzankai, who provided significant (and infamous) public works services to his electorate, including high speed train lines and expressways. Bradley Richardson observes that the prolific talent Tanaka had in securing pork led to his repeated electoral success (Richardson 1997: 29). The reduction in qualitative differentiation of candidates was favourable to the LDP: it led to an erosion of serious political debate as it denies the opportunity for opposition to scrutinize the ruling party and distinguish themselves from the incumbents. In fact, clientelism can account, to a moderate degree, of the inability of the opposition in Japan to usurp the LDP. Although there were key structural deficiencies in the composition of Japanese oppositions, such as their fragmentation (Cox & Niou 1994: 230; Kohno 1997: 120), the opposition had ample opportunity to unseat the LDP. For instance, major scandals affected the elections of 1967, 1983, 1990 and 1993 (Nyblade & Reed 2008: 930) and policy failures following the stagnation of the economy should have seen the removal of the LDP from power longer than a brief 10 months in 1993-94. However, the opposition was disadvantaged because large blocs of votes had been secured on the basis of clientelist appeals (Scheiner 2006: 4). The LDP, therefore, achieved electoral security through clientelism even in the wake of political failures. As the essay describes later, this electoral security was also guaranteed by the opposition’s failure to gain seats in rural prefectures, which were key to forming a national government. Nevertheless, the LDP’s ability to remain in government more than a decade after the Japanese economy began to stagnate is illustrative of the extent to which qualitative differentiation has declined in Japanese politics (McElwain 2008: 39).

Moreover, fiscal centralisation bequeathed further electoral benefits to the LDP’s national governments: constituents had incentives to elect and re-elect those candidates who were influential in the national government to secure resources for their prefecture (Scheiner 2005: 809). The mantle of influence largely fell upon LDP candidates, who generally boasted governmental experience. In fact, a quarter of all new LDP candidates had been a mayor or prefectural assembly member (Scheiner 2006: 137). The structural incentives to vote for an LDP candidate are augmented if the LDP-led national government exhibited clientelistic behaviour. The distinction between pork-barrel politics and clientelistic behaviour is that the latter features the elements of punishment and reward. Under a truly clientelist system, non-LDP prefectures should receive less government funding. Threats to cuts funding for projects in non-LDP prefectures were commonplace (Asashi Shinbun 19 October 1999; Asashi Shinbun [Online] 6 March 2002), however, statistical evidence on the LDP’s “carrot and stick” allocation of fiscal resources is inconclusive (Reed 2001). Nonetheless, there is an academic consensus that regions which were better connected to the LDP receive a greater distribution of resources (Fukui & Fukai 1996: 285; Scheiner 2005: 808). It is arguable that this was also a popular preconception among the electorate. Hence, clientelistic behaviour, (or the threat of) coordinated votes irrespective of voter-party ties in favour of the LDP (Cox & Thies 2000: 39). Prolonged LDP success, therefore, was underpinned by Japan’s fiscal centralisation, which conferred advantages to those politicians who could bring resources to their constituents. These politicians largely hailed from the LDP, generating impetus for their consistent re-election.

B. The effect of SNTV/MMD

Where fiscal centralisation acted as the genesis of vote commoditisation, the SNTV/MMD system’s emphasis on the personal vote and the cultivation of support networks (koenkai) entrenched the process into electoral behaviour. The LDP thrived in the consequent of kinken-seiji (money-power politics). The SNTV/MMD system pitted intraparty and interparty candidates against one another. Thus, candidates were invariably pressed to pursue a personal campaign strategy, in order to differentiate themselves from their competition (Reed 1994: 22). Candidates were the cornerstone of Japanese voting behaviour, rather than party-ties or issue-based concerns (Hrebenar 1986: 21). Elections were typified by the ability to attract votes, rather than substantial policy matters (Carlson 2006: 234; Reed 1994: 22; Swindle 2002: 286). This reinforced the decline in qualitative differentiation described earlier. Additionally, the focus on candidates and vote-attraction manifested itself through the creation of personal support networks, called koenkai. Essentially, koenkai are platforms of support manifested in exchange for monetary or lobbying favours (Scheiner 2006: 71). Koenkai were of great use to political candidates because they were more personalised than a party branch, and could focus on the provision of specific goods and services for direct candidate support (Stockwin 2008: 140; Swindle 2002: 282). Particularly startling is the pervasiveness of these networks: in 1989, a national newspaper reported that over half the electorate, around 40 million eligible voters, were involved in koenkai (Richardson 1997: 27). Due to their widespread utilisation, koenkai broadcasted that the exchange of gifts for personal electoral support was acceptable electoral practice and this created a precedent for large-scale clientelism (Cox & Thies 2000: 40).

The chief precedent created by koenkai was the LDP’s recognition that money, or the promise of a similar material benefit, was tantamount to electoral success. By courting constituents with larger material benefits than their interparty or intraparty opponents, LDP candidates’ election or re-election opportunities were buffeted (Carlson 2006: 241). The use of money to coordinate votes is acutely felt amongst Japanese constituents; where party affiliations are seldom strong (Richardson 1997: 23) and roughly half the electorate is undecided (Scheiner 2006: 68). The LDP candidates’ extensive contacts with Japanese business facilitated their ability to provide larger material benefits. Millions of yen donated by business groups in support for LDP candidates are commonly reported (Nadell 1990: 40; Richarson 1997: 180). This provided the LDP with a tremendous advantage, but also increased the temptation for corruption (Stockwin 2008: 176). Matthew Carlson’s analysis of personal support in Japan found that, for the 1966, 1990 and 1993 elections, LDP lower house candidates reported a yearly income of ¥209.4 million (Carlson 2006: 245). Mustering this amount of monetary support was clearly beyond the means of most opposition parties, who were without the extensive business contacts of the LDP. However, recent political parties, such as the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have been established by former LDP politicians. The increased presence former LDP members have in opposition could see opposition parties boasting greater business contacts, and improved fiscal competitiveness with the LDP. Nevertheless, the excessive cost of maintaining koenkai networks and challenging LDP incumbents had a prohibitive effect on most opposition parties; many could not afford to run candidates in all districts, thereby sacrificing Diet seats for financial austerity. Particularly under a SNTV/MMD system, where one electoral district can translate into the acquisition of multiple lower house seats, the opposition’s inability to run some candidates only increased obstacles to attaining national government. The SNTV/MMD system and its resultant emphasis on personalised voting cemented the normality of clientelistic appeals into the consciousness of politicians and constituents alike. The LDP capitalised on this context; the SNTV/MMD system was suited to the LDP’s tactics, and as a result, was far more successful in attracting personal votes than other parties.

C. Electoral malapportionment

In addition to fiscal centralisation and the SNTV/MMD system, disproportionate allocation of seats under the SNTV/MMD system was directly exploited by the LDP’s clientelistic behaviour to gain electoral advantage. By specifically targeting electorally powerful sub-constituencies with clientelistic appeals, the LDP retained power long after it failed to gain the majority vote in 1963. Urbanisation in Japan led to accompanying population shifts from rural to urban areas; around 10 per cent of the Japanese population live on farms (Richardson 1997: 155). The 1947 Electoral Law did not provide for an independent body to review electoral boundaries and reallocate seats (Kishimoto 1988: 16; Stockwin 2008: 177). Instead, electoral districts largely remained unmolested by review and, consequently, rural prefectures contained more Diet seats per capita than urban districts (Scheiner 2006: 57). This increased the value of rural votes to almost three times that of an urban vote (Mulgan 1997: 882).

The LDP realised that this malapportionment could be used to effect a situation where it obtains more seats than votes (Cox & Niou 1994: 221). There was thus little incentive for the LDP to correct the discrepancy. This was, according to J.A.A. Stockwin, a ‘negative gerrymander’ (Stockwin 2008: 177). While some commentators feel that the failure to redraw electoral boundaries was malign (Mulgan 1997; Pempel 1992), Steven Reed advances that the appeal to powerful sub-constituencies within malapportioned constituencies had some legitimacy: ‘[e]lectoral systems structure political competition […] Politicians learn which strategies work best under their electoral system and politicians who use more effective strategies will tend to dominate the politics of the country’ (Reed 1994: 21). With the votes of rural areas overrepresented, the LDP forged a particularly clientelistic relationship with these sectors. The LDP-led national government used restrictions on agricultural imports to shelter farmers from foreign competition in conjunction with direct subsidies to shore up rural support (Gordon 1990: 946). Economic protectionism of rural constituents was blatant: restrictions on agricultural goods, in a time of increased economic and trade liberalisation, were in place far longer than those on industrial goods (Richardson 1997: 157). This created significant incentive for rural constituents to vote for LDP candidates to ensure the retention of the LDP national government (Inoguchi 2005: 103). Thus, the LDP’s fervent clientelistic appeal to the rural prefectures frequently defied economic sense (Richardson 1997: 233) but ensured the continued support of the intended audience.

The LDP was very successful in pursuing this strategy. Indeed, the number of rural seats held by non-LDP parties remained consistently low (Scheiner 2005: 803), the stable support resting on the clientelistic relationship between patron (the LDP-led national government) and client (the rural constituents). This explains the weakness of opposition parties in rural areas. The sustained failure of opposition parties to challenge LDP incumbents has also been ascribed to the LDP’s changes to campaign periods. By reducing the length of the official campaign period from 20 days in 1958 to 12 days in 1994, Kenneth McElwain posits that the LDP reduced the ability of opposition parties to challenge incumbents (McElwain 2008: 33, 41). While McElwain advances a well-contended point, it is imperative to stress that by virtue of koenkai-created networks of personal support, campaigning in Japan is a year-round process (Pempel 1992: 16). As such, the ability for nonincumbents to vie for election in their constituency is not restricted to the official number of days. McElwain’s argument aside, election to rural prefectures, due to their low seat-vote threshold, was central to forming a national government. Moreover, without success in rural elections, opposition parties had little governmental credibility (Scheiner 2005: 803). With consistent support in rural areas, based on clientelist networks, the LDP consistently achieved parliamentary majorities without accruing a majority of the popular vote.


The deficiencies of the SNTV/MMD system, including electoral malapportionment, cannot completely govern the analysis of LDP dominance. In 1994, the lower house electoral system was changed to a mixed-member majoritarian system (MMM), which combined 300 single-member districts (SMD) with 180 proportional representation (PR) seats. Malapportionment of seats was largely corrected, although no system can perfectly ensure an equal distribution of seats per capita (Mulgan 1997: 879). Following the 1994 reforms, the LDP regained power and continued its dominance of Japanese politics until the 2009 elections. The corollary is that further factors exist which contributed to the sustained electoral dominance of the LDP. This essay posits that clientelism continued to exist even after the LDP’s structural advantages had largely been eroded through electoral reform. The continuity of clientelism was due to its place as a norm in Japanese politics. Norms are behavioural precepts (Kramer 2007: 97) which establish a model of behaviour. As the essay has demonstrated, the dominant practice of Japanese politics was consistent support based on social contracts formed through clientelism (Richardson 1997: 46). The model of behaviour created in Japanese politics is summarised diagrammatically below.

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