Freedom in the World
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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), took a major political gamble in August 2005. After the upper house of the Japanese Diet (parliament) failed to pass Koizumi's bill to privatize the Japanese postal system, he dissolved the lower house and called a snap election. Koizumi then barred LDP members who voted against his reform bill from participating in the election as party candidates. His political brinkmanship proved a tremendous success when the LDP won a landslide victory, widely seen as a popular mandate to implement privatization reforms.
Japan has operated as a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy since its defeat in World War II. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power almost continuously since 1955, being out of power for only 10 months during the past 50 years. The LDP presided over Japan's economic ascent while maintaining close security ties with the United State during the Cold War. Japan's "iron triangle"-the close relationship between the LDP, banks, and big business repre-sentatives-was a major source of Japan's economic success. The LDP government was able to mandate that corporations, specifically construction firms in charge of major public works projects, rely on banks for capital, and the banks in turn took large equity stakes in the companies. In addition, the government was able to maintain centralized control over this operation through its influence over the banking sector. One negative result of this situation was that companies in debt would engage in politically expedient but financially unviable projects in order to reap governmental rewards. The iron triangle is often cited as a major source of corruption in the Japanese government, although it has been noted that through the efforts of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, corruption in the Japanese government has declined.
The economic sector in Japan has been in trouble since the early 1990s, following a crash in Japan's stock and real estate markets. While the fallout from this "burst bubble" was large, the Japanese economy has been slowly returning to a healthy state since 2002. The profits of Japanese companies have been growing, and the banking sector, which played a role in the economy's stagnation, is healthier now than it has been in over a decade. Furthermore, there has been job recovery; full-time employment rose dramatically in 2005.
Koizumi has been prime minister since 2001, and his administration's popularity has fluctuated. With less than 60 percent voter turnout, the LDP won 237 out of 480 seats in the November 2003 election for the lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament. After the election, the LDP gained a simple majority by entering into a coalition with three independents and the New Conservative Party. The DPJ captured 177 seats-the largest tally for any opposition party since 1958, though changes in the size and electoral structure of parliament make comparisons difficult. The DPJ also gained 12 seats in the July 2004 election for the Diet's upper house, which brought the party's total to 50; the LDP won only 49 seats. The DPJ's strong performance in this election reflected the public's dissatisfaction with the LDP's reform program, specifically its proposed pension reforms.
A snap election held in September 2005 saw Koizumi's LDP win 296 seats in the 480-member House of Deputies, the Diet's lower house. The DPJ captured only 113 seats, down 64 seats from the previous election. The New Komeito Party won 31 seats and entered into a coalition with the LDP. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) took nine seats, while the Social Democratic Party (SDP) took seven seats. A slew of other parties captured the remaining 27 seats.
The September election was prompted by the defeat of a bill in the upper house of the Diet to privatize Japan Post-not just a mail delivery service, but also the world's largest financial institution. The postal service operates a network of 24,700 branches that offer state-subsidized bank deposits and life insurance to tens of millions of Japanese citizens; Japan Post controls 330 trillion yen (US$3 trillion) in household financial assets. The initial privatization bill passed by a slight majority in the lower house only to be rejected in the upper house, when 21 LDP members voted against the party. Koizumi responded by dissolving parliament and calling for a snap election. Furthermore, Koizumi refused to give party backing to those who voted against the reform bill. A month and a half after the election, the privatization plan passed; it will be implemented in graduated stages until 2017. Presently, Japanese economists are divided over the likely impact of privatization. However, gradual implementation is likely to reduce the effects felt by consumers of services currently provided by Japan Post. The privatization measures allow the government to tax the privatized postal service and thereby greatly increase government revenue.
Japan has continued to expand its role in peacekeeping and security, although its military is restricted by Article 9 of Japan's pacifist constitution to a self-defense role. The debate over whether or not to amend Article 9 is ongoing, especially in light of fears that North Korea has effectively developed a nuclear weapons program. Since 1992, Japanese troops have participated in several UN peacekeeping missions; Japanese warships provided logistical support to U.S.-led forces during the war in Afghanistan, and in 2003, parliament approved the dispatch of 1,000 troops to Iraq to provide logistical support to U.S.-led troops and humanitarian aid.
While Koizumi is credited with being successful on the domestic front, relations with both China and South Korea have deteriorated as a result of his annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, a site honoring Japan's war dead-including a small number of war criminals. In addition, Japan's failed bid to secure a permanent seat on the UN Security Council weakened Koizumi's reputation as a leader who could aptly handle foreign policy.
Citizens of Japan can change their government democratically. The prime minister-the leader of the majority party or coalition in the Diet's lower House of Deputies-is the head of government and appoints a cabinet of ministers. The House of Deputies (Shugi-in) serves four-year terms and is made up of 380 single-member constituency seats and 100 party block seats; an upper House of Councilors (Sangi-in), elected for three- and six-year terms, consists of 146 constituency seats and 96 party block seats. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's term limit will end in September 2006. Emperor Akihito serves as a ceremonial head of state.
Numerous political parties compete for political power. Currently, the LDP leads a coalition government with New Komeito, a party with close ties to a national Buddhist organization. Major opposition parties include the DPJ, the JCP, and the SDP.
Koizumi has focused his major reform efforts on breaking down the circles of corruption in the government that result from the iron triangle system, mostly by loosening ties between the government and big business. Japan was ranked 21 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.
Japan's press is private and independent, but the presence of press clubs, or kisha kurabu, is an obstacle to press freedom. Press clubs ensure homogeneity of news coverage by fostering close relationships between the major media and bureaucrats and politicians. Government officials often give club members exclusive access to political information, leading journalists to avoid writing critical stories about government and reducing the media's ability to pressure politicians for greater transparency and accountability. These practices have been criticized by Reporters Without Borders and the European Union. Reporters outside the press club system conduct most of Japan's investigative journalism. Internet access is not restricted.
Japanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious groups are not required to be licensed, but registering with government authorities as a "religious corporation" brings tax benefits and other advantages. There are no restrictions on academic freedom.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and association. The political culture in Japan is strong, and there are active civic, human rights, social welfare, and environmental groups. Trade unions are independent, and with the exception of police and firefighters, all unionized workers have the right to strike.
Japan's judiciary is independent. There are several levels of courts, and suspects are generally given fair public trials by an impartial tribunal (there are no juries) within three months of being detained. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment are not practiced. Prison conditions comply with international standards, although some human rights groups have criticized them for being overly disciplined. Prison officials sometimes use physical and psychological intimidation to enforce discipline or elicit confessions. The government sometimes restricts human rights groups' access to prisons. The National Police Agency is under civilian control and is highly disciplined, though reports of human rights abuses committed by police persist.
Although the constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, sex, and social status, certain groups of people continue to face unofficial discrimination. Japan's three million Burakumin, who are descendants of feudal-era outcasts, and the indigenous Ainu minority suffer from entrenched societal discrimination that prevents them from having equal access to housing and employment opportunities. Foreigners generally, and Koreans in particular, suffer the same disadvantage.
Women in Japan have legal equality, but discrimination in employment is particularly widespread. According to The Times (London), "only one in eight lawyers is a woman, as is one in ten company managers, one in thirty ambassadors and one in seventy senior civil servants." In addition, sexual harassment on the job is widespread. Violence against women is a problem that often goes unreported because of "social and cultural concerns about shaming one's family or endangering the reputation of one's spouse or children," according the 2005 U.S. State Department's human rights report. September's snap election proved a major step for women in Japanese politics; 43 women were elected to Japan's 480-member parliament, the highest number ever. This resulted from Koizumi's decision to invite an unprecedented number of women to serve in the place of the ejected members of the LDP. Women candidates were awarded top spots on the party's list of candidates.