A page on how Japan is run in Real Life.
But why, though?
That's a more appropriate question than you might think. This is a Useful Note, so it's designed to explain to you how something works so that you can learn how accurately (or not) it's portrayed in media. Except politics doesn't figure very much into Japanese Media. Certainly, Japan has a powerful and influential government full of politicians and bureaucrats, which seems ripe for a Government Procedural. But there's not really anything. There's no Japanese equivalent to The West Wing or Yes, Minister. In fact, the only Japanese work we know of that could be called a government procedural is Kaji Ryuusuke No Gi ("Ryuusuke Kaji's Agenda"), a manga about a young politician's journey to power, which is obscure enough to probably never be released outside of Japan.
In fact, Japan doesn't like to talk much about politics at all. Although the government plays a substantial role in the lives of many Japanese, Japan is just less political of a society than most Western nations. This derives at least in part to Japanese culture being traditionally far more deferential to authority, which means people are just inclined to assume that the government is doing what it's supposed to do. And people used to Western media might not understand that Western politicians — and particularly Americans — are kind of unusual in the rest of the world for their tendency to hash out everything in public. Japan has political issues like everyone else; they just don't like to be public about it.
So, this doesn't seem like a really Useful Note. But, since this site's users seem to really like Japanese media and also like to try their hands at writing their own things, this page serves more as a guide to what your Japanese government procedural should look like.
No longer Semi-Divine: The Emperor
The monarch of Japan is the Emperor, called in Japanese tennō. When discussing him in Japanese, you call him Tennō Heika (His Majesty the Emperor) or "The Reigning Emperor". The Japanese monarchy is the longest continuous hereditary monarchy in history.note In fact, the supremacy and sacredness of the Emperor is so ingrained in the Japanese national psyche that a rebellion against the Emperor and seizing the throne was unthinkable; instead, ambitious nobles fought over the right to have their daughters marry the Emperor and gaining power that way.
The characters for Tenno (天皇) means 'Heavenly Sovereign', a title dictated by Emperor Tenmu, and in use by 689 AD. This title was partially influenced by Confucian Philosophy, and partially influenced by Tenmu's contemporary, the third Emperor of Tang China, who was posthumously known as 'Heavenly Sovereign Great Emperor' (天皇大帝). Nonetheless, power of the Emperor declined rapidly by the 10th century, and by the 12th century, the position of Emperor became largely ceremonial. Many have argued that "Emperor" is probably not the best translation, and it's easier to think of the Tenno as more of a spiritual leader than a political or military one. European explorers of the era considered the Shogun equivalent to a European king (as he was a military leader) with the Emperor akin to The Pope. Indeed, the Emperor acts as a high priest in Shinto and was traditionally considered a demigod descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu. Emperor Hirohito had to renounce the bit about being a living divinity after World War II (although he did sneakily ask the occupation authorities if he could make a sacrifice "to his ancestors", and they let him — so he sacrificed to Amaterasu).
The Emperor's power has varied over the years. Old Japan has long been thought of as a semi-feudal system, with different clans ruling different parts of Japan, and the Emperor linking them all together. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, real power was pretty much in the hands of the Tokugawa Clan, and it would remain that way until the Meiji Restoration, when the power base shifted from the Tokugawa Shogunate to a Western-style system ran by aristocrats from southern Japan. Today, Japan is a constitutional monarchy; in fact, its constitution is explicit that the Emperor can hold no real political power and can only be a symbol of the Japanese people. But he's a very powerful symbol, something uniquely Japanese which speaks to the Japanese-ness of all Japanese people.
The current Emperor is Naruhito, who has been reigning since 2019. The Emperor has two names; one is his given name, which is used when he is in power, and another is used afterwards to refer both to the Emperor and his reign. For instance, the current Emperor's name is Naruhito (well, you're not supposed to use his name, but that is his name), and his "era" is the Reiwa (令和) era (roughly meaning "beautiful harmony"). The era name itself was selected from a passage of Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), an assortment of Japanese poetry compiled sometime during the Nara period, with most of its text written in Classical Chinese.note
Thus, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, who abdicated in favour of his son, will be formally referred to as "Emperor Heisei". The traditional Japanese calendar also counts years by the eras of the various Emperors; for instance, "Showa 36" refers to 1962. The Japanese still use this scheme for formal occasions.note
Some famous eras and emperors are:
- Jimmu (711?-585? BCE): the legendary first Emperor of Japan as recounted in the Kojiki, one of the oldest surviving works of literature (dating back to 712 AD). It's debatable whether Jimmu existed, especially considering the document's ulterior motive of legitimizing the Emperor's rule; in some sense, he's like a Japanese King Arthur. If he did exist, he most likely existed much later than the Kojiki says, and was the leader of his local clan (the Yamato) rather than all of Japan.
- Tenmu (631-686): seized the throne from his nephew, dedicated the Ise Shrine to Amaterasu and had the Japanese creation myth (along with his divine lineage) written down in the Kojiki.
- Kanmu (735-806): an Emperor with enough actual power, which for a long while had mostly been in the hand of the Fujiwara clan or the retired Emperors, to move his capital around before settling down in Heian-kyo.
- Sutoku (1119-1164): rumored to be an illegitimate son of his own grandfather, definitely The Un-Favourite of his father who forced him to abdicate to his three months old brother, then effectively cancelled his descendants from the succession line. Sutoku's later attempt to reclaim power ended in failure, got him exiled and sowed enmity between the Taira and Minamoto clans which would led to the Genpei war. Legends said that Sutoku became a devil and cast a curse upon Japan.
- Go-Daigonote (1288-1339): the last pre-Meiji Emperor to actually hold power. He successfully overthrew the Kamakura Shogunate only to be overthrown himself by the Ashikaga Shogunate, kicking off the Nanboku-chōnote periodnote .
- Meiji (1868-1912), meaning "enlightened rule"note . His personal name was Mutsuhito. His rule was famous for the Meiji Restoration, which saw the modernization of Japan, the consolidation of the Emperor's power away from the Shogun, and the start of Japan's rise to world power status. The degree to which he actually wielded power is unclear and a subject of debate; on one hand, politics in his era was clearly dominated by a clique of nobles called the genrō, and he publicly deferred to them on questions of policy, but it's possible he had ways of influencing his ministers in private.
- Taishō (1912-1926), meaning "great righteousness"; personal name Yoshihito. His rule was an important bridge between the Meiji and Showa eras and oversaw Japan's first real experiments with democracy, including the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1926. Taishō is generally agreed not to have had much influence on policy or on anything else, as he was sickly and had neurological problems (and possibly mental health issues) stemming from a bout with cerebral meningitis as an infant.
- Shōwa (1926-1989), meaning "enlightened peace", although given that it covered World War II it might be a Non-Indicative Name. Better known as Hirohito, he's Japan's longest-reigning monarch and the grandfather of current Emperor Naruhito. Beginning his reign after his father's untimely death at the age of 47, Hirohito came to the throne at the height of the "Taishō Democracy." However, this system was unstable, threatened most particularly by right-wing ultranationalists in the officer corps. By the 1930s, civilian politicians lived in constant fear of assassination (usually by said ultranationalists), and eventually his reign oversaw Japan's descent to militarism and the devastating war that followed. Much like his grandfather Meiji, it's not clear how much influence he had over government policy, as he seems to have deliberately veiled himself in mystery for most of his early reign; what is clear is that he had a decisive influence in Japan's decision to accept the Allies' demand for unconditional surrender after the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's also clear he ceased to have any political influence after the war. However, he did manage to remain emperor, and reigned over the post-war recovery that gave the trope Japan Takes Over the World (and died shortly before the economic crash that killed that trope off).
The Emperor's role as a spiritual leader means he has to do a lot of very long, very precise rituals, which can be so tedious and repetitive that pre-Meiji Emperors nearly always abdicated long before their deaths. In fact, many Emperors' reigns were short enough that their successors were crowned when they were very young, a few as young as six years old. It was said that only a youth could withstand the endless tedium of the rituals (and also that they would be very pliable to the Shoguns). It's likely for this reason that in late 2017, Emperor Akihito abdicated in favour of his son Naruhito on April 30, 2019.
The Japanese royal family is not considered "fair game" in the media in the same way as The British Royal Family. There's very little gossip about them, and there's little discussion of whether to get rid of them altogether and become a republic (there's a few Communists out there, though). One big discussion, though, is whether a woman could ascend to the throne, which is not currently allowed by law (although there have historically been eight female Emperors); this was an issue when Naruhito and his younger brother both had only daughters. The issue resolved itself when the younger brother had a son, but there was enough debate for the Prime Minister to call the law in question a "national embarrassment".
The World's Richest Diet
The Japanese legislature, the Kokkai, is called the Diet of Japan in English. Japan is also a rich country.
The name "Diet" comes from the fact that it was established by the Meiji Constitution, which was based on the constitution of Imperial Germany, whose legislature (the Reichstag) was known in English as the "Imperial Diet". The term could just as easily be translated as "National Assembly", but for the most part, it's the most important legislative body in the world to be called a "diet", so that's something going for it.note
It has two chambers:
- The House of Representatives is the lower chamber. 480 members, four-year terms. 300 are elected by "first-past-the-post" (i.e. get more votes than anyone else, even if you don't have 50%) and the rest by party-list proportional representation (i.e. you vote for a party, the party gets the seats in proportion to its vote share, and the party chooses the people to fill those seats from a list). It's the House where things happen, and it includes the Prime Minister.
- The House of Councillors is the upper chamber. 242 members, six-year terms. 146 are elected via The 47 Prefectures via a single non-transferable vote, the others nationwide by party-list proportional representation. Its only real job is to delay treaties.
There are two big-name political parties in Japan, though only one has a great deal of clout. Japan has often been called a "one-and-a-half-party state"note , as there technically is an opposition, but if they ever get elected, they never stay in power very long.
- The Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) is actually quite conservative, akin to the British Tories or the American Republicans — it's economically liberal rather than socially liberal. (Eaglelanders, you may continue to be confused.) It's been the dominant party in Japan since its foundation in 1955 and wouldn't lose an election until 1993. Every time it's lost, it usually finds a way to rally back into power (usually because the other guys aren't experienced enough). It lost by a spectacular landslide in 2009, only to return by another spectacular landslide in 2012. It places an emphasis on free market capitalism (in a neoliberal sense) and traditional social mores, which is a darn good thing to campaign on in Japan.
- The main opposition to the LDP has gone through many names over the past years, but is currently the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP). They're the result of a complicated and chaotic merger of several parties, all of which descended from The Remnant of the Democratic Party after their collapse in 2012, and have ended up back in largely the same place as the DPJ. They are socially progressive and economically moderate, comparable to the American Democrats or British New Labour, though their party's Tangled Family Tree also includes conservative and even far-right elements who have mostly split off.
- There are a few third parties worthy of note, though none of them have the influence of the LDP or DPJ:
- New Komeito Party: Socially conservative, economically centrist. Places a big emphasis on traditional Buddhist values, as it is heavily influenced by the Soka Gakkai offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism.
- Japanese Communist Party: Exactly What It Says on the Tin, though they advocate democratic elections, not violent overthrow like the Soviets. Strongly anti-capitalist and anti-war. It's sometimes referred to as one of the biggest non-Eastern Bloc Communist parties in the world. Beside their usual Communist agenda, they also have similar opinions to the ultra-nationalists about American military presence in Japan (but they swear it's for different reasons).
- Social Democratic Party: The LDP's chief rivals up until the the mid-'90s, though they've dwindled since then. Advocates for social democratic policies, similar to Britain's pre-Blair Labour Party. As of this writing, they've agreed to merge with the CDP.
- People's New Party: Defined pretty much solely by its opposition to the LDP, with a rather vague platform. Notable for its association with the infamous ex-president of Peru and human rights abuser, Alberto Fujimori.
- Japan Restoration Party: Far-right nationalist party that pretty much sprung up on to the national stage overnight in the last election (December 2012) to become the third-largest party in the lower house. The only nationwide party based outside Tokyo (its headquarters is in Osaka). Its two most high-profile figures Shintaro Ishihara (former Governor of Tokyo) and Toru Hashimoto (current Mayor of Osaka) have made several controversial statements both past and present regarding Japan's past (see below).
- The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) used to be the "one-half" party that is the main opposition to the LDP. It was socially progressive and economically moderate, just like its successor party. It dates to 1998, when it was created from the union of four independent parties and a bunch of LDP defectors, all of whom had beefs with the LDP. It won a majority of seats in the House of Councillors in 2007 (ousting the LDP from there for the first time in pretty much ever) and won the House of Representatives in a big landslide in 2009. Only problem was that they didn't exactly know what to do once they got into power, and they also happened to be in charge when the Tohoku earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear disaster hit in 2011. Their handling of that basically led to the party's landslide defeat in 2012. Since then, the party has melted down, split and re-merged, and most of its remnants have merged back together in the CDP.
The Prime Minister
Like Italy, the average term of a prime minister is about two years. From 2006 until 2012, Japan changed prime ministers every single year. There are a number of opinions as to what the cause of the instability was. Even though the LDP have nearly always been in power, the government has often struggled to get things done. This is partly due to the two chambers of the Diet often being in conflict with each other, and also and the "keiretsu" culture (see below) which makes it hard for the government to implement economic reforms. The media, electorate, and backbenchers are generally unforgiving towards prime ministers who make mistakes or break campaign promises.
Major Japanese Political Issues
Yasukuni Shrine, "Comfort Women" and the legacy of the Second World War
There are not many places where the very act of their own country's leader visiting them causes a diplomatic protest. Yasukuni Shrine is one of them.
Dedicated to Japan's war dead, it contains a list of over 2.4 million men and women (not all of them Japanese) who died in the wars of the Meiji Restoration and Imperial Japan. This wouldn't be too much of a problem, except the list contains over 1,000 war criminals (not all of whom are Japanese either). 14 of the people enshrined there are Class A war criminals, including Hideki Tojo, the Japanese Prime Minister for much of the Second World War, considered responsible for the deaths of 8 million civilians.
The Yushukan, a privately-maintained war museum on the grounds of the shrine, also presents a highly controversial revisionist interpretation of Japan's role in World War II, claiming that (among other things) Japan was merely "defending Asia" against the Western powers' influence, and that since Japan hadn't signed the Geneva Conventions at the time, the war criminals were convicted illegally.
This highly annoys the two Koreas, China, some pan-Blue supporters in Taiwan, and the Japanese left. The official website is under a constant denial of service attack from China.note
Junichiro Koizumi visited five times during his premiership, and Abe once, during his second term.
There have been calls to move the war criminals or take them off the list. The right-wingers cite Shinto religious teaching in response, and little progress has been made, barring some minor museum changes.
"Comfort Women" is the euphemism for the practice during the years before and during World War II of the Japanese military kidnapping and enslaving thousands of women, forcing them to be sexual slaves to Japanese soldiers. Japan insists that it didn't happen, or just a very few bad people did this to a very few women. Many, many Japanese politicians say this, including Prime Minister Abe — several times. It's actually backtracking in his case, as previous Prime Ministers have acknowledged that it happened and apologized, but Abe didn't budge. Naturally, other nations, especially North Korea, South Korea, and China, the three nations most of these women came from, aren't very pleased with this.
Because in The '80s, everybody really did think Japan was going to take over the world. Its economy was growing rapidly, companies were making money, high-quality Japanese products flooded world markets, and Japanese investors were buying up gigantic swathes of real estate in Japan and everywhere else. There was serious talk about Japan becoming a new world power and forging a different path to the U.S. and the West.
Then, around 1990, the bubble burst.
Yep. All that talk about Japan taking over the world turned out to be just speculation. It turned out that a lot of the economic growth happened because (a) big business was really tight with the government, (b) the keiretsu structure allowed these businesses to basically control their own banks, and (c) the Japanese tendency not to ask too many questions meant that everybody thought everything was fine. And then, the minute someone did start asking questions, all the money dried up.
The '90s are referred to as Japan's "Lost Decade", with unemployment hitting the roof, industrial expansion sluggish, and the government seemingly incapable of doing anything about it. It tried reforming the banking industry, but it was too little, too late. And Japan hasn't recovered since then, as its economy continued to be sluggish in The Noughties and Japan's aging population led to a huge strain on social services. And since the era of lifetime employment in a Japanese keiretsu was over, Japan's young people, who had been told by previous generations that they could easily pick up a job and be set for life, were now disillusioned and disenfranchised, feeling like they can't get ahead in life because of their parents' mistakes. This might be why you see so many NEETs and hikikomori in Japanese media these days — why find a job when they're just going to get rejected?
Others, however, posit that the mere fact that Japan hasn't imploded yet (despite having had many potential opportunities to do so in the past couple of decades) suggests that it's running on its own pace, not exactly along conventional socio-economic thinking. They call Japan an example of a sort of post-development country in a "low growth" cycle, which is seen as kind of inevitable once you start running out of things to innovate.
There's also one issue that doesn't get discussed much... in public. In private it induces attacks of stark, apoplectic terror in politicians, business leaders, and anyone interested in seeing Japan continue as anything like a world power. Simply put, the Japanese seem to have forgotten how to make babies.
Ever since the post-World War II baby boom, the birthrate in Japan has fallen like a stone. It now hovers at around 7 per 1000— the lowest birthrate of a full nation in the entire world. Meanwhile, the death rate officially outnumbers the birth rate, and Japan's population is contracting as older generations die off with little to no youths being born to take their place. As the Japanese allow very, very few people to immigrate permanently, this essentially means that birth is the only way they have of growing or even sustaining their population— and that isn't happening.
The causes are widely debated — independent women not wanting the burden of a family, Japanese men being overworked and not very attractive mates, social pressures to not have many children, the sluggish economy, some combination thereof, something else, note there's no obvious answer. But the result is clear: deaths outnumber births, and even with a larger overall population compared to several decades ago, there are fewer and fewer children in Japan. The current median age of the Japanese population is 45.
And finally, we have a topic relevant to TV Tropes, because it answers a question readers might have had: why do so many entertainment companies in Japan these days focus so much on making "kiddie" entertainment for adults, when in the the past they targeted actual children? Because there just aren't that many kids anymore. There are a lot more otaku, though, who grew up with the "kiddie" stuff and have a lot of purchasing power. Things that are explicitly marketed to children have seen sales decline (for instance, Shonen Jump) or pivoted to being "for everyone" (e.g. Nintendo systems). But it goes beyond entertainment — Japan is littered with shuttered elementary schools who couldn't find enough students to stay open, dedicated baby supply stores are basically dying, and it's seriously getting to the point where the country is selling more adult diapers than baby diapers (even before you take into account the weirdos whom the women don't want impregnating them). This might also be why there's been a trend of robot caregivers being developed in Japan (but they tend to slam right into the Uncanny Valley).
But this isn't necessarily an absolute doom-and-gloom scenario. Japan is a famously crowded country, and many people believe that an overall population reduction is a good thing in the long run just for sustainability reasons. But to get there, there's going to be a serious problem in the short term, as the nation struggles to provide services to a growing number of retirees without enough young folks to pick up the slack.
You can't mention Japanese politics without mentioning the Japanese Civil Service. The LDP, the bureaucracy, and the Japanese Mega Corps called keiretsu were very tight. As a result, the Japanese civil service — being both public-sector and permanent — got its hands on a great deal of power. Think of how much power Yes, Minister claimed the British Civil Service had, then double it. That is how powerful the Japanese Civil Service actually is. As a result, the previous DPJ government tried to put the bureaucrats in their place. It's debatable as to whether they were more successful than Jim Hacker.
These three powers are arranged in what's called the "Iron Triangle", which is hollow in the middle. They have to work against each other to get anything done: the The politicians want good press and re-election; the businesses want subsidies, breaks, and general government goodies; and the bureaucrats want, well, more bureaucracy (those sick bastards). But it's "hollow" because the three-way struggle leaves a situation where no one can be held accountable for almost anything. Any attempt at pinning anyone down for something will result in an endless game of finger pointing.
And Japan, being very averse to negative appearances, doesn't exactly have a "right to know" or freedom of information. The government decides what the people need to know, and the people just accept that they're being told what they need to hear. The media is basically beholden to the government through the so-called "press clubs", where if they print something mean about a politician, they can basically be denied access to those politicians in the future.