Freedom in the World
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The 2009 election victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ended more than five decades of nearly continuous Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule. Although the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, promised numerous domestic and foreign policy reforms, difficult economic conditions and tenuous party unity pose a serious challenge to the implementation of these policies.
After repeated failed leaderships and growing public disillusionment, the LDP’s nearly 55-year dominance in the lower house ended when the DPJ captured 308 seats in the August 30, 2009 elections. The DPJ formed a coalition with two smaller parties, the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party, and DPJ party leader Yukio Hatayama was selected to be the new prime minister. The DPJ’s center-left platform, which challenged many of the LDP’s long-standing policies, included greater independence from U.S. influence, improved relations with neighboring Asian countries, greater rights to traditionally marginalized groups (such women and ethnic minorities), and a more decentralized and accountable government concerned with social welfare and environmental issues. While many regard the DPJ’s victory as an opportunity to enact various reforms and create a genuine two-party system in Japan, ongoing domestic economic problems and the DPJ’s lack of party unity cast serious doubts on this prospect.
Japan is an electoral democracy. The prime minister—the leader of the majority party or coalition in the bicameral legislature’s (Diet’s) lower chamber, the House of Representatives—serves as head of government and appoints a cabinet of ministers. Members of the 480-seat House of Representatives serve four-year terms; 300 are elected in single-member constituencies and 180 are elected by party list in 11 regional districts. An upper chamber, the House of Councilors, consists of 146 members elected in multiseat constituencies and 96 elected by national party list; members serve six-year terms, with half facing election every three years. Emperor Akihito serves as the ceremonial head of state.
Although women in Japan enjoy legal equality, discrimination in employment and sexual harassment on the job are common. Violence against women often goes unreported because of concerns about family reputation and other social mores. While prostitution remains illegal, it is widespread. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report, Japan is primarily a destination country for people trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation. The issue of World War II–era sex slaves, known as comfort women, stirred controversy in 2007 when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Japan to accept responsibility and provide compensation. The Japanese courts contend that compensation claims were settled by postwar treaties.