Unite your total strength, to be devoted to the construction for the future… so that you may enhance the innate glory of the Imperial state and keep pace with the progress of the world. ~ Emperor Hirohito in his surrender speech on 15 August 1945
Japan’s early polity, like much of its culture and religion, was adopted from mainland China. By the 9th century, a strong imperial system ruled from Kyoto.
During the Nara period (710–794), Japan experimented with the Chinese military system, which was based on conscription. Conscript armies proved inefficient. So, in 792, conscription was abolished in favor of professionals, which evolved into the samurai class.
In 1160, samurai leader Taira Kiyomori gained power as Shogun. Japan still had its emperor, but until 1867, Japan was ruled under a military regime: the shogunate.
Military rule provided an extended period of economic and political stability that offered fertile ground for the evolution of Japanese culture. Japan did not shut out the outside world, but it did limit trade, and thereby cultural exchange.
Japan’s relative isolationism was broken when US naval Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his black ships into Yokohama harbor in 1853 and forcibly demanded that the country open itself to trade. The event sent political shock waves that resulted in the overthrow of the shogunate in 1867, with restoration of young Emperor Meiji to absolute authority.
Japan embarked upon rapid modernization. By the mid-1890s it had the military strength to begin imperial expansion, which continued unabated until Japan bit off more than it could chew by attacking the United States at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.
Following Japan’s nuclear defeat that closed the 2nd World War in 1945, America occupied Japan until 1952. In 1946, US General Douglas MacArthur presented Japan with its new constitution, which was adopted as an amendment to Japan’s own Meiji Constitution, which had been in force since 1890.
Fearing insurrection if the emperor were deposed, his continuance was allowed in a symbolic role.
The MacArthur draft proposed a unicameral legislature, but the Japanese insisted on a bicameral one, with both houses being elected.
There was no attempt by MacArthur to impose the unwieldy political system of the United States. Instead, the constitution conformed to the British parliamentary model, as well as being a constitutional monarchy, as in Britain.
A prominent feature in the new constitution was Article 9, under which the “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” This pacifist clause has stuck in the craw of Japanese nationalists ever since, but the necessary 2/3ds majority in both houses of the legislature to initiate its removal has never been mustered.
Article 9 meant that Japan was able to become an economic power without having the fiscal drain of being a military one. America provided for Japan’s defense, and so heavily subsidized the country. (The historical irony is that America provoked Japan’s attack on it by trying to shut off Japan’s international access to natural resources. Then, after the war, America nursed Japan back to rude economic health.)
The bicameral Diet (Kokkai) has a lower House of Representatives and an upper House of Councillors, which serves as a check on the lower house.
The Prime Minister is chosen by the Diet from among its members. He is usually the leader of the majority party or coalition in the lower house. Upon being elected by the Diet, the prime minister is appointed by the emperor to a 4-year term. The prime minister then chooses his cabinet.
The lower house has 480 members elected to 4-year terms, which are often cut short. The average duration for a parliamentary session is 2 1/2 years.
Prime ministers are prone to dissolve the lower house and call snap elections when the polls favor their party. The upper house cannot be dissolved by the prime minister, but it ends its session at the same time as the lower house.
Resembling Germany’s Bundestag, Japan’s Diet members are elected through mixed means. 300 members in the lower house are elected from single-seat constituencies. 180 are elected via proportional representation from 11 regional constituencies on a party-list system.
The upper house has 252 members. 152 are directly elected at the prefecture level. (Japan has 47 prefectures. Each prefecture has a directly elected governor.) 100 are elected at the national level through proportional representation.
The upper house proportional representation system was an electoral reform instituted in 1982, intended to curtail the enormous amounts of money candidates were spending on their campaigns. It helped in that regard but had the externality of favoring larger political parties.
Legislation may be introduced by the cabinet or by either house of the Diet. Important bills are first discussed in a plenary session, then referred to a committee for further work before voted on in each house. As a symbolic gesture, the cabinet presents approved bills to the emperor before their implementation.
The cabinet submits an annual budget to both houses. If the 2 houses cannot agree, the decision of the lower house becomes that of the Diet.
Though the constitution gives the lower house preeminence over the upper house, decision-making among the Japanese, whether in government or business, is oriented toward consensus. Compromise in the interest of comity is common.
Japan’s governance is administered by its bureaucratic ministries, which cover practically every aspect of life and endeavor. Since few cabinet ministers serve for more than a year or so, power lies with senior bureaucrats.
Ministries commonly act as captive interests to those they are supposed to regulate. Upon retirement from the government, many ministry bureaucrats find sinecures in private organizations that were in their purview. The Japanese call this amakudari: “descent from heaven.” It has proven a systemic means for corruption and adherence to the status quo.
The chief justice of Japan’s supreme court is appointed by the emperor following cabinet selection. The 14 other judges on the court are selected and appointed by the cabinet.
In the Anglo-American tradition of common law, Japan’s supreme court rules on constitutional questions related to laws or executive orders. It is the highest court of appeal, with its decisions binding on lower courts.
In the US, case law precedent may come from any court. In Japan, only supreme court decisions carry precedence in subsequent interpretation. Decisions are largely based on statute.
Unlike the politicized American supreme court, Japan’s supreme court is low-key, conservatively maintaining the status quo. Individual justices are virtually unknown to the general public.
District and family courts throughout Japan adjudicate civil and criminal matters, with regional appeals courts. There are no jury trials in Japan.
Per capita, the case load of Japan’s courts is miniscule compared to litigious and crime-addled American courts. Many Japanese civil disputes are settled through mediation, out of court, to avoid the shame of airing personal business in public. Further, the judicial system is large inaccessible. Civil proceedings law is antiquated, written in classical language which is difficult to understand.
Japan’s courts are lenient and focused on rehabilitation. 1st-time offenders are kept out of confinement if possible. Minor miscreants who confess and apologize are let off with a stern warning.
Japanese prosecutors have more discretion than in other countries. Criminal trials are not as common because the police typically torment a confession out of a suspect. Criminal suspects may be held for 23 days; more than long enough to wear anyone down.
The overall conviction rate in Japan is 99.8%. 89% of criminal prosecutions in Japan rely upon confession. The problem is that an estimated 10% of all convictions are based on false confession. A cracked egg does not mean the egg was bad before.