Forum Report

The third forum on "Party Politics: Are Political Parties Still Relevant?" took place at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo, in Canada on August 21, 2013. The first speaker, Professor Benjamin Nyblade of the University of British Columbia, made a presentation on the question of whether party politics and political leadership are at the root of political malaise in Japan. In order to answer this question, we must see if the changes from the 1990s in party politics and political leadership contributed to greater difficulty in policymaking, and whether this phenomenon is distinctive to Japan.

By drawing on the approach developed by Strøm and his colleagues that focuses on delegation and accountability, Professor Nyblade argued that Japan fits well within the patterns of Western European parliamentary democracies. Japan looks most similar to major itarian/Westminster style systems such as those of the United Kingdom and Greece, which have weak external constraints but strong potential for partisan control of the parliamentary chain of delegation and accountability. The frequent turnover in the position of the prime minister is distinctive to Japan, however, which Professor Nyblade attributes to the inability of prime ministers in an era of "hyper-accountability" to maintain public support after short "honeymoons."

The 2012 election demonstrated the fragility of the apparent DPJ-LDP two-party equilibrium and has provided an opportunity for political entrepreneurs to mobilize and seek electoral success outside of the two-party system. In the short-run, this may work to Prime Minister Abe’s advantage, but he faces many of the same challenges that other political leaders faced, as he will be pressured to enact unpopular reforms and is supported by a politically inexperienced and electorally vulnerable party caucus.

The second speaker, Professor Naoto Nonaka of Gakushuin University, presented on “The LDP and Post War Japanese Politics.” The LDP contributed to the stability and development of Japan in the post-war period, but the party has not been able to cope particularly well with various challenges since the 1990s, leading many analysts to blame the LDP for Japan’s long stagnation. In order to understand why LDP’s role has changed drastically, we must look into the nature of post-war party politics in Japan.

The LDP’s dominance was based on three factors. First, the party avoided internal splits by implementing a flexible power-sharing structure and governance mechanism through factions. Second, the party conformed to the Single Non-Transferrable Vote Electoral system by adopting a “catch-all strategy,” enabling the party’s Policy Affairs Research Council (PARC) to coordinate a wide range of constituencies in a bottom-up fashion and exercise systematic pork-barrel politics. Third, the LDP maintained strong policy coordination power vis-à-vis the bureaucracy, as the LDP’s PARC Diet committees and related government ministries were able to institutionalize a prior-consultation system to bypass opposition parties in the Diet and strategically make use of weak prime ministerial and cabinet leadership.

Professor Nonaka argued that the LDP can be considered a “flexible cartel party” adept at maintaining loyalty by means of the pork barrel and by using strong network with national and prefectural bureaucracies through “Easy Money Politics (EMP).” Since the 1990s, however, the LDP-led system based on factions and EMP eroded. Although Abenomics may be regarded by some as a recent example of EMP, party politics in Japan are now less about the distribution of easy money and more about the distribution of burdens.


Benjamin Nyblade

Naoto Nonaka


The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which came to power in 2009 with high expectations, disappointed the Japanese electorate only three years later as a result both of evident inexperience and its failure to articulate a clear and attractive alternative political vision.

But was a clear and attractive political vision possible? There is no shortage of serious challenges on the Japanese political agenda; the environment, energy, the economy, social welfare, and national security all pose vexing problems. Was the DPJ’s uninspired attempt to muddle through the result of some internal pathology or something endemic to Japanese politics? Is there a broader global pattern?

To what extent are political parties as such to blame? What is their rationale when the lines between progressives and conservatives, or between leftists and rightists, have substantially blurred in mainstream parties, and when single-issue parties seem capable only of attracting protest votes and articulating frustration?

In the third round of our project, we will explore the raison d’être of political parties in advanced industrial democracies and the likely future configuration of political parties.




Ken Endo
Ken Endo
Hokkaido University

I find both of the presentations by Professors Benjamin Nyblade and Naoto Nonaka quite intriguing. They reveal the fact that Japan remains a liberal democracy comparable to any western example, as I am sure it does, while they point to a different set of defects and insufficiencies: the former stressed the lack of intra-party cohesion and the hyper-accountability, with the latter focusing on the absence of the executives in the legislature, akin to the presidential system of a separation of powers. The remedies that follow also differ, where I start to feel less certain. The party-legislature-executive triangle, in any event, continues to be the heart of democracy - the mechanism that remains elusive and fragile.

David A. Welch
David A. Welch
University of Waterloo

Despite the quirks and occasional obvious dysfunction of Japan’s party and electoral systems, there is no question that Japan is a vibrant democracy. Despite relatively frequent elections (which can cause voter fatigue), and despite a dearth of colourful, charismatic, visionary politicians (which can cause voter apathy), Japanese turnout rates in national elections are consistently good—comparable to European rates, and dramatically better than in the United States. Moreover, voters in Japan have real choices at election time, and the parties themselves have for the most part avoided the North American pathologies of increasing rigidity, stridency, and unwillingness to cooperate. All of this suggests that what we tend to see as the major flaws in Japanese politics are less structural than we think. Conditions are ripe for the right leader to come along, seize the country’s imagination, and effect real, meaningful change. The big question, to my mind, is simply this: Where is she?

Naoto Nonaka
Naoto Nonaka
Gakushuin University

Professor Endo’s comment is quite important and to the point. Although I disagree in part with the assessment of Professor Nyblade in that Japan’s institutional framework is majoritarian style similar to those of Britain and Greece, the basic character of the triangle of party-legislature-executive, in any case, should and would be one of the most focal points in order to understand Japan’s politics. In my view, the Japanese Diet, who has been endowed with too much power vis-à-vis the executive, has tilted the balance of these threebranches of government. This is the underlying institutional background which may explain the recent political upheaval in Japan.

Fumiaki Kubo
Fumiaki Kubo
University of Tokyo

I enjoyed both of the presentations by Professors Nyblade and Nonaka.
The parliamentary system of Japan and that of UK are similar, while the average term of office of Prime Ministers are different after the end of the Second World War: UK for about five years and Japan for just about two years. Why?
The most important difference is the existence of the Upper House in the Japanese Parliament called Diet, which has almost equal power with the Lower House. Every three years, there is an election for half the members of the Upper House, and PMs in Japan were often forced to resign after the defeat there. In UK, there is no election for the Upper House, and it could not stymie the legislative process in the Parliament.
Another difference is more informal one. Major political parties in Japan set the two-or three-year term for the party head. What is problematic is that they enforce the term even when they are in power, which means that other than the general election and the Upper House election, PMs have to face another election within their own party, which is sometimes a collection of factions that fight each other viciously. In many parliamentary democracies including UK, governing party does not enforce the term as the party head.
Prof. Nonaka is right in pointing out that the Diet is fairly independent of the executive branch. In order to correct the balance to weaken the Diet, it might be effective to keep the Diet open all the time except for the short breaks a couple times a year. It seems that session is too short in the Diet. If it is open basically every day, there would be definitely less incentives for the opposition parties to be just obstructionist, and more legislative outcomes.
These are some of thoughts that I came up with when listening to the two excellent presentations.