PBS Premiere: July 29, 2008Check the broadcast schedule »

Background: Politics and Political Campaigns in Japan

Japan's Political System
At the end of World War II, Japan was required by the terms of its surrender to build a new political system. With Allied forces occupying and helping to rebuild the country, Japan adopted a democratic government for the first time in 1947. The nation is now governed by the two houses of parliament, known as the Diet, with a prime minister elected by the majority party. The two houses of the Diet are the House of Councillors, or Sangi-in, which has 242 members; and the House of Representatives, or Shugi-in, with 480 members. In the past, Japanese voters cast their ballots for specific candidates, but since 1982 voters select a party, which then receives proportional representation in the legislature.

Japan's main political parties are the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Several smaller parties also maintain a presence in the legislature. The LDP, generally considered the more conservative of the two major parties, held power from 1955 until 1993. Since 1994, the LDP has governed by forming a coalition government.

Prime Minister
Swept into office as the head of the LDP in 2001, Junichiro Koizumi was one of the most popular prime ministers in recent Japanese history. Although public support wavered when he took the highly controversial step of sending Japanese troops to Iraq, he was reelected in 2005. When Koizumi stepped down in 2006, he was replaced by his former chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe. Abe resigned a year later amid charges of scandal and plummeting popular support for the LDP. He was replaced by the current prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, also an LDP member.

The son of a former prime minister, Fukuda served as chief cabinet secretary to Shinzo Abe and ascended to the prime minister's position in 2007. After the upheaval of Abe's administration, Fukuda represented a return to a more traditional government. He is seen as more dovish than his predecessor, with less interest in expanding the Japanese military. After the tumult of Abe's resignation, Fukuda pledged to help restore the people's trust in government.

Politics in Kawasaki
The city of Kawasaki is sandwiched between Tokyo and Yokohama. Kawasaki is home to about 1.4 million people. The city is governed by a mayor and a council with 63 members. The current mayor, Takao Abe, took office in 2001 and was easily reelected in 2005 with the support of a broad coalition of parties, including both the LDP and the DPJ. His challenger in 2005, Hajime Okamoto, was supported only by the Japanese Communist Party, which also holds 10 seats on the council. Voter turnout in the 2005 election was lower than the previous one, with 36.3 percent of voters making their way to the polls.

Kawasaki was home to significant industry and manufacturing during Japan's long economic boom from the 1950s through the 1980s. Manufacturing has been on the decline in recent years, however, with the number of factories in the city shrinking from 3,275 in 1990 to 1,700 in 2006. In the last two decades, research has become the primary source of local economic growth. Like much of Japan, Kawasaki is facing a decline in the birth rate and a rapidly aging population, which has led the city to focus on offering services to the aged and to make plans for more citizen-driven services. Between 1990 and 2007, the number of Kawasaki residents collecting a national pension tripled and the number of annual deaths grew by almost 60 percent, whereas the number of births remained flat and the number of children in school shrank by about 25 percent.

Political Campaigns in Japan
Candidates in Japanese elections make use of every available platform, from the Internet to television to street-level campaigning. However, because of campaign reform efforts, candidates are not allowed to create new websites, update existing websites or use electronic media when the official election campaign starts. Individuals running for local or regional office generally receive little support from national party organizations. Instead, candidates organize their own support groups, asking local residents to work on their behalf.

Many of the regulations placed on campaigning tactics were introduced in 1925, when a revision was made to the Lower House Election Law (which originated in the late 1800s), which strictly controlled campaigning tactics. Many of these stipulations are still in place today. Candidates are bound by rules regarding the number of speeches they can make, the type of canvassing they can do, which written materials can be distributed and displayed, and campaign financing. Beginning in the mid-1990s, campaign funding was partially supported by public funds. The government allocated roughly $300 million in proportion to the number of seats each political party holds in the Diet. Thus, politicians are responsible for much of their own campaign financing.

Given the limitations on campaigning, candidates focus heavily on organizing their support groups and on personal interaction with potential voters.

The face-to-face effort that occurs in local elections differs from the kind of glad-handing that characterizes many campaigns outside Japan, however. Candidates typically extend great rhetorical courtesy to the audience without focusing on any specifics of policy. One technique common in local elections involves candidates and their supporters lining up outside railway stations, bowing repeatedly to commuters and offering pledges of service. Campaign cars with loudspeakers are enlisted to drive through residential districts, intoning the name of the candidate without making a concerted sales pitch.

Voter Turnout
Voter turnout in Japan has fluctuated greatly in recent elections, but has been on a downward slide since 1980. In the 2000 general election, about 62 percent of eligible voters turned out, one of the lowest proportions on record. In 2003, only 60 percent of voters went to the polls. Turnout increased in 2005, when 67.5 percent of eligible voters cast votes.

Further Reading
Download an excerpt from Election Campaigning Japanese Style by Gerald L. Curtis "The Official Camapign" (PDF)
For more in-depth reading on the way campaigns work in Japan, download a PDF of an excerpt from Gerald L. Curtis' Election Campaigning Japanese Style, courtesy of Columbia University Press. (PDF, 1.5MB)

"An Administrative Perspective of Kawasaki," Kawasaki City Government (2007), l
"A Comparison with the United States," Asia for Educators, Project on Asia in the Core Curriculum, Columbia University
"Country Profiles: Japan," British Broadcasting Corporation
Curtis, Gerald L., Election Campaigning Japanese Style (Columbia University Press: New York, 1971)
"Documentary traces 'ritual' of Japan election campaign," The Japan Times (May 16, 2007)
"Japan," CIA World Factbook (Last updated March 20, 2008),
"Japan's old-fashioned campaigning," British Broadcasting Corporation (July 12, 2007)
"Murai wins Miyagi gubernatorial election," Japan Policy and Politics (October 24, 2005)
"Profile: Yasuo Fukuda," British Broadcasting Corporation (September 23, 2007),
"Profile: Shinzo Abe," British Broadcasting Corporation (September 12, 2007)
"Voter turnout 2nd lowest at less than 62.5%," Japan Policy and Politics (July 3, 2000),
"Voter Turnout in Japan and the United States," Sean Richey, Department of Social Psychology, University of Tokyo