WORLD> Background
Elections in Japan
Updated: 2009-08-27 11:03

The Japanese political system has three types of elections: general elections to the House of Representatives held every four years (unless the lower house is dissolved earlier), elections to the House of Councillors held every three years to choose one-half of its members, and local elections held every four years for offices in prefectures, cities, and villages.

Elections are supervised by election committees at each administrative level under the general direction of the Central Election Administration Committee.

The minimum voting age for persons of both sexes is twenty years; voters must satisfy a three-month residency requirement before being allowed to cast a ballot.

For those seeking office, there are two sets of age requirements: twenty-five years of age for admission to the House of Representatives and most local offices, and thirty years of age for admission to the House of Councillors and the prefectural governorship.

National elections

The Diet (Kokkai) has two chambers. The House of Representatives (Shugi-in) has 480 members, elected for a four year term, 300 members in single-seat constituencies and 180 members by proportional representation in 11 block districts.

In this system, each voter votes twice, once for a candidate in the local constituency, and once for a party, each of which has a list of candidates for each block district.

The local constituencies are decided by plurality, and the block seats are then handed out to the parties proportionally (by the D'Hondt method) to their share of the vote, who then appoint members from their lists.

Often the parties assign the block seats to unsuccessful single-seat candidates.

The House of Councillors (Sangi-in) has 242 members, elected for a six year term, 146 members in multi-seat constituencies (prefectures) and 96 by proportional representation on the national level.

Half of the House of Councillors comes up for election every three years.

For many years Japan was a one party dominant state until 1993 with the Liberal Democratic Party as the leading party.

They lost office and then soon regained power. Due to the proportional voting system it is unlikely that Japan will develop an exclusive two-party system, but there is speculation that Japanese political diversity is declining.

Pre-reform electoral districts

In the 1980s, apportionment of electoral districts still reflected the distribution of the population in the years following World War II, when only one-third of the people lived in urban areas and two thirds lived in rural areas.

In the next forty-five years, the population became more than three-quarters urban, as people deserted rural communities to seek economic opportunities in Tokyo and other large cities.

The lack of reapportionment led to a serious underrepresentation of urban voters. Urban districts in the House of Representatives were increased by five in 1964, bringing nineteen new representatives to the lower house; in 1975 six more urban districts were established, with a total of twenty new representatives allocated to them and to other urban districts. Yet great inequities remained between urban and rural voters.

In the early 1980s, as many as five times the votes were needed to elect a representative from an urban district compared with those needed for a rural district. Similar disparities existed in the prefectural constituencies of the House of Councillors. The Supreme Court had ruled on several occasions that the imbalance violated the constitutional principle of one person-one vote.

The Supreme Court mandated the addition of eight representatives to urban districts and the removal of seven from rural districts in 1986. Several lower house districts' boundaries were redrawn. Yet the disparity was still as much as three urban votes to one rural vote.

After the 1986 change, the average number of persons per lower house representative was 236,424. However, the figure varied from 427,761 persons per representative in the fourth district of Kanagawa Prefecture, which contains the large city of Yokohama, to 142,932 persons in the third district of largely rural and mountainous Nagano Prefecture.

The greatest success of the 1993 reform government under Hosokawa Morihiro was a change in the system whereby 200 members (reduced to 180 beginning with the 2000 election) are elected by proportional representation in multi-member districts or "blocs" while 300 are elected from single-candidate districts.

Still, according to the October 6, 2006 issue of the Japanese newspaper Daily Yomiuri, "the Supreme Court followed legal precedent in ruling Wednesday that the House of Councillors election in 2004 was held in a constitutionally sound way despite a 5.13-fold disparity in the weight of votes between the nation's most densely and most sparsely populated electoral districts".

Prefectural and local elections

Prefectural parliaments and governors, as well as mayors and assemblies in municipalities are elected for four year terms.

Many of these elections are held at the same time in the "unifed local elections" (tōitsu chihō senkyo); in the last unified local election on April 6, 2007, 13 governors, 44 prefectural parliaments and mayors or assemblies in more than 1,000 cities, special wards, towns and villages were up for election.