Everything You Need to Know About Japan’s General Election

Everything You Need to Know About Japan’s General Election

What you need to know

Japan’s general election is arriving just after the likely accession of a new Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida. But there’s much more going on this year.

Q1: What’s going on with the Japanese general election?

Japan’s legislature, known as the National Diet, is composed of an upper and lower chamber. The general election is for the lower chamber, the House of Representatives. The party that holds a majority in the House of Representatives chooses the Prime Minister. Since 1955, with two relatively brief exceptions, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power in Japan.

Q2: How often does the House of Representatives hold elections? When is election day?

Members of the House of Representatives are elected to terms of four years, but the Prime Minister has the right to dissolve the House and call a snap election at any time. Snap elections have been the norm in Japanese politics. But this general election, scheduled to be held on October 31, is the first under the post war constitution to occur after the completion of a full parliamentary term, and only the second to be held that is not a snap election.

Q3: How many seats are there in the House of Representatives?

The House of Representatives has 465 members, with 233 seats required for a majority.

Q4: Who is eligible to vote?

list: Japanese citizens over 18 years old.| There are approximately 100 million people eligible to vote.

Q5: What is the significance of the red Daruma?

The red dolls, called “Daruma,” represent Bodhidharma, the transmitter of Buddhism to China. They function as good luck charms in many situations, but they are a major presence in political culture. Candidates and their supporters will draw Daruma’s left eye on the doll while making a wish, and if their wish is fulfilled, the right eye is added.

You probably know that the general election is arriving just after the likely accession of a new Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida. But there’s much more going on this year. Let’s follow the Daruma doll to trace the various stories surrounding the Japanese election.

Hokkaido: A bastion of social democracy

* Hokkaido is a traditional bastion of the left in Japan, mostly due to its class composition of civil servants, railway employees, and coal miners. There is active labor union membership, especially represented by the “All-Japan Self-Government Labor Association.”

* Since 1955, the Japan Socialist Party, mobilized by groups of educators, miners, and railway workers, has been performing well in elections of Hokkaido. Despite the party’s sluggishness at a national level, Takahiro Yokomichi (横路 孝弘), who was elected Governor of Hokkaido in 1983, maintained the influence of the left and labor unions there.

* Leftist parties have a solid base in Hokkaido. When Junichiro Koizumi (of the conservative LDP) dissolved the lower house after his postal privatization bills were rejected by the upper house in 2005 and won a supermajority, the Democratic Party of Japan (minshuto) gained eight out of 12 seats in Hokkaido — hence its reputation as “the kingdom of democracy” in Japan.

* But the Democratic Party of Japan collapsed in 2012. Since then, the dynamics of party politics have changed drastically, especially when the long-time governing LDP won two seats in Hokkaido, the best track record since 1983.

Iwate: Home of Ichiro Ozawa, the “Shadow Shōgun”

* Ichiro Ozawa (小沢 一郎), from Iwate Prefecture, is a figure representative of the politicians in Japan. In 1969, he took on the mantle of his father’s seat in the parliament at the age of 27. He has been elected a Representative for 17 times since then and is seeking reelection this year.

* Ozawa started off his career at the LDP, but he has been standing up against the party since the 1990s. In the modern history of Japanese politics, he has been known for removing Kiichi Miyazawa (宮澤 喜一), an LDP Representative since 1967, from his position as the prime minister in 1993.

* Ozawa, along with Tsutomu Hata (羽田 孜), another powerful Representative within the LDP, pushed for a no-confidence vote against Miyazawa. Representatives in both the Ozawa and Hata fractions in the party either cast the vote or simply did not show up for the session, which caused Cabinet dissolution.

* In the same year, the LDP lost the majority in the Diet. Morihiro Hosokawa (細川 護煕), the first non-LDP prime minister since WWII, formed a coalition government with 8 parties. Ozawa’s move to challenge Miyazawa thus made him an important figure that changed the course of politics in modern Japan. But he has never been elected the prime minister himself, with his influence in the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan waning.

Gunma: A center of dynastic politics

* In Japan’s general elections, a group of candidates often catch the most attention: the second-generation diet members, or nisei. They tend to run for the seat previously held by their father or grandfather and mobilize the same group of voters to win the race.

* Supporting hereditary candidates serves the interests of both the voters and the local political class. They enjoy a sense of familiarity from the voters and allow the koenkai, local support organizations for individual politicians, to live on and preserve their link to the diet. Gunma is one of the prefectures where hereditary politicians reign supreme.

* Takeo Fukuda (福田 赳夫) was elected to the House of Representatives representing Gunma’s 3rd district in 1952 and his son inherited the seat in 1990. In the general election in 1996, the first with the electoral reform of 1994 in place, Yasuo Fukuda (福田 康夫) won a seat again, representing Gunma’s 4th district, and in 2012, he passed it on to his son Tatsuo (福田 達夫). The Fukuda family has been occupying a single-member seat in Gunma for almost six decades.

* Keizo Obuchi (小渕 恵三), the former prime minister, is another case in point. He was elected to a seat representing Gunma’s 3rd district in 1963. After Keizo died from stroke in 2000, his daughter Yuko (小渕 優子) won a seat representing Gunma’s 5th district and is a diet member until today.

* Another former prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone (中曽根 康弘), is a Gunma native, too. He started his term at the House of Representatives in 1947 and won reelection in 1986, when his son Hirofumi (中曽根 弘文) was elected as Senator. Since 1996, Yasuhiro Nakasone had remained in the LDP’s party list for two elections. He passed away in 2019, but his son has served as Senator until today.

Tokyo: The stronghold of Yuriko Koike, the “Queen” of Tokyo

* In Japan's male-dominated politics, there is no one like the Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. She was elected to the House of Councilors in 1992 as a member of the short-lived Japan New Party and joined the LDP in 2002. In the following year, she joined the Second Koizumi Cabinet (2003-2005) as the Minister of the Environment.

* Born in Hyogo, Koike was known as one of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s “assassins'' in the 2005 election, running in Tokyo against an LDP candidate who opposed Koizumi's policy to privatize postal services.

* In 2016, Koike decided to run for the governor of Tokyo despite not being appointed by the governing LDP. She won the election in a landslide and became Tokyo’s first female governor.

* In 2017, Koike left the LDP and founded the Tokyoites First Party. She started to train potential candidates in her “Academy of Hope” for the upcoming election for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. The party, joining forces with the Komeito, later secured a major victory in the election, with the LDP winning the fewest seats ever in Tokyo.

* In the same year, Koike founded the Party of Hope based on the Tokyoites First Party for the upcoming general election. The party formed a coalition with the conservative wing of the now-dissolved Democratic Party, the largest opposition party at the time, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s governing coalition managed to hold on to a two-thirds supermajority in the Diet.

* Despite the failure to challenge the Abe government, Koike won by a landslide in an election for the second term as the governor. She has garnered popular support for her management of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the LDP’s tacit approval is a factor for her success. The ruling party neither nominated a candidate nor supported a candidate against her for the gubernatorial election.

* In the face of the pandemic and the Olympic Games, Koike’s moves are sure to affect how the LDP performs in Tokyo during the general election.

Kanagawa: Home of Shinjiro Koizumi, a rising star in the LDP

* Junichiro Koizumi, the former prime minister native to Kanagawa, had shaken up Japan’s political landscape dominated by conservative voices.

* He is an outlier in the conservative LDP, with politicians calling him “weirdo.” In 2001, Koizumi came to power with his pledge to “destroy the LDP,” starting his five-year stint as Japan’s Prime Minister after being elected as the President of his party.

* Koizumi’s unconventional approach to politics made him a name as a leader. In 2005, he dissolved the lower house and called for snap elections after his postal privatization bills were rejected by the upper house. He also expelled LDP members who didn’t support his policy. These members tried to run as independent candidates, but voters ended up giving the LDP and its partner Komeito a supermajority in the Diet.

* In 2006, Koizumi stepped down as the LDP President and the Prime Minister. He retained his seat in the Diet until 2009, when his son Shinjiro was elected to the same seat to represent the 11th District of Kanagawa. Shinjiro Koizumi, inheriting substantial political capital from his father, has become a rising star in the LDP, pulling ahead in polls as a potential candidate for the Prime Minister.

* In 2019, Shinjiro Koizumi joined the Abe Cabinet as the Minister of the Environment at the age of 38. As a young member of the government, he has plenty of opportunities to pick up experience and prove himself an able politician.

* Is the DLP rising star going to revolutionize Japanese politics as his father did? Perhaps in the foreseeable future, we will have an opportunity to see him turn a new page.

Osaka: Not quite a “metropolis”

* For the past decade, Toru Hashimoto (橋下 徹) has shaken up Japan’s staid political scene. He was elected as the Governor of Osaka Prefecture in 2008 and has been calling for a transformation of Osaka Prefecture into a metropolis on par with Tokyo.

* With his popularity, Hashimoto founded the Osaka Restoration Association (大阪維新の会) in 2010, which has dominated Osaka’s political scene with a strong presence in local assemblies. In 2011, he resigned as the governor before finishing the term to run for mayor of Osaka City against a candidate who opposed the Osaka Metropolis Plan. He was later elected as mayor and his ally Ichiro Matsui (松井 一郎) succeeded him as governor.

* In 2012, Hashimoto and Shintaro Ishihara (石原 慎太郎), leader of the conservative Sunrise Party, merged their parties to form the Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会), and won 54 seats in the lower house, just 3 seats less than second largest Democratic Party of Japan. However, the two parties split in two years due to internal differences.

* A turning point emerged in 2015, when the Osaka Metropolis Plan was rejected by a slim margin in a referendum. Hashimoto announced he will resign and never run for public office again, with his agenda taken over by Matsui and Hirofumi Yoshimura, the next mayor of Osaka City.

* But the Osaka Restoration Association’s debacle came in 2020, when the city voted down the plan by a narrow margin in the second referendum. In response, Matsu would retire from politics after finishing his term as the governor and Yoshimura said he will no longer seek to push the plan forward.

* Despite its influence on local politics, what does the Osaka Restoration Association have on its political agenda after the Osaka Metropolis Plan was brought to an end? Does the party stand a chance to keep the remaining seats in the lower house?

Fukuoka: Where Komeito, a Buddhist party, prevails

* Since 2012, when the LDP came to power again, the party has had at least a 60% majority in the Diet. But it has never formed the Cabinet without the buddhist party Komeito. The LDP-led coalition would often take two-thirds of the seats in the Diet.

* Behind the Komeito is the new religious movement Soka Gakkai, which follows the tenets of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect. The Komeito’s supporters are mostly members of the movement, and they support the party for religious, not ideological reasons. It’s a stable voter base whose decision isn’t swayed by external factors.

* In the past four elections, the Komeito received 11% to 13% votes on average. It had eight million party list votes at its worst days in 2009 when the LDP-Komeito coalition handed their control of the government to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. In 2017, it obtained 17.3% party list votes in Fukuoka Prefecture, the most among all electoral districts.

* Similar to Taiwan, Japan uses a semi-proportional mixed system to elect members of the lower house. Around 60% of members are elected from single-seat constituencies and the rest elected by the party-list system of proportional representation in 11 regional blocs. In some single-seat constituencies, the LDP would not nominate any candidate to allow the Komeito to secure a victory. In 2017, for example, the Komeito received 1.5% votes from single-seat constituencies and won 8 seats, while the Communist Party won 9.02% but won just one seat.

* To sum it up, with the LDP’s help in single-seat constituencies and its own capacity to mobilize supporters, the Komeito became the third biggest party in the Diet following the 2017 election.

* The Komeito’s voter base is why the LDP is willing to share its power. If the two parties don’t cooperate, both will have a lot to lose. In this sense, the Komeito is a necessary partner for the LDP to stay in the government.

Okinawa: Will the Japanese Communist Party defend its seat?

* The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) is a leftist force in Japan that remained in opposition no matter which party took power. The party has never had a presence in the governing coalition.

* Founded in 1922, the JCP was legalized in 1945 and allowed to participate in the general election for the first time in 1946, when the party won five seats in the lower house. It made a record in 1979, winning 39 seats, after a long process of reorganization and soul-searching.

* During the 1980s, the wave of anti-communist sentiments threatened the existence of the JCP. The party started to actively engage with anti-nuclear organizations, trade unions, and other social groups. The 1993 election left the JCP with just 15 seats, but an opportunity soon came after the crisis. In 1994, the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) decided to form a coalition government with the conservative LDP, leading to an exodus of leftist voters to the JCP in the upcoming 1996 election.

* The JCP has kept a solid foothold by establishing a sizable presence in prefectural legislatures, despite being excluded from the Democratic Party of Japan, which was a coalition of anti-LDP parties, again in 1998.

* In 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan’s victory in parliamentary elections led to the first real transfer of power in the post war era, the JCP was still an opposition party, but it later won 21 seats, including 20 at-large seats in 2014, having secured votes from those who were disappointed by the two main parties.

* The JCP made a record in the 2014 elections, when Seiken Akamine (赤嶺 政賢) won a seat in the first electrical district of Okinawa. It was after 18 years did the party win a seat in a single-seat constituency.

Bodhidharma culture

* Bodhidharma culture in Japan can be traced to the 12th century, in the Kamakura period. The Daruma doll in particular arose later, as a talisman to ward off disaster and win divine favor. The modern form of Daruma is associated with Takasaki, a city in Gunma Prefecture, where most Daruma dolls are produced — although different regions have their own variations and traditions.

* After the election results are released, the winning candidate typically paints Daruma’s right eye, in gratitude for a smooth and successful election.

Click Daruma’s right eye to continue!

On October 22, 2017, Japan held its 48th general election. Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won 313 seats out of 465 in the House of Representatives, securing a majority and Abe’s fourth term.

The results were a continuation of the post-2012 political order, with the opposition parties weak and in disarray. From the LDP’s return to power in 2012, no single opposition party has been able to win over 100 seats in the House.

In 2017, the high-profile governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike formed a hastedly constructed pact with the then-largest opposition party, the short lived Democratic Party (DP), to lead Kibō no Tō (The Party of Hope) in the general election. The conservative, nationalist character of Koike’s party caused liberal DP members to withdraw from the DP to form a new party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, headed by Yukio Edano. Edano’s party would surpass Koike’s in the election, becoming the second largest party in the House of Representative with 55 seats.

Since 2005, Japan’s ruling coalition has been composed of a two-thirds supermajority in the House, including the coalition formed by the Democratic Party in 2009.

The significance of the two-thirds supermajority is enshrined in Article 59 of Japan’s constitution. The House of Representatives can override votes in the upper chamber, the House of Councillors, with a two-thirds supermajority vote.

But most important is Article 96, which establishes the process for making constitutional amendments. The threshold for amending the constitution is a two-thirds majority agreement in each House, followed by a public referendum requiring a majority vote. On July 10, 2016, Shinzo Abe secured the necessary two-thirds majority in the upper chamber of the Diet to amend Article 9, the pacifist clause. But Abe was not able to realize his goal, blocked, among other political obstacles, by the Emperor Akihito’s announcement of his intention to abdicate during his lifetime.

Will a two-thirds supermajority in the House of Representatives continue? This is something we’ll be watching for in the general election.

Why do the Representatives shout “banzai” (an expression of celebration) when the House is dissolved?

To dissolve the House, all the representatives shout “banzai” three times, give a round of applause, and leave the venue after the Speaker reads a speech from the Emperor.

According to Japanese law, all the Representatives lose their jobs the moment the Speaker finishes their speech. The practice of “celebrating the job loss” has been performed since World War II, but the reason behind it remains unclear.

Electioneering is limited

Everything from the location, number, and size of campaign posters is limited. Campaign posters can only be displayed at a designated location and at the campaign office. The number of combined posters, “mobile billboards,” and banners combined cannot exceed three.

Candidates can only have one campaign car, and campaign workers must remain in the car while broadcasting support for the candidate.

Only candidates themselves are allowed to appear wearing arm and headbands with their name while delivering a speech outdoors. Balloon ads and electronic signs are also prohibited.

What’s the deal with handwritten ballots?

Ballots must be handwritten. If a voter’s handwriting is illegible or misspells a candidate’s name, their ballot may be invalidated.

But the vote counters are forgiving. A last name without a first name or vice-versa, hiragana (phonetic spelling), abbreviations, or even a nickname can work, as long as it’s clear to whom the voter is referring.

Because of the hand writing requirement, candidates with names that require many strokes to write will advertise their names using hiragana. Candidates with the same or similar names have to emphasize something distinct in their names for voters to indicate at the polls.

Second Lives

Japan had long banned candidates appearing on the ballot for multiple seats. But this law was reformed from 1994, to allow candidates to appear on the ballot in single-seat constituencies and as a proportional representative.

Election to single-seat constituencies take precedence. But it is possible for a candidate to lose in their constituency race but win as a proportional representative — achieving success on one’s second life.

Resurrections in Japanese elections are more common than you might expect. In the 1996 general election, the first election held with parallel voting in place, as many as 84 candidates lost the election in their single-seat constituency race but “resurrected” as proportional representatives. In the 2014 general election, there were nine candidates running in four electoral districts in Okinawa Prefecture. The five unsuccessful candidates were resurrected on the proportional representation race, meaning that all nine candidates in Okinawa were elected.

The Judicial Retention Election

The Supreme Court of Japan is composed of a Chief Justice and 14 Associate Justices. Associate Justices are both selected and appointed by the Cabinet but the Chief Justice is appointed by the Emperor. Supreme Court judges in Japan are subject to retention elections in the first general election after being appointed, and every ten years after appointment.

Voters receive ballots with the names of judges appointed in since the prior general election. To recall a judge, voters mark a cross in a circle beside the judge’s name on the ballot. If a majority votes to recall, the judge will be dismissed.

Though the system is designed as a check on the Cabinet’s power, no Supreme Court Judge has ever been recalled in this manner.

In fact, the closest a recall vote has come to passing is 15.7% (Takeso Shimoda in 1972).