U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: East Asia and Pacific Bureau

Politics and Government in Japan

Fact sheet released by the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs,
U.S. Department of State, July 31, 1997.

Blue Bar rule

Japan is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government. The country's constitution took effect on May 3, 1947 during the American occupation of Japan following World War II. Under the constitution, Japan has universal adult suffrage with a secret ballot for all elective offices. The government consists of an executive branch responsible to the legislative branch and an independent judicial branch. Sovereignty, embodied in the emperor before World War II, is now vested in the Japanese people; the emperor is defined as the symbol of the Japanese state.

The national parliament, or Diet, is composed of two houses: a House of Representatives (lower house) of 500 members and a House of Councillors (upper house) of 252 members. Executive power is vested in a cabinet composed of a prime minister and ministers of state, all of whom must be civilians. The prime minister must be a member of the Diet, usually the lower house, and is designated by his colleagues. The prime minister has the power to appoint and remove ministers, a majority of whom must be Diet members.

Japan's judicial system, which draws upon Western traditions of customary law, civil law and Anglo-American common law, consists of several levels of courts, and the Supreme Court is the final judicial authority. The constitution includes a bill of rights similar to the United States Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court enjoys the right of judicial review. Japanese courts do not employ a jury system, and there are no administrative courts or claims courts. Court decisions are made in accordance with legal statutes; only Supreme Court decisions have any direct effect on later interpretations of the law.

Japan does not have a federal system, and, unlike U.S. states, its 47 prefectures are not sovereign entities. Most depend heavily on the central government for subsidies. Governors of prefectures, mayors of municipalities, and prefectural and municipal assembly members are popularly elected for four-year terms.

In the lower house of the national Diet, 300 members are elected in single-member districts and another 200 members are elected on proportional slates in 11 regions. Lower house members serve for four years, or until the prime minister dissolves the Diet, whichever comes first. In the upper house, 152 members are elected in prefectural districts, while 100 are elected in nation-wide proportional balloting. Upper house members serve for six years. The lower house is the more powerful of the two parliamentary houses. If the upper and lower houses differ on the choice of prime minister, the lower house takes precedence, and budgets and treaties can be passed only with action by the lower house.

Japan is a multiparty democracy that has experienced remarkable stability in the postwar period. From 1955 until 1993, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ruled Japan without interruption. During that period, the main opposition party in the Diet was the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), which relied heavily on Japan's labor unions for support, and which in recent years has experienced a sharp decline in popularity.

In 1993, a multiparty coalition assumed power without the LDP. However, the LDP was returned to power in June 1994 in an unprecedented coalition with the JSP and a small party, the Sakigake. In January, 1995 the LDP reclaimed the prime minister's chair, when Ryutaro Hashimoto replaced his JSP coalition partner, Tomiichi Murayama. Currently the largest opposition parties in the parliament are the New Frontier Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, formed in 1996; all political parties except the Japan Communist Party (JCP) support the security alliance between the United States and Japan.

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Blue Bar rule

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