Elections in Japan
On September 1, 2008, Prime Minister and President of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP； often referred to as simply “jiminto” in Japanese) Yasuo Fukuda suddenly announced that he would resign from his post. After this announcement, five members of Fukuda’s party campaigned to succeed him as LDP President. An internal party vote took place on September 22, and LDP Secretary-General Taro Aso was named the winner. On September 24, Aso was designated by the Diet as Japan’s Prime Minister. He was formally appointed to the office by the Emperor later that night. Aso says that his “mission is to make Japan a strong and radiant country.” He announced his intention to dissolve the House of Representatives and called for an election in the near future (at the time this article was written, the status of the election was questionable). The possible upcoming election is the perfect opportunity for us to examine how elections in Japan work.
There are two types of national elections in Japan: general elections to the House of Representatives (held every four years) and elections to the House of Councillors (held every three years for half its members). Candidates must be a Japanese citizen at least twenty-five years of age to run for the House of Representatives or a Japanese citizen at least thirty years of age to run for the House of Councillors.
A term in the House of Representatives is four years, but this can be cut short if the chamber is dissolved, as may be the case in the near future. There are 480 seats in the House of Representatives. 300 of those seats are based upon electoral districts, with each seat representing a district, and 180 are based upon proportional representation. Yamaguchi-ken has four districts and therefore has four delegates in the House of Representatives. For proportional representation, Japan is divided into 11 blocks. The block to which Yamaguchi-ken belongs, the Chugoku block, has 11 representatives. The majority of the seats (304) are held by the LDP with the DPJ holding the second highest number of seats (114).
A term in the House of Councillors is six years. The chamber in the House of Councillors does not get dissolved, but there are elections every three years. As of September 24th, there were 242 seats in the House of Councillors. 146 of the seats are decided by prefectural districts, and the remaining 96 are decided by proportional representation. Yamaguchi-ken has two delegates in the House of Councillors. The majority of the seats (118) are held by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ； often referred to as simply “minshuto” in Japanese) with the LDP coming in second with 83 seats.
Next, let’s examine the voting process in Japan. Only Japanese citizens 20 years of age or older can vote. The actual act of voting in Japan is simple. Once you arrive at the polling station you present an entry ticket at a reception desk. A second person will check to make sure that you are the person on the list of registered voters, and a third person will give you a ballot. You then proceed to an area with counters and dividers where you can select the candidate of your choice in secret. After you have filled out your ballot, you simply drop your ballot in the ballot box and leave. Once the polls close, the person in charge at each polling station will send their ballot boxes to the person in charge of election returns.
The voter turnout in Yamaguchi is roughly the same as the national voter turnout. In 2005 voter turnout for the House of Representatives election in Yamaguchi-ken was 69.1% whereas the national voter turnout was 67.5%. Voter turnout for the 2006 House of Councillors election was 62.3% in Yamaguchi-ken versus 56.6% nationwide. It should be pointed out that voter turnout rates in both Yamaguchi-ken and throughout Japan have dropped considerably when compared to previous years.
If the House of Representatives is dissolved and an election takes place, Aso and the LDP face an uphill battle. The LDP must and convince the general public that it can bolster Japan’s economy and ensure food safety in the wake of a tainted rice scandal and the discovery that certain products were contaminated with melamine. Aso has said that the government would try to rescue the economy in three stages. The government would first use economic stimulus measures, and then over time it would attempt to balance the budget. Finally, the government plans to promote economic growth through reforms in the long run. Aso’s focus on the economy led him to convene a special session in the House of Representatives. This special session has caused speculation that the proposed upcoming House of Representatives election will either be delayed or not take place at all. Regarding food safety, Aso informed the public that they have a right to be upset, and the government is working on a plan to prevent the same kinds of incidents from happening again.
In the event that the election does, indeed, take place, Aso and the LDP must also prevent the DPJ from making any further gains. The rival DPJ, led by Ichiro Ozawa, won the House of Councillors elections last year, marking the first time that an opposition party has won the majority since the LDP was established in 1955. Ozawa and fellow DPJ members have a plan to unify Japan’s pension and healthcare systems. They also want to raise low-income wages and give bigger childcare allowances to families, something that is likely to be well-received by the public considering the current state of the economy. Regardless of whether or not the House of Representatives is dissolved, the Aso and his government a long fight ahead of them.