Political Parties in Japan: 1874-1998

Most part of this page is an excerpt from Japan: A Pocket Guide, 1996 Edition , pp.12-18 (Foreign Press Center). Additional notes were written around 1998 by MK. Japanese political situation has been dynamically changed since then.

The first political party to emerge in Japan was the Aikoku Koto (Public Party of Patriots), formed in 1874 under the leadership of Taisuke Itagaki. The party presented a written petition advocating the establishment of a parliamentary system through public elections.

In 1898 a cabinet was formed by the leader of a party for the first time, inaugurating the system of party cabinets. But genro, or elder statesmen, although lacking any constitutional authority, exerted a decisive influence in determining transfers of power, and it was not until after World War II that true party cabinets began to be formed. Currently Japanese political alignments are undergoing a vigorous transition that has resulted in the emergence of a number of new parties. The following traces the development of the main parties.

The Liberal Democratic Party

The Liberal Democratic Party, the biggest political party, is a conservative force. The party regards the protection of liberty, human rights, democracy, and the parliamentary system as its fundamental mission. The LDP was formed in November 1955 through the merger of two conservative parties founded after World War II and continued to govern without a break until August 1993.

1958 - 76

The LDP garnered 57.8% of the votes in the House of Representatives election of 1958, thus securing 287 seats. In the following election in 1960, the party took 296 seats. However, both the proportion of the popular vote and number of seats won by the LDP saw an extended period of decline in the following years. In June 1976 six LDP Diet members left the party to form the New Liberal Club.

1976 - 83

In the lower house election of December 1976, the LDP won only 41.8% of the popular vote and gained only 249 seats, less than the 256 required for a majority; this was the first time the party did not achieve a majority in the lower house. In the next election, in 1979, the LDP won only 248 seats. In both cases the LDP was able to achieve a slender majority in the house when several unaffiliated lower house members joined the party. In 1980 the party recovered its majority, winning 284 seats, but it suffered another setback in 1983, when it gained only 250. As a result, the second Nakasone cabinet was formed as a coalition government comprising the LDP and the New Liberal Club.

1986 - 92

In a major turnaround the LDP won a landslide victory in the simultaneous elections for the upper and lower houses held in July 1986;the party took 300 seats in the House of Representatives and 72 of the 126 seats up for election in the House of Councillors. Both figures represented the largest number of seats the party had ever won. In August the key members of the New Liberal Club rejoined the LDP. On the strength of its secure majority in the Diet, the LDP introduced an across-the-board consumption tax in April 1989. However, this tax and the so-called Recruit scandal, which had surfaced in the summer of 1988, were to be the cause of a major reverse for the party. In the July 1989 House of Councillors election the LDP won only 36 seats, giving the party a total of 109 seats, far short of the 127 required for a majority in the upper house. The party did maintain a stable majority in the House of Representatives in the election of February 1990, winning 275 seats. Without a majority in both houses, however, the LDP found it more difficult to manage the Diet. In the July 1992 House of Councillors election the LDP won 69 seats, giving the party a total of 108 seats. Thus, it still lacked a majority in the upper house.

1993 - 96

In June 1993 the opposition submitted a motion of nonconfidence in the cabinet on the grounds that then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa was unenthusiastic about political reform. This was passed with the support of some LDP members who favored reform, resulting in dissolution of the House of Representatives and a general election. Immediately thereafter, the LDP members who had voted for the motion of nonconfidence bolted the LDP and formed new parties. In the ensuing July election, the LDP gained only 223 seats, fewer than the 256 needed for a majority, thus bringing to an end the party's 38-year rule. The LDP returned to power in June 1994 as part of a coalition government formed with the Social Democratic Party of Japan and New Party Sakigake (Harbinger). LDP President Yohei Kono was installed as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. In the July 1995 upper house election the LDP won 49 seats for a total of 110. In September 1995 Ryutaro Hashimoto, then minister of international trade and industry, replaced Kono as president of the LDP, and in January 1996 Hashimoto became prime minister heading the three-party coalition administration after the coalition cabinet of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama resigned.

The Social Democratic Party

The Social Democratic Party (called in English the Japan Socialist Party until February 1991 and then the Social Democratic Party of Japan until January 1996) was originally formed in November 1945 through the merger of various prewar proletarian parties. A socialist-led coalition government ruled between May 1947 and March 1948. In its party convention in January 1986 the SDP abandoned the platform adopted in 1955, which was strongly influenced by Marxism-Leninism. In its new declaration the party stated that it was changing to a policy line like that of the social democratic parties of Western Europe and presented to the people a "new socialist party." There was still disagreement within the party over the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and nuclear power, however, and the SDP has maintained its official foreign policy stance of unarmed neutrality.

The LDP's woes and the popularity of then SDP Chairwoman Takako Doi helped the socialists make substantial gains in the Diet in 1989 and 1990. (Doi was the first woman in Japanese history to hold the highest post of a major political party and also later became the first female lower house speaker.) In the House of Councillors election of July 1989 the SDP took 46 seats, 10 more than the LDP, giving the party a total of 66 upper house seats. In the February 1990 lower house election the party gained 53 seats for a total of 136. In the 1992 upper house election, however, the SDP won only 22 seats, just enough to maintain its status quo, giving the party 71 seats in total. And in the July 1993 lower house election the SDP had only 70 winning candidates, halving the number of seats it had held before the election.

Nonetheless, the SDP was the top party in the coalition government that ousted the LDP, providing the administration with a number of cabinet ministers. When a new administration was formed in April 1994, policy differences with the other coalition parties over the tax system, foreign relations, and other matters caused the SDP to leave the coalition and return to the opposition. But then a new coalition of the SDP, LDP, and Sakigake came to power in June 1994, and SDP Chairman Murayama became Japan's first socialist prime minister in 47 years. In September 1994 the SDP extensively overhauled its basic platform, deciding on new policies, including acceptance of the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces, support for the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, and approval of already operating nuclear-power facilities. In the July 199S upper house election, however, the SDP gained only 16 seats drastically cutting its total to just 38.

New Party Sakigake

New Party Sakigake (Harbinger) was formed in June 1993 by 10 breakaway LDP lower house members led by Masayoshi Takemura. It won 13 seats in the 1993 lower house election and joined in the ensuing coalition government, with Takemura installed as chief cabinet secretary. When the administration subsequently changed hands, Sakigake refused a cabinet post, withdrawing to a position of cooperation without cabinet representation. In June 1994, however, it returned to power as part of a coalition established with the LDP and SDP, with Takemura taking office as finance minister. Sakigake gained three seats in the July 1995 upper house election.

The New Frontier Party

The New Frontier Party (Shinshinto) was formed in December 1994 by a merger of the Japan Renewal Party, Komeito (Clean Government Party), Japan New Party, the Democratic Socialist Party, and other parties (excluding the Japanese Communist Party) outside the three-party ruling coalition of the LDP, SDP, and Sakigake. In the July 1995 upper house election the NFP gained 40 seats for a total of 56. Together with its 170 seats in the lower house, this made the NFP the second most powerful party after the LDP in both chambers. Former LDP Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa assumed leadership of the party in December 1995. The following is a description of the four main parties that disbanded to form the NFP.

The Japan Renewal Party (Shinseito) was formed under the leadership of Tsutomu Hata in June 1993, when 44 LDP members who sought political reform broke with the party. In the lower house election the following month, the JRP won 55 seats, making it the third largest party in the House of Representatives. It played a central role in the establishment of the coalition government that ended almost four decades of LDP rule, and Hata took office as deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs. When a new administration was later formed, Hata became prime minister. However, the secession of the SDP from the ruling coalition deprived the Hata administration of a parliamentary majority. In June 1994, faced with the adoption of a nonconfidence motion submitted by the LDP in a plenary session of the House of Representatives, the cabinet resigned, and the JRP withdrew to the opposition.

Komeito was formed in November 1964, originally as the political arm of the Soka Gakkai, a lay religious organization affiliated with the Nichiren Shoshu sect of Buddhism. In 1970 the party officially announced its separation of politics and religion. Its aims included the construction of a welfare society. Komeito won 45 seats in the lower house election of February 1990, resulting in a net loss of 10 seats. In the 1992 upper house election, however, Komeito won 14 seats, four more seats than before. In the 1993 Iower house election it regained six seats, bringing its total to 51. As the third largest party in the first coalition government, Komeito held a number of cabinet posts, and it remained part of the second coalition government, established the following year. It returned to the opposition when the cabinet resigned in June 1994.

The Japan New Party was formed in May 1992 by Morihiro Hosokawa, a former governor of Kumamoto Prefecture, who declared his intention to overturn the existing administration. In the House of Councillors election held in July that year, only two months after the JNP's inception, the party won four seats, and in the 1993 House of Representatives election it gained 35. Hosokawa subsequently became prime minister of the first coalition government and succeeded in getting a package of political reform bills passed, but he stepped down in April 1994 to take responsibility for throwing Diet deliberations into confusion due to questionable loans he had received from private corporations. The JNP continued to play a role in the coalition government that followed Hosokawa's resignation but withdrew into the opposition when the cabinet resigned in June 1994.

The Democratic Socialist Party was formed in January 1960 by a group that had bolted from the then JSP the previous year. The DSP had virtually the same views on foreign policy and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty as the LDP. The DSP won 14 seats in the lower house election of February 1990, for a net loss of 12 seats. In the 1992 upper house election the DSP won only four additional seats, for a net loss of one seat and a total of seven. In the 1993 House of Representatives election it won 15 seats, for a net increase of two. It participated in the first two coalition governments, but with the turnover in June 1994 it once again became an opposition party.

The Japanese Communist Party

The Japanese Communist Party, meanwhile, was founded as an underground political association in July 1922. It emerged as a legal party after the war. The JCP won 16 seats in the lower house election of February 1990, resulting in a net loss of 11 seats. In the 1992 upper house election the JCP won only six additional seats, for a net loss of three seats and a total of 11 . In the 1993 lower house election it lost another seat and had only 15 winning candidates. In the July 199S upper house election the JCP won eight seats for a total of 14.

Other Parties

Various small parties have appeared. They include the following: the Komei (the rump Komeito), which supports 11 former Komeito upper house members who did not take part in the establishment of the NFP; the Citizens Action League (five lower house members), formed in December 1995 by members of the former Japan New Party and SDP; the Shin-Shakaito (two House of Representatives and three House of Councillors members), formed by former SDP members in January 1996; and the Liberal League, founded in December 1995 and linking with the LDP as a parliamentary group; it has two members in each chamber.

(July 1, 1996)

The Democratic Party of Japan

The newly formed Minshuto (the Democratic Party of Japan) was launched on September 28, 1996, uniting 57 dissenters from other parties into Japan's third-largest political party. Although the party is jointly run by Hatoyama and Kan, Hatoyama is in practice serve as party head and Kan as secretary general, according to party members. The inaugural convention was attended by 52 House of Representatives members and five House of Councillors members, making the party the third-largest after the Liberal Democratic Party and Shinshinto (New Frontier Party).
Many Minshuto members are liberal renegades from the Social Democratic Party, Sakigake and the parliamentary group Citizens Action League.

(September 30, 1996)

'96 General Election

General election on October 20, 1996, the first one since the introduction of new single member - proportional combination systems, resulted in the victory of LDP. NFP went back, DPJ (Minshuto) kept its seats, JCP nearly double, SDP and Sakigake disaster. LDP seeks to continue its coalition with SDP and Sakigake, at least at this moment.
Its 59.65 % voting rate was the poorest in Japan's postwar Lower House election history.

  Seats of each party before/after the election
          LDP  NFP  DPJ  JCP  SDP  Sakigake  Others
  After   239  156   52   26   15         2      10
  Before  211  160   52   15   30         9      34

The Taiyo Party

On December 26, 1996, former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata and 12 Diet members resigned from Shinshinto (New Frontier Party) and announced the formation of their own political party, Taiyoto (The Taiyo Party). Taiyo means sun in Japanese.
The party merged with DPJ in March 1998.

LDP challenges majority in Lower House

After 96 general election, LDP formed cabinet alone (without coalition), and has approached independent (and other party) members to join the party. As of Feb. 7, 1997, LDP has 241 seats (excluding chairman). Since Lower House quorum is 500, LDP is managed to pass bills with help of SDP (15 seats) and Sakigake (2). It expects to get 5 from independents and 4 from Group 21 so that it reaches 250, majority in the House, and is also looking some former LDP members back from NFP or other parties. It seeks alliance in two ways: one with SDP and Sakigake (and DPJ), the other with NFP (so called Ho-Ho rengo, or conservative-conservative alliance).

(February 11, 1997)

And it finally reached majority in Lower House, surprisingly without any election, by recruiting diet members from other parties. Actually, 12 Japanese politicians have betrayed voters decision so easily. Sigh...

(September 6, 1997)

Shinshinto disbanded

Shinshinto announced to disband on Dec. 25, and six new parties will be launched in early January.

More than 30 of the 45 Lower House members of Shinshinto who once belonged to the now-defunct Komeito, which was supported by Japan's largest Buddhist lay organization, Soka Gakkai, will form a new party, it was decided Monday. About 20 Shinshinto members who once belonged to the now-defunct Democratic Socialist Party meanwhile announced they are forming Shinto Yuai, or New Party Fraternity.

The other three parties expected to emerge include one made up of lawmakers loyal to Shinshinto head Ichiro Ozawa, one composed of supporters of his rival, Michihiko Kano, and a party to be set up by Upper House members who belonged to the former Komeito.

The new political groupings largely mirror the old and ideologically diverse forces that banded together in December 1994 as a challenge to the dominant LDP. Because the political situation is now so fluid, more parties may be formed by Shinshinto members, sources said.

(The Japan Times, December 29, 1997)

Small parties merge with DPJ

On March 12, 1998, three post-Shinshinto parties agreed to merge with DPJ that will become the second-largest force after the Liberal Democratic Party.

Minseito (Good Governance Party), Shinto Yuai (Amity Party) and the Democratic Reform Party will effectively be merged into the Democratic Party of Japan, which is the largest opposition party, to rival the powerful LDP in this summer's Upper House election.

The new DPJ, which will have a total of 139 members -- the combined force of the four parties plus three independents -- in both chambers of the Diet, is to be officially launched in late April or early May, according to party sources. The four parties will now start working out their policy agenda and select a leader who would serve as their joint candidate for the post of prime minister. DPJ leader Naoto Kan, who claims strong popular support, is considered the most likely candidate.

(The Japan Times, March 12, 1998)

'98 Upper House Election

With strong rejection to its fatal economic misgovernment from voters, LDP suffered crushing defeat. The LDP gained only 44 seats in the July 12 election, 17 fewer than the 61 it had up for grabs. The result was a far cry from the 69 seats the party needed to secure a majority in the chamber.

Minshuto (DPJ) won 27 and JCP reached 15, showing strong support from angry voters.

Voter turnout was 58.84 percent and higher than the previous upper chamber election in every constituency, especially in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka. In Osaka, for instance, 21 percent more voters cast ballots than in the last Upper House vote.

(July 14, 1998)