Government and politics in Japan

Learn more about the government in Japan, including the main political parties and who can vote in national and local elections.

Japan government

Updated 15-5-2024

Politics (政治, seiji) might not be everyone’s favorite topic to talk about. In fact, it might be some of those subjects you’d rather avoid. However, the government (政府, seifu) plays a huge role in our daily lives – from the cost of living and what’s taught in schools to taxation and available healthcare.

So to help you familiarise yourself with the political system in Japan and understand what your rights are when living there, this article covers the following:

Government and political system in Japan

Japan (日本, Nihon/Nippon) is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy, similar to countries like the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom (UK).

Emperor Naruhito waves at the people during a traditional New Year's greetingin 2020 at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan.
The Japanese imperial family at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

The official Head of State – though largely ceremonial – is the Emperor of Japan, Naruhito (徳仁天皇, Naruhito Tenno), or His Majesty the Emperor (天皇陛下, Tenno Heika). The Japanese political system is based on its 1947 Constitution (日本国憲法, Nihon-koku Kempo), and is divided into executive, legislative, and judiciary branches.

Executive powerThe Japanese government (政府, seifu), which is the Cabinet Office (内閣府, Naikaku Fu), headed by the Prime Minister (内閣総理大臣, Naikaku Sori-Daijin)
Legislative powerThe Diet (国会, Kokkai), containing the upper House of Councillors (参議院, Sangi In) and the lower House of Representatives (衆議院, Shugi In)
Judiciary powerThe Supreme Court of Japan (最高裁判所, Saiko Saiban Sho) and lower courts

On a local level, there are two different tiers of government:

  • Prefectural government: There are 47 prefectures (都道府県, To Do Fu Ken) across Japan
  • Municipal government (市区町村, Shi Ku Cho Son): This is again subdivided into cities (市, shi), wards (区, ku), towns (町, machi or cho), and villages (村, mura or son). In 2023, there were 772 cities, 175 wards, 743 towns, and 189 villages.

Prefectures and municipalities are both of equal status. They work together in local administration and jurisdiction according to their share of responsibilities.

Globally, Japan ranks 16th out of 167 countries on the 2022 EIU Democracy Index. The country is classed as a ‘full democracy’ and scores high on political pluralism (9.17 out of 10) and civil liberties (9.12 out of 10). That said, political participation only receives a score of 6.67 out of 10.

Political history of Japan

Japan’s political history has been remarkably stable since the United States’ (US) nuclear attacks on Hiroshima (広島) and Nagasaki (長崎), which ended the Second World War (WWII) in 1945.

After the 1947 Constitution came into effect, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP – 自由民主党, Jiyu Minshu To or 自民党, Jimin To) has been the dominant political party. In fact, it has been the main governing party in all but six years since its creation in 1955.

Japan has experienced significant economic growth since the end of WWII. It is currently the third largest economy in the world after the US and China. The post-war years have also been characterized by Japan’s close political and economic relationship with the US. The latter viewed Japan as a key anti-communist ally in Asia during the Vietnam War and Cold War era.

The current Japanese Prime Minister

Currently in power is Kishida Fumio (岸田 文雄), the President of the LDP. He has been the Japanese Prime Minister (首相, Shusho) since 2021.

Smiling Prime Minister Minister Kishida Fumio during his 2023 visit to Rome, Italy. Roman Navy personnel in the background.
Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio during his 2023 visit to Rome (Photo: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

The LDP won a majority in the 2021 parliamentary elections and is currently (2023) well ahead in the political polls. The next election is projected to take place in 2025.

Main political parties in Japan

Liberal Democratic Party

The LDP has been the dominant political party in postwar Japan and has been in continuous government since 2012. Led by current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, the party is a blend of centrist conservatism and moderate Japanese nationalism.

Formed in 1955 from a merger of two previous conservative parties, the LDP has a fairly broad ‘catch-all’ appeal across Japan. Its ideology includes a stable welfare state, a liberal pro-business economy, and a moderate conservative stance on many social issues.

For example, it is more sympathetic towards LGBTQIA+ rights (の権利) than some other Japanese parties but it stops short of supporting same-sex marriage (同性婚, dosei kon).

The LDP currently rules with 118 out of 248 seats in the upper House of Councillors and 260 out of 465 seats in the lower House of Representatives.

Constitutional Democratic Party

The Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP – 立憲民主党, Rikken Minshu To) was formed in 2017 after splitting from the LDP. They stand on a moderate centrist liberal platform that combines a free market economy with policies such as:

The party has been led by Izumi Kenta (泉 健太) since 2021 and currently has 39 house councilors seats and 97 representative seats.

Japan Innovation Party

Another recently formed party that has made headway in the 2021 elections is the Japan Innovation Party (JIP – 日本維新の会, Nippon Ishin no Kai). This party was born in 2015 as a breakaway from the old Japan Innovation Party (維新の党, Ishin no To).

Seen as more socially and economically liberal than the LDP, the JIP combines neoliberal economic policies with a decentralized approach that favors a stronger regional government.

JIP member and Governor of Osaka Prefecture Yoshimura Hirofumi waves to voters from a an election campaign car during the 2021 official election party campaign in Osaka, Japan
The Governor of Osaka Prefecture, Yoshimura Hirofumi (吉村 洋文) waves to voters during the 2021 election in Osaka (Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

Its policies include:

  • A more deregulated labor market
  • The introduction of a universal basic income
  • The legalization of same-sex marriage

The party has also argued for changes to health insurance to include childbirth costs.

In the 2021 general election, the JIP broadened its appeal beyond its Kansai (関西) base to become the third-biggest parliamentary party. It currently has 21 seats in the House of Councillors and 40 seats in the House of Representatives. The party is led by Baba Nobuyuki (馬場 伸幸), who became leader in 2022.

Komei To

Founded in 1964, Komei-To (公明党) has close links to the Soka Gakkai (創価学会) Buddhist movement. The party embraces a moderate form of what it describes as ‘humanitarian socialism’. Its ideological stances include:

  • Greater wealth redistribution
  • More prefectural autonomy
  • Protection of the environment
  • Nuclear disarmament

Kōmei-tō has served in various coalition governments in Japan since the 1990s. It is a junior member of the current government, with 27 upper house and 32 lower house seats. Yamaguchi Natsuo (山口 那津男) is the party’s current leader.

Democratic Party for the People

Created in 2018, the Democratic Party for the People (DPP or DPFP – 国民民主党, Kokumin Minshu To) is similar in ideology to the LDP and the CDP. It describes itself as a “reform centrist party” that includes moderate conservatives to liberals and represents consumers, taxpayers, and workers.

In the 2021 general election, the party won 10 seats in the House of Councillors and 10 seats in the House of Representatives. The current party leader is Tamaki Yuichiro (玉木 雄一郎).

Japanese Communist Party

With around 270,000 members, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP – 日本共産党, Nippon Kyosan To) is one of the largest non-governing communist parties in the world. It began in 1922 and, although it has never been in power, was one of the largest opposition parties in Japan throughout much of the second half of the 20th century.

JCP chairman Shii Kazuo waves to voters from a white campaign bus during the 2016 election campaign in Osaka, Japan
JCP chairman Shii Kazuo waves to voters during the 2016 election campaign in Osaka, Japan (Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

The party has consistently opposed Japan’s close relationship with the US while also keeping a distance from communist governments in China and the USSR. It supports democratic socialist revolution through parliamentary means, as well as:

  • Non-alignment
  • Dissolution of the military
  • LGBTQAI+ rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Other traditional socialist ideologies (e.g., wealth redistribution and a large welfare state)

The JCP currently has 11 seats in the House of Councillors and 10 seats in the House of Representatives. Shii Kazuo (志位 和夫) is the party chairman.

Reiwa Shinsengumi

Formed in 2019 by left-wing members of the former Liberal Party, Reiwa Shinsengumi’s (れいわ新選組, Reiwa Shinsen-gumi) policies include:

The party currently has five seats in the upper House of Councillors (参議院, Sangi In) and three seats in the lower House of Representatives (衆議院, Shugi In).

Social Democratic Party

Formed in 1996 from the former Japan Socialist Party (JSP), the Social Democratic Party (SDP – 社会民主党, Shakai Minshu To or 社民党, Shamin To) today doesn’t command the support that the JSP had for much of the latter half of the 20th century.

It has a traditional social democratic platform that includes high state spending in areas such as healthcare, education, and pensions. It also supports progressive social and cultural causes.

The party currently has two upper-house seats and one lower-house seat. Fukushima Mizuho (福島 瑞穂) is the current party leader.

The electoral system in Japan

Japan’s electoral system (選挙制度, senkyo seido) is detailed in its 1947 constitution and there have been no significant electoral reforms since. The general public elects both houses of the Diet through a mix of first-past-the-post (FPTP) and party-list proportional representation (PPR).

FPTP is when the majority wins, and PPR is when each party is assigned representation according to the number of votes they receive.

A voter receives a ballot paper in Japan's 2016 Upper House election at a polling station in Tokyo, Japan.
Photo: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

If a single party wins over half of the seats in the lower House of Representatives, it forms Japan’s government. The party leader usually becomes Prime Minister and forms a Cabinet. There are currently 27 government ministers in Japan. In addition to ministries and departments, there are several government agencies. If no party wins an outright majority then a coalition government is usually formed.

As well as national elections, there are also regional and local elections every four years to elect mayors (市長, Shicho), governors (知事, Chiji), and representative assemblies. Referendums can be held if passed by at least two-thirds of the members of both houses of the Diet.

In 2022, the Freedom House Index rated Japan’s electoral process as free and fair, scoring it 96/100.

Houses of the Diet (国会議事堂, Kokkai Gijido)

The 248 members of the upper House of Councillors serve six-year terms. There are elections for half of the seats every three years. Voters elect 148 members through FPTP and 100 through PPR. While the House of Representatives holds most legislative power in Japan as they can draft and vote on bills, the role of the House of Councillors is to approve or reject bills.

The 465 members of the lower House of Representatives are elected every four years. There are 289 single-member districts where voters choose individual party members by FPTP. On top of this are 176 seats in 11 multi-member districts. Residents can vote and seats are allocated through PPR, based on vote share.

Voting in Japan

The voting (投票, tohyo) age in Japan was lowered from 20 to 18 in 2016. All Japanese citizens have voting rights in national and local elections. That said, they need to have been a resident in the area for at least three months to vote in local elections.

Foreign residents currently cannot vote in Japan. Over the years, there have been campaigns to allow those with permanent residency to vote. At present, this has only been granted to permanent residents in around 40 of the country’s 1,700 municipalities in local referendums. Currently, the only way for expats to gain full voting rights is by becoming a citizen of Japan.

Japanese nationals living outside the country can also vote in one of Japan’s elections. If they have voter identification, they can do so:

  • At the Japanese embassy or consulate in their country of residence
  • By post
  • Visiting Japan and voting in person

You do not need to register to vote in Japan. Instead, your local municipality will automatically send you a voting card or ballot for each election. Elections typically take place in public buildings such as community centers or primary schools.

Father smiling and holding his baby while they drop the voting ballot in the box.
Photo: Richard Atrero de Guzman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If you are looking to vote and want to make an informed choice, you can get current and unbiased news from outlets such as:

Political representation in Japan

Japanese citizens are eligible to stand for election to the House of Representatives from the age of 25. They can submit themselves for the House of Councillors and prefectural offices from the age of 30. The Japanese constitution outlaws discrimination towards candidates on the basis of “race, creed, sex, social status, family origin, education, property, or income” (Article 44).

In terms of female representation, Japan scores very poorly. It currently ranks 165th globally on the percentage of women elected to parliament (10%). Things are only slightly better when it comes to women in the upper chamber (25.8% as of 2023).

That said, there was a recent shift in the male-dominated political sphere. In 2022, a record number of women and LGBTQIA+ candidates were campaigning for a seat on the House of Councilors.

Japan currently only has two parliamentarians living with disabilities, which activists remarkedly celebrated as “unprecedented” progress for disability representation and rights in the country.

The judiciary system in Japan

As said before, the judiciary is one of three independent branches of the state. Chapter Six of the Constitution details the powers of the judiciary and how it fits into the Japanese political system.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in Japan. It has whole judicial power to determine the “constitutionality of any law, order, regulation, or official act.” At the head of the court is the Chief Justice, officially appointed by the Emperor. This position is held by Tokura Saburo (戸倉 三郎) since 2022.

There are also 14 Supreme Court judges appointed by the Cabinet. Judges can be neither removed nor disciplined by executive powers. However, voters can remove them in referendums at general elections. Judges in Japan have to retire at the age of 70.

Smiling old man is petting his tabby cat.
Photo: Makiko Tanigawa/Getty Images

Below the Supreme Court are four other levels of court in Japan:

  • High courts (高等裁判所, Koto Saiban Sho) – eight courts that handle criminal appeals
  • District courts (地方裁判所, Chiho Saiban Sho) – prefectural courts that handle most criminal, civil, and administrative cases
  • Family courts (家庭裁判所, Katei Saiban Sho) – prefectural courts that handle family and personal cases
  • Summary courts (簡易裁判所, Kan-i Saiban Sho) – over 400 local courts that deal with minor offenses

Although the judiciary is separate from other branches of government, the Ministry of Justice is responsible for formulating judicial policies. In addition to its constitution, Japan also has five other legal codes as part of its civil law system:

The state of the economy in Japan

Japan has a highly advanced social market economy that has developed significantly in the last 75 years. It has an annual GDP of US$4.41 trillion in 2023, which is the third-highest in the world after the US and China. However, its GDP per capita is US$42,140 which is below the OECD average of US$48,589 (2021).

Japan’s economy is dominated by the service and manufacturing sectors, which account for over 50% of the annual GDP. Key service sectors include financial services and tourism. The country is also the third-largest manufacturing nation worldwide as well as the third-largest automobile producer.

Like much of the world, Japan’s economy was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it previously ranked sixth on the Global Competitiveness Report produced by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the 2020 report highlighted that Japan had slipped down the rankings in many areas relating to pandemic recovery.

According to the most recent OECD report on Japan, the country has started to bounce back. In 2023, it has a predicted growth rate of 1.8%.

People passing by a huge stock board in Tokyo, Japan.
Nihombashi (日本橋) district in Tokyo, Japan (Photo: Viola Kam/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Current problems include record levels of the gross national debt, reduced productivity (exacerbated by the aging population), and the rising cost of living. The only bright spot is the unemployment rate, which remains low at 2.5%.

Grassroots politics and political activism

It is quite normal in Japanese culture to join a neighborhood association (町内会, chonai kai) or residents association (自治会, jichi kai). These voluntary-run groups operate at neighborhood and tenement block levels and deal with a range of community issues including community safety, street maintenance, and community events and activities. The groups typically charge small membership fees to cover administration costs.

You can find out details of any local association through your local government representative. They can also provide more information on involving yourself with local politics (e.g., attending local meetings or supporting campaigns).

Political activism in Japan

Activism in Japan has increased following the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Disaster when people all over the country took to the streets in anti-nuclear protests.

In 2018, there was a #WithYou movement, that called for demonstrations after four men were acquitted of rape. Three of them were later convicted on appeal. After that, monthly protests known as Flower Demos became a forum where victims of rape and incest could speak out.

On a lighter – yet still sexist – note, there was also the #KuToo movement in 2019. This campaigned against high-heeled shoe policies in the workplace.

Notable groups that advocate for women’s rights, gender equality, and LGBTQIA+ rights include:

In other fields of activism, one of the biggest protest groups in recent years has been Students Emerging Action for Liberal Democracies (SEALDS – シールズ, Shiruzu). This group pushed against Japanese foreign policies. Prominent environmental activist organizations include Extinction Rebellion Japan (XR 日本) and Fridays For Future (FFF) Japan (フライデーズ・フォー・フューチャー・ジャパン, Furaideizu fuo Fyucha Japan).

Useful resources

  • JapanGov – official website for the Japanese government
  • e-Gov – online portal for the Japanese government
  • House of Representatives – official website for the lower house of the Japanese parliament
  • House of Councillors – official website for the upper house of the Japanese parliament