Principal Government Officials
Chief of State: Emperor Akihito
Head of Government: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Japan is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government. There is universal adult suffrage with a secret ballot for all elective offices. Sovereignty, previously embodied in the emperor, is vested in the Japanese people, and the Emperor is defined as the symbol of the state.
Japan's government is a parliamentary democracy, with a House of Representatives (also known as the Lower House) and a House of Councillors (sometimes called the Upper House). Executive power is vested in a cabinet composed of a prime minister and ministers of state, all of whom must be civilians. 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 judiciary is independent.
The seven major political parties represented in the National Diet are the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the People’s New Party (PNP), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the New Komeito Party (NK), the Japan Communist Party (JCP), and Your Party (YP).
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 includes a bill of rights similar to the U.S. 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.
Japan does not have a federal system, and its 47 prefectures are not sovereign entities in the sense that U.S. states are. Most depend on the central government for subsidies. Governors of prefectures, mayors of municipalities, and prefectural and municipal assembly members are popularly elected to 4-year terms.
Recent Political Developments
The post-World War II years saw tremendous economic growth in Japan, with the political system dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party until 1993. In August 2009 the Democratic Party of Japan gained a majority in the more-powerful lower house--to go with its leading coalition in the upper house--resulting in the first non-LDP Prime Minister in postwar history. DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned in June 2010 due to lingering public discontent over a political finance scandal. Minister of Finance Naoto Kan was sworn in as the new Prime Minister on June 8, 2010 and later won a September 14, 2010 intra-party DPJ presidential election against former DPJ Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa. The DPJ lost its upper house coalition majority in July 2010, creating the current “twisted Diet” in which the two houses of parliament are led by opposing political parties.
After a short reprieve following the March 2011 earthquake, Prime Minister Kan’s popularity continued a downward trend, and he resigned in August 2011. In an internal election, the DPJ selected former Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda as party leader. A fiscal hawk, Noda won the election by a margin of 38 votes, 215 to 177, and was attested Prime Minister by the Emperor on September 2, 2011. Prime Minister Noda has focused on “ittai kaikaku,” or integrated reform that combines fiscal austerity with an increase in consumption tax.
Japan is the world's third-largest economy and a major economic power both in Asia and globally. Japan has diplomatic relations with nearly all independent nations and has been an active member of the United Nations since 1956. Japanese foreign policy has aimed to promote peace and prosperity for the Japanese people by working closely with the West and supporting the United Nations.
In recent years, the Japanese public has shown a substantially greater awareness of security issues and increasing support for the Self Defense Forces. This is in part due to the Self Defense Forces' success in disaster relief, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; its participation in peacekeeping operations in Cambodia in the early 1990s and reconstruction/stabilization efforts in Iraq in 2003-2008; and its response to Japan’s 2011 Tohoku disaster. However, there are still significant political and psychological constraints on strengthening Japan's security profile. Although a military role for Japan in international affairs is highly constrained by its constitution and government policy, Japanese cooperation with the United States through the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty has been important to the peace and stability of East Asia. In recent years, there have been domestic discussions about possible reinterpretation or revision of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. All postwar Japanese governments have relied on a close relationship with the United States as the foundation of their foreign policy and have depended on the Mutual Security Treaty for strategic protection.
While maintaining its relationship with the United States, Japan has diversified and expanded its ties with other nations. Good relations with its neighbors continue to be of vital interest. After the signing of a peace and friendship treaty with China in 1978, ties between the two countries developed rapidly. Japan extended significant economic assistance to the Chinese in various modernization projects and supported Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Chinese President Hu Jintao's May 2008 visit to Tokyo, and subsequent high-level exchanges, have helped improve relations with China. In recent years, however, Chinese exploitation of gas fields in the East China Sea has raised Japanese concerns given disagreement over the demarcation of their maritime boundaries. A long-running boundary dispute among Japan, China, and Taiwan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu Tai) Islands also continues. After a Chinese trawler collided with a Japanese ship in September 2010, Japan detained the Chinese skipper for more than 2 weeks, causing a strain in Japan-China relations. Japan maintains economic and cultural but not diplomatic relations with Taiwan; they have a thriving bilateral trade relationship.
A surprise visit by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Pyongyang, North Korea on September 17, 2002, resulted in renewed discussions on contentious bilateral issues--especially Japanese citizens' abductions to North Korea--and Japan's agreement to resume normalization talks in the near future. In October 2002, five abductees returned to Japan, but soon after negotiations reached a stalemate over the fate of abductees' families in North Korea. Japan's economic and commercial ties with North Korea plummeted following Kim Jong-il's 2002 admission that D.P.R.K. agents abducted Japanese citizens. Japan strongly supported the United States in its efforts to encourage Pyongyang to abide by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 2006, Japan responded to North Korea's July missile launches and October nuclear test by imposing sanctions and working with the United Nations Security Council. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea closely coordinate and consult trilaterally on policy toward North Korea, and Japan participates in the Six-Party Talks to end North Korea's nuclear arms ambitions. Japan and North Korea reached an agreement in August 2008 in which Pyongyang promised to reinvestigate abduction cases. However, the D.P.R.K. has failed to implement the agreement. Continued North Korean missile tests and bellicose language is viewed with serious concern in Japan.
In recent years, Japan and the Republic of Korea have stepped up high-level diplomatic activity and coordination, resulting in an improved tone in their relationship. However, historical differences, including territorial disputes involving the Liancourt Rocks and Japan’s role in Korea during World War II, complicate Japan's political relations with South Korea despite growing economic and cultural ties.
Japan's relations with Russia are hampered by the two sides' inability to resolve their territorial dispute over the islands that make up the Northern Territories (Southern Kuriles) seized by the U.S.S.R. at the end of World War II. The stalemate over territorial issues has prevented conclusion of a peace treaty formally ending the war between Japan and Russia. The United States recognizes Japanese sovereignty over the islands. During his initial meeting with Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev in September 2009, DPJ Prime Minister Hatoyama said he wanted to resolve the issue and sign a peace treaty, but it has not come to fruition. This remains the position of the DPJ government. Despite the lack of progress in resolving the Northern Territories and other disputes, Japan and Russia continue to develop other aspects of the overall relationship, including two large, multi-billion dollar oil-natural gas consortium projects on Sakhalin Island.
Japan has pursued a more active foreign policy in recent years, recognizing the responsibility that accompanies its economic strength, and has expanded ties with the Middle East, which provides most of its oil. In 2006, Japan's Ground Self Defense Force completed a successful 2-year mission in Iraq. The Air Self-Defense Force's (ASDF) airlift support mission in Iraq formally ended in December 2008. In January 2010, the Diet also ended the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law that allowed for Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force refueling activities in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in the Indian Ocean. Since 2009, Japan has been an active partner in international counter-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa.
Japan increasingly is active in Africa and Latin America--concluding negotiations with Mexico, Chile, and Peru on Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs)--and has extended significant support to development projects in both regions. Japan's economic engagement with its neighbors is increasing, as evidenced by the conclusion of EPAs with Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, and India.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (March 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( March 2012)