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The Democratic Party of Japan’s approval ratings plummeted throughout 2012 after the passage of legislation doubling Japan’s consumption tax and the government’s handling of the country’s nuclear energy policy. Territorial disputes escalated with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and with South Korea over the Tokdo/Takeshima Islands during the year. The Liberal Democratic Party won snap legislative elections in December after the lower house was dissolved in exchange for the passage of deficit financing and electoral reform bills.
Japan has been a parliamentary democracy with a largely symbolic monarchy since its defeat in World War II. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presided over Japan’s economic ascent while maintaining close security ties with the United States during the Cold War. The so-called iron triangle—the close relationship between the LDP, banks, and big business—fostered Japan’s economic success. The LDP government mandated 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. Over time, companies engaged in politically expedient but financially unviable projects in order to reap government rewards, and the iron triangle became a major source of government corruption.
Shinzo Abe became prime minister in 2006, though his tenure was marred by scandals and political gaffes. Abe resigned in September 2007 after the LDP lost control of the legislature’s upper chamber to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the July elections.
Abe’s ineffective successor, Yasuo Fukuda, resigned in September 2008. Former foreign minister Taro Aso, the LDP secretary general, succeeded him and focused on strengthening the economy and eliminating government debt equal to almost 200 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
The LDP’s nearly 55-year dominance in the legislature’s lower chamber ended when the DPJ captured 308 seats in the August 2009 elections, and DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister. The DPJ victory also led to the development of a two-party system in Japan. However, a failure to keep several campaign promises and a financial scandal involving DPJ secretary general Ichiro Ozawa prompted Hatoyama’s resignation in June 2010.
Approval ratings for Hatoyama’s successor, Finance Minister Naoto Kan, plummeted after he proposed doubling the country’s sales tax. The DPJ subsequently lost its majority in the legislature’s upper chamber elections in July to a coalition of the LDP and two smaller parties. Kan continued to face significant domestic and international challenges, including persistent inflation, a faltering economy, and diplomatic disputes with China and Russia.
On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by a 9.0 earthquake off the east coast of Tohoku, which triggered a tsunami. Numerous buildings and critical infrastructure were damaged or destroyed, and many people died. The reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant also suffered severe damage, resulting in a nuclear meltdown. Widespread radioactive contamination led to an evacuation of the surrounding area, displacing several hundred thousand residents. Amid plunging approval ratings over the government’s handling of the crises, Kan resigned in August, and Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda was chosen as his successor.
After Fukushima, the government began shutting down nuclear reactors throughout the country, the last of which was closed on May 5, 2012, both for maintenance checks and in response to growing public hostility toward nuclear energy. Prior to Fukushima, nuclear power comprised 30 percent of Japan’s energy, and there had been plans to increase that share to 50 percent by 2030. During July and August, tens of thousands of antinuclear activists protested the restarting of two reactors at the Ohi Nuclear Power Plant. The largest demonstration, on July 16 in a central Tokyo park, reportedly attracted 170,000 protestors. Weekly protests outside the prime minister’s office continued until August 22, when Noda invited a dozen protestors inside for a half-hour meeting that was broadcast live. Noda affirmed that the government would consider public opinion when drafting the country’s energy policy. Meanwhile, approval ratings for Noda and the DPJ plummeted after the adoption in August of legislation that will increase the consumption tax rate from 5 to 10 percent by 2015 to help fund social security needed to care for the country’s rapidly aging population.
In August 2012, Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the Tokdo/Takeshima Islands, reviving an ongoing territorial dispute. Japan claims the islands under international law, and it asked South Korea to submit a joint request to the International Court of Justice to examine the issue. Although Seoul refused, Tokyo returned the Japanese ambassador to his post.
Tensions between Japan and China flared in September over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Japan claims the islands for itself, while private Japanese citizens have owned several of them. On September 11, Japan’s cabinet secretary announced that the government would purchase the islands from their owners for 2.05 billion yen (US$26.2 million), triggering massive nationalist protests throughout China. Violence spread to more than 100 cities, particularly against Japanese citizens and businesses, leading to military exchanges in the disputed waters around the islands. Nationalist sentiment and an emphasis on national defense policies also grew in Japan.
In November, Noda offered to dissolve the legislature’s lower house early in exchange for the passage of deficit financing and electoral reform bills introduced earlier in the year. Opposition leader Shinzo Abe agreed, the bills were adopted, and on November 16, Noda dissolved the lower house and called for snap elections. The LDP won a clear majority of more than 252 seats in the December 16 elections, and Abe replaced Noda as prime minister.
Japan is an electoral democracy. The prime minister—who leads the majority party or coalition in the bicameral legislature’s (Diet’s) lower chamber, the House of Representatives—serves as head of government. Members of the House of Representatives serve four-year terms. In November 2012, the lower house passed legislation that reduced its size to 475 seats, from 480, by cutting the number of voting districts to 6, from 11, thus decreasing the number of single-member seats to 295, from 300. Districts will be redrawn and the bill will be in effect after the 2013 Lower House election. The 242-seat upper chamber, the House of Councillors, consists of 146 members elected in multi-seat constituencies and 96 elected by national party list; members serve six-year terms, with half facing election every three years. Proposed legislation would maintain the same number of Councillors, but the four smallest districts would be cut, and the four largest districts would be divided (-4, +4). Emperor Akihito serves as the ceremonial head of state.
Significant efforts have been made to fight corruption by reforming the iron triangle system, mostly by loosening ties between the government and big business. In January 2011, Ichiro Ozawa and three of his aides were indicted for under-reporting income and violating campaign finance laws. The Tokyo District Court acquitted Ozawa in April 2012; the Tokyo High Court upheld the ruling in November after prosecutors appealed. Ozawa’s aides were found guilty of falsifying financial reports of Ozawa’s political fund management organization in September 2011 and received suspended prison terms, which they appealed. Japan was ranked 17 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Japan’s press is private and independent. However, its press clubs, or kisha kurabu, 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. Internet access is not restricted.
Japanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious groups may be unlicensed, 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 freedoms of assembly and association, and there are active human rights, social welfare, and environmental groups. Massive peaceful antinuclear protests against the restarting of two reactors took place in July and August 2012. Anti–U.S. military protests erupted in September 2012, as tens of thousands of people rallied against the deployment of the Osprey hybrid aircraft in Okinawa. The Osprey’s crash record concerned residents, and Okinawa Governor Hiokazu Nakaima asked the United States to suspend deployment until the aircraft’s safety could be confirmed. A case of breaking and entering and a U.S. serviceman’s alleged assault of a teenage Japanese boy led to additional protests against the U.S. military in Okinawa in November.
Japan’s judiciary is independent. There are several levels of courts, and suspects generally receive fair public trials by an impartial tribunal within three months of being detained. For serious criminal cases, a judicial panel composed of saiban-in (lay-judges), selected from the general public, and professional judges rule on defendants. While arbitrary arrest and imprisonment is not practiced, the police may detain suspects for up to 23 days without charge in order to extract confessions. Prison conditions comply with international standards, though prison officials sometimes use physical and psychological intimidation to enforce discipline or elicit confessions.
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, sex, or social status. However, entrenched societal discrimination prevents Japan’s estimated three million burakumin—descendants of feudal-era outcasts—and the indigenous Ainu minority from gaining equal access to housing and employment. Foreign-born populations, particularly Koreans, suffer similar disadvantages.
Although women in Japan enjoy legal equality, discrimination in employment and sexual harassment on the job are common. Violence against women often goes unreported due to concerns about family reputation and other social mores. Japanese courts have yet to provide reparations to comfort women—World War II–era sex slaves—despite international pressure. Japan is a destination, source, and transit country for people trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation.