Explaining Political Dominance in Japan

Shane Barter

For students of Comparative Politics, Japan stands out as a fascinating case. It is one of Asia’s few liberal democracies, although one with little turnover in government. Japanese politics have been known for overlapping business ties, powerful internal party factions, limited women’s participation, and recently, a rightward turn. At the core of this distinctive political landscape has been the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), whose dominance and ability to recapture power have been extraordinary.

Kōji Nakakita’s The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan: The Realities of ‘Power’ provides readers with an authoritative guide to the LDP’s inner workings and evolution. Nakakita is a renowned expert of Japanese politics, authoring many books and articles. Already a highly popular book in Japan, the English translation was provided by Stephen Johnson, who is to be commended for such a readable translation of a complex book.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan features six chapters. Chapter One dives directly into the decline of factional politics in Japan, a product of electoral and finance reforms. Chapter Two looks within the LDP, examining internal party elections and the distribution of offices. In Chapter Three, Nakakita focuses on policymaking, which is increasingly dominated by the executive due to the decline of factions and the rise of party leadership. Chapter Four focuses on national electoral battles, including rural support networks, turnout rates, the LDP-Komeito alliance, and party recruitment. Chapter Five examines partner organizations, providing a window into the shifting patterns of the LDP’s business and professional networks. Finally, Chapter Six examines subnational politics, including elections and the personal organizations bolstering local candidates.

One of the book’s most impressive features is its data. Nakakita mixes quantitative electoral and spending data with personal interviews, internal party documents, and media reports, bringing together multiple sources to illustrate and explain LDP power. The book is replete with instructive figures and tables that illustrate, among other things, politician backgrounds, factional affiliations and strength, industry support for LDP candidates, and more. Specific individuals identified in the book, such as prefectural party bosses and senior LDP officials, provide detailed descriptions of the ‘realities’ of the LDP.

This book represents a deep dive into Japan’s ruling party but will also be of interest to those studying party politics, campaign finance, dominant party systems, and state–society relations. One core theme is the far-reaching effects of electoral reform. Changing Japan’s electoral system in 1994 from the multi-member Single Non-Transferable Vote towards a mixed plurality-proportional electoral system has caused myriad transformations in Japanese politics and within the LDP. Electoral reform largely succeeding in its core aims of weakening factions and pork politics, also transformed the policy process, party membership, leadership styles, business ties, and more. This study is a testament to the importance of electoral systems for shaping political behaviour.

Electoral and finance reforms helped bring about the decline of factional politics, paving the way for a more top-down, executive-run LDP. However, Nakakita emphasizes that the LDP’s power is relative rather than absolute, with victories resulting from low voter turnout, support from various associations, a weak opposition, and the alliance with Komeito. In fact, the LDP’s support base is shrinking. The LDP has adapted to maintain power, but it is hardly unassailable. As the author concludes, ‘there is potential for the current political conditions that allow an ‘all powerful’ LDP to suffer a sudden reversal’ (p. 205).

Another key theme is differentiating between the LDP’s dominant recent figures, Koizumi and Abe. Although the former mentored the latter, they share a factional background, are third generation politicians, and have dominated the LDP, they differ by ideology and leadership styles. Nakakita emphasizes how Koizumi promoted neoliberal reforms and courted floating voters with a media-friendly, populist message, while Abe returned to earlier LDP practices and is more conservative. In an effort to reconnect to rural voters alienated by Koizumi’s reforms, Abe has captained the LDP’s rightward shift, including policies refusing to allow married couples to keep separate surnames, rejecting non-citizen voting rights, and rewriting the constitution to allow for military and emergency powers. One could see this rising conservativism as an unexpected consequence of electoral reform, as combatting factionalism and pork politics has led Abe’s LDP to find new ways to connect to voters and maintain power.

Not only does this book provide expert analysis of the inner party workings, it contributes towards an understanding of state–society relations, although here the emphasis is on business, professional, interest, and religious interactions with the party rather than the state. It is fascinating to see how various factions connect with non-state interests, from Koizumi challenging postal lobbies, to policy groups connected to dentists, firefighters, kindergarten teachers, truckers, and chambers of commerce. Overlapping state/society distinctions also exist subnationally, with politicians depending on personal support organizations and kinship networks. We also see changing roles for religion, with historical LDP ties to Shinto and other interests transforming in response to the LDP’s partnership with Komeito.

There are few available critiques of this masterful study. The book could do with an introduction or background chapter, bringing those less familiar with Japanese politics up to speed instead of jumping directly into factions. Readers may want more details on subnational electoral competition, especially varied local party alliances, and perhaps more on LDP foreign policy. Finally, the book has few references to scholarly theories or comparative cases. There are a few spots where glances beyond Japan might heighten its analysis, although this is probably not the author’s goal in a book aimed at a Japanese audience.

All told, The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan: The Realities of ‘Power’ provides a commanding account of how the LDP has managed to maintain power in and over Japan. This will undoubtedly be required reading for students of Japanese politics, but will also be of interest to a broader audience in Comparative Politics. This is a simply excellent study that will teach a wide readership about one of Asia’s most important, fascinating parties.