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How Japan’s Electoral System Promotes Patronage and Undermines Democracy

The National Diet Building in Tokyo (via Bloomberg)

For all but four years since its formation in 1955, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has maintained a firm grip on Japanese politics. Despite sinking poll numbers due to the LDP’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and its decision to host the Tokyo Olympics in the face of public concern about infection rates, parliamentary elections at the end of October delivered yet another victory. The LDP gained enough seats in the House of Representatives to govern as a majority without their coalition partner Komeito. 

The LDP’s sustained dominance relies on an electoral system that gives disproportionate representation to rural voters, who constitute a shrinking fraction of the increasingly urbanized population. By taking advantage of a fiscally centralized government to cultivate rural patronage networks, the LDP has simultaneously consolidated support and inhibited potential grassroots opposition movements without having to expend energy appealing to broad swaths of the populace. The stark voting weight disparities between rural and urban Japan run counter to the democratic ideal of “one person, one vote” and necessitate the reapportionment of electoral districts to reflect shifting demographics and fiscal decentralization to eliminate toxic clientelism.  

From 1947 to 1994, Japan operated under a single non-transferable voting system consisting of multi-member districts allocated a given number of seats in the legislature, the Diet. In each district, voters chose a single candidate, and the candidates with the most votes won office in the Diet. Since the number of seats allotted to the districts depended on their population, rural areas that were more populous when the districts were first drawn gained greater political representation. Such a structure forced parties seeking a parliamentary majority to run multiple candidates per district. Despite the apparent challenge of appealing to a single pool of voters under the same partisan label, LDP candidates differentiated themselves by catering to distinct constituencies—like the transportation, agricultural, and construction sectors—with special policy favors. The exchange of services for votes, combined with a system that disproportionately represents rural voters, fueled LDP hegemony for decades. 

The LDP’s prolonged reign eventually sparked cries for electoral reform, which came in 1994 with the transition to a mixed-member majoritarian electoral framework consisting of both single- and multi-member districts. Single-member district seats account for 300 of the 500 House of Representatives seats and are determined through a first-past-the-post voting system where voters select one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes is elected. The other 200 seats are allocated across 11 larger multi-member regional districts according to proportional representation, or the fraction of the vote garnered by each political party. In other words, in a given House of Representatives election cycle, voters cast two ballots: one for a candidate in their single-member district and one for a party in their multi-member district. 

Despite the 1994 reforms’ intention to improve fairness and competition in elections, urbanization has left rural regions, which skew older and more conservative, with excessive voting power. The share of Japan’s population living in cities has increased from 53 percent in 1950 to 93 percent in 2014, making the country more like “one big city-state,” with the vast majority of the population concentrated in an urban belt that runs through the cluster of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. Migration into urban areas by younger individuals pursuing higher education and improved economic opportunities has largely driven this trend and, combined with a falling national fertility rate, led rural populations to both shrink and age. Since the single-member district paradigm implies that votes in districts with greater population density carry less value than those in more sparsely populated precincts, the “demographic shift has made the political voice of Japan’s rural areas disproportionately large.” Due to preexisting relations of patronage, the LDP confers material benefits to rural voters through unnecessary public works projects in exchange for their loyalty. This allows the LDP to concentrate on a smaller and smaller subset of the electorate without sacrificing seats in the Diet. Exacerbating the imbalance is the fact that single-member district voting accounts for most seats in the House of Representatives, so the LDP can win (and has won) elections despite lacking a majority of seats assigned through proportional representation. 

Fiscal centralization has enabled the LDP’s clientelist practices and ensured the party remains in charge without the threat of grassroots opposition movements. Although local governments are tasked with implementing most public projects, they lack revenue-raising power and rely substantially on funds from the central government, which can exercise considerable discretion over resource allocation. Thus, the process of distributing intergovernmental transfers is politicized; approximately half of all transfers are linked to local leaders’ relations with the LDP. Consequently, local politicians are forced to align with the LDP to secure funding for various initiatives that benefit their constituents, winning support by marginalizing opposition parties. Effectively, this creates a cycle in which the LDP controls government funds, uses them to solidify their political base, wins elections, and continues to wield sweeping fiscal authority. 

Malapportionment has resulted in electoral imbalances so severe that the Japanese Supreme Court has ruled some outcomes unconstitutional. In 2014, it stated that in the previous year’s House of Councillors elections, “the disparity rate among constituencies was [so] egregiously high that it posed a threat to the election’s constitutionality.” In spite of the Supreme Court’s calls for the government to “pursue a legal revision to overhaul the current electoral system and eliminate the unconstitutionally high level of vote weight disparities,” the LDP-led Diet has, unsurprisingly, yet to institute radical changes. 

One positive step, though, was a 2017 redistricting law that reduced the number of seats belonging to rural districts by 10 and dictated that redistricting will occur every 10 years after 2020 according to new census data. Still, more transformative legislation could mandate that reexaminations of demographics be performed on a more regular basis, with the districts that lose voters being combined and ones that gain voters split into multiple precincts. Fiscal decentralization, or limiting the national government’s discretion over fiscal transfers such that their allocation is determined through a depoliticized formula, represents another avenue to reform. This would inhibit the kind of clientelism practiced by the LDP, and local politicians would no longer be beholden to the national party to receive funding. 

Reapportioning districts and transferring some of the national government’s fiscal responsibilities to localities are two paths to reducing electoral disparities and affirming democratic norms in Japan by promoting equal representation and political competition; however, one point of caution must be emphasized: The increase in rural voting power has occurred alongside an overall deterioration of rural Japan as young people have fled villages for cities, leaving behind elderly who are then forced to work later into their lives and care for those even older than themselves. Hiroya Masuda, a former governor of Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, projected that 896 cities, towns, and villages in rural regions would vanish by 2040 as the population dwindles and nature reclaims the land. While some inhabitants of rural districts wield outsized political power and have higher chances of winning excessively large funds as a result of their clout, others must face the grim consequences of their hometowns’ inevitable decline. Consequently, any form of electoral or fiscal restructuring must not exacerbate the decline of remote areas but ensure that it happens gradually and with adequate support resources.