The Imperial Household of Japan is headed by the Emperor of Japan. The Constitution of Japan defines the emperor to be "the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people." He performs ceremonial duties and holds no real power, not even emergency reserve powers. Power is held mainly by the Prime Minister and other elected members of the Diet. Sovereignty is vested in the Japanese people by the constitution. Though his official status is disputed, on diplomatic occasions the emperor tends to behave (with widespread public support, it should be noted) as though he were a head of state. Japan is the only country in the world headed by an emperor.
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda resigned as Japanese Prime Minister on 1 September 2008.
The executive branch reports to the Diet. The chief of the executive branch, the Prime Minister, is appointed by the Emperor as directed by the Diet. He must be a member of either house of the Diet and a civilian. The Cabinet, which he organizes, must also be civilian. Since the Liberal Democratic Party (the LDP) has been in power, it has been convention that the President of the LDP serves as prime minister. The Cabinet is composed of a Prime Minister and ministers of state, and is responsible to the Diet. The Prime Minister must be a member of the Diet, 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. The liberal conservative LDP has been in power since 1955, except for a short-lived coalition government formed from its opposition parties in 1993; the largest opposition party is the social liberal Democratic Party of Japan.
By the Constitution, the Diet is the most powerful of the three branches and consists of two houses; the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. The Diet directs the Emperor in the appointment and removal of the chiefs of the executive and judicial branches.
The LDP has been the dominant party for most of the post-war period since 1955, and is composed of several factions.
Japan's judicial system - drawn from customary law, civil law, and Anglo-American common law - consists of several levels of courts, with the Supreme Court as the final judicial authority. The Japanese constitution, drawn up on May 3, 1947 includes a bill of rights similar to the United States Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court has the right of judicial review. Japanese courts do not use a jury system, and there are no administrative courts or claims courts. Because of the judicial system's basis, court decisions are made in accordance with legal statutes. Only Supreme Court decisions have any direct effect on later interpretation of the law.
These shared educational backgrounds encourage a feeling of community, as is reflected in the finely meshed network of marriage alliances between top official and financial circle (zaikai) families. The institution of early retirement also fosters homogeneity. In the practice of amakudari, literally descent from heaven, as it is popularly known, bureaucrats retiring in their fifties often assume top positions in public corporations and private enterprise. They also become politicians. By the late 1980s, most postwar prime ministers had civil service backgrounds.
This homogeneity facilitates the free flow of ideas among members of the elite in informal settings. Bureaucrats and business people that are associated with a single industry, such as electronics, often hold regular informal meetings in Tokyo hotels and restaurants. Political scientist T.J. Pempel has pointed out that the concentration of political and economic power in Tokyo—particularly the small geographic area of its central wards—makes it easy for leaders, who are almost without exception denizens of the capital, to have repeated personal contact. Another often overlooked factor is the tendency of elite males not to be family men, even though they usually have wives and children. Late night work and bar-hopping schedules give them ample ways of doing this outstanding opportunity to hash and rehash policy matters and engage in haragei (literally, belly art), or intimate, often nonverbal communication. Comparable to the warriors of ancient Sparta, who lived in barracks apart from their families during much of their childhood and adulthood, the business and bureaucratic elites are expected to sacrifice their private lives for the national good.
The most important deliberation council during the 1980s was the Provisional Commission for Administrative Reform, established in March 1981 by Prime Minister Suzuki Zenko. The commission had nine members, assisted in their deliberations by six advisers, twenty-one "expert members," and around fifty "councillors" representing a wide range of groups. Its head, Keidanren president Doko Toshio, insisted that government agree to take its recommendations seriously and commit itself to reforming the administrative structure and the tax system. In 1982 the commission had arrived at several recommendations that by the end of the decade had been actualized. These implementations included tax reform; a policy to limit government growth; the establishment, in 1984, of the Management and Coordination Agency to replace the Administrative Management Agency in the Office of the Prime Minister; and privatization of the state-owned railroad and telephone systems. In April 1990, another deliberation council, the Election Systems Research Council, submitted proposals that included the establishment of single-seat constituencies in place of the multiple-seat system.
Another significant policy-making institution in the early 1990s was the LDP's Policy Research Council. It consisted of a number of committees, composed of LDP Diet members, with the committees corresponding to the different executive agencies. Committee members worked closely with their official counterparts, advancing the requests of their constituents, in one of the most effective means through which interest groups could state their case to the bureaucracy through the channel of the ruling party.
Political parties had begun to revive almost immediately after the occupation began. Left-wing organizations, such as the Japan Socialist Party and the Japanese Communist Party, quickly reestablished themselves, as did various conservative parties. The old Seiyokai and Rikken Minseito came back as, respectively, the Liberal Party (Nihon Jiyuto) and the Japan Progressive Party (Nihon Shimpoto). The first postwar elections were held in 1948 (women were given the franchise for the first time in 1947), and the Liberal Party's vice president, Yoshida Shigeru (1878-1967), became prime minister. For the 1947 elections, anti-Yoshida forces left the Liberal Party and joined forces with the Progressive Party to establish the new Democratic Party (Minshuto). This divisiveness in conservative ranks gave a plurality to the Japan Socialist Party, which was allowed to form a cabinet, which lasted less than a year. Thereafter, the socialist party steadily declined in its electoral successes. After a short period of Democratic Party administration, Yoshida returned in late 1948 and continued to serve as prime minister until 1954.
Even before Japan regained full sovereignty, the government had rehabilitated nearly 80,000 people who had been purged, many of whom returned to their former political and government positions. A debate over limitations on military spending and the sovereignty of the emperor ensued, contributing to the great reduction in the Liberal Party's majority in the first post-occupation elections (October 1952). After several reorganizations of the armed forces, in 1954 the Japan Self-Defense Forces were established under a civilian director. Cold War realities and the hot war in nearby Korea also contributed significantly to the United States-influenced economic redevelopment, the suppression of communism, and the discouragement of organized labor in Japan during this period.
Continual fragmentation of parties and a succession of minority governments led conservative forces to merge the Liberal Party (Jiyuto) with the Japan Democratic Party (Nihon Minshuto), an offshoot of the earlier Democratic Party, to form the Liberal Democratic Party (Jiyu-Minshuto; LDP) in November 1955. This party continuously held power from 1955 through 1993, when it was replaced by a new minority government. LDP leadership was drawn from the elite who had seen Japan through the defeat and occupation; it attracted former bureaucrats, local politicians, businessmen, journalists, other professionals, farmers, and university graduates. In October 1955, socialist groups reunited under the Japan Socialist Party, which emerged as the second most powerful political force. It was followed closely in popularity by the Komeito (Clean Government Party), founded in 1964 as the political arm of the Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society), until 1991 a lay organization affiliated with the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect. The Komeito emphasized traditional Japanese beliefs and attracted urban laborers, former rural residents, and many women. Like the Japan Socialist Party, it favored the gradual modification and dissolution of the Japan-United States Mutual Security Assistance Pact.
A coalition of new parties and existing opposition parties formed a governing majority and elected a new prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, in August 1993. His government's major legislative objective was political reform, consisting of a package of new political financing restrictions and major changes in the electoral system. The coalition succeeded in passing landmark political reform legislation in January 1994.
In April 1994, Prime Minister Hosokawa resigned. Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata formed the successor coalition government, Japan's first minority government in almost 40 years. Prime Minister Hata resigned less than two months later.
Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama formed the next government in June 1994, a coalition of his Japan Socialist Party (JSP), the LDP, and the small New Party Sakigake. The advent of a coalition containing the JSP and LDP shocked many observers because of their previously fierce rivalry.
Prime Minister Murayama served from June 1994 to January 1996. He was succeeded by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who served from January 1996 to July 1998. Prime Minister Hashimoto headed a loose coalition of three parties until the July 1998 Upper House election, when the two smaller parties cut ties with the LDP.
Hashimoto resigned due to a poor electoral showing by the LDP in those Upper House elections. He was succeeded as party president of the LDP and prime minister by Keizo Obuchi, who took office on July 30, 1998.
The LDP formed a governing coalition with the Liberal Party in January 1999, and Keizo Obuchi remained prime minister. The LDP-Liberal coalition expanded to include the New Komeito Party in October 1999.
Prime Minister Obuchi suffered a stroke in April 2000 and was replaced by Yoshiro Mori. After the Liberal Party left the coalition in April 2000, Prime Minister Mori welcomed a Liberal Party splinter group, the New Conservative Party, into the ruling coalition. The three-party coalition made up of the LDP, New Komeito, and the New Conservative Party maintained its majority in the Diet following the June 2000 Lower House elections.
After a turbulent year in office in which he saw his approval ratings plummet to the single digits, Prime Minister Mori agreed to hold early elections for the LDP presidency in order to improve his party's chances in crucial July 2001 Upper House elections. On April 24, 2001, riding a wave of grassroots desire for change, maverick politician Junichiro Koizumi defeated former Prime Minister Hashimoto and other party stalwarts on a platform of economic and political reform. Koizumi was elected as Japan's 87th Prime Minister on April 26, 2001.
On October 11, 2003, the Prime Minister Koizumi dissolved the lower house after he was re-elected as the president of the LDP. (See Japan general election, 2003) Likewise, that year, the LDP won the election, even though it suffered setbacks from the new opposition party, the liberal and social-democratic Democratic Party (DPJ). A similar event occurred during the 2004 Upper House Elections.
On August 8, 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called a snap election to the lower house, as threatened, after LDP stalwarts and opposition DPJ parliamentarians defeated his proposal for a large-scale reform and privatisation of Japan Post, which besides being Japan's state-owned postal monopoly is arguably the world's largest financial institution, with nearly 331 trillion yen of assets. The election was scheduled for September 11, 2005, and was won in a landslide by Junichiro Koizumi's LDP.
On February 16, 2006, DPJ member Hisayasu Nagata made false allegations that the son of LDP Secretary-General Tsutomu Takebe illicitly received money from the former president of Livedoor, Takafumi Horie. The only evidence for this allegation was an e-mail allegedly sent from Takafumi Horie to Tsutomu Takebe. The allegations were immediately contested, and on March 2, 2006, Nagata admitted that the e-mail was forged, but stated that he truly believed at the time of the allegation that the e-mail was real. This naturally led to the disgrace of the DPJ, and many party members resigned as a result, including Nagata and party president Seiji Maehira. As of April 5, 2006, Naoto Kan and Ichirō Ozawa were running for the party presidency.
On September 26, 2006 new LDP President Shinzo Abe was elected by a special session of the Diet to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as Prime Minister. He is Japan's youngest post-World War II prime minister and the first born after the war.
On November 4, 2007, main opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa announced his resignation from the post as party president, after controversy over an offer to the DPJ to join the ruling coalition in a grand coalition., but has since, with some embarrassment, rescinded his resignation.
On January 11, 2008, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda forced a bill allowing ships to continue a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of US-led operations in Afghanistan. To do so, PM Fukuda used the LDP's overwhelming majority in the Lower House to ignore a previous 'no-vote' of the opposition-controlled Upper House. This is the first time in 50 years that the Lower House has voted to ignore the opinion of the Upper House. Fukuda resigned suddenly on September 1, 2008, just a few weeks after reshuffling his cabinet.
On September 1, 2008, Fukuda's resignation was designed so that the LDP did not suffer a “power vacuum.” Fukuda's resignation will not necessarily trigger a general election, since the Liberal Democratic Party must choose a new leader and win the confidence of parliament's lower house to lead Japan's coalition government. It thus caused a leadership election within the LDP, and the winner would automatically serve as prime minister until the government dissolves parliament and calls a general election. Fukuda failed, however, to indicate its effectivity, but presumably until the Liberal Democratic Party chooses a new leader to put for parliamentary vote. General elections must be held by September, 2009. Taro Aso has to lead the LDP, since he was elected as the new party President on 22 September 2008 and on 24 September 2008, he was appointed the 92nd Prime Minister after the House of Representatives voted in his favor in the extraordinary session of the Diet.
Japan's current constitution prohibits the use of military forces to wage war against other countries. However, the government maintains "Self-Defense Forces" which include air, land and sea components. Japan's deployment of non-combat troops to Iraq marked the first overseas use of its military since World War II.
As an economic power, Japan is a member of the G8 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and has developed relations with ASEAN as a member of "ASEAN plus three" and the East Asia Summit. It is a major donor in international aid and development efforts, donating 0.19% of its Gross National Income in 2004.
Japan currently has territorial disputes with Russia over the Kuril Islands (Northern Territories), with South Korea over Liancourt Rocks (known as "Dokdo" in Korea, "Takeshima" in Japan), with China and Taiwan over the Senkaku Islands and with China over the status of Okinotorishima. These disputes are in part about the control of marine and natural resources, such as possible reserves of crude oil and natural gas.