The Transformation of the Japanese Legislature in the Aftermath of World War 2

Note: This analytical essay was initially submitted as a final paper for a Comparative Political Institutions course, and has been edited modified for the purposes of this blog.

Modern Japan is considered by many to be a beacon of democracy. However, Japan didn’t’ always have the democratic prominence that it is known for today. Before the conclusion of World War 2, Japan was an imperial nation, striving to conquer the rest of East Asia. The transformation of Japan into a democracy ushered on a multitude of drastic institutional changes. These changes are extremely evident in the restructuring of the Japanese legislature.

Historical context is necessary to understand the scale of this institutional reconstruction. In the early historical periods of the Paleolithic, Jomon, and Yayoi, the Japanese archipelago was inhabited by a series of independent tribes. Combined, these eras lasted from roughly 10,000 BC to 300 AD. Due to the nature of this society, there wasn’t any formalized legislature of sorts to be discussed. However, this all changed with the onset of the Kofun period.

Early into the common era, 300 years to be exact, Japan was successfully unified under a single emperor, and the regime type of Japan shifted to authoritarian. The emperor and his small group of elites were known as the Yamato Court. “As for regional control, according to the Chinese Book of Sui … the country was already divided into kuni (provinces), which were subdivided into agata. These territorial units were governed by Kuni no Miyatsuko and Agatanushi, who were responsible for collecting tribute” (Yamato Court, jref.com). In other words, the Yamato Court divided what was once the territory of a multitude of individual tribes into provinces and subdivisions known as agata. These agata were then appointed a specific regional leader. These regional leaders were typically people who were already local leaders, but now officially approved by the court. The Kuni no Miyatsuko and Agatanushi were responsible for collecting tribute from the citizens of their specific regions. Although extremely primitive by today’s standards, this was the first sign of somewhat unified legislative action in Japanese history. Basic legislative practices as discussed continued with some failures and successes for quite some time. While various different dynasties rose and fell, the same basic principles of tribute and taxation applied. Further drastic changes in the legislature of Japan, however, came about with the emergence of the Edo Period in the early 1600s.

The Edo Period began with rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a military regime that ruled from the early 1600s to the mid 1800s. They believed in complete Japanese isolationism, and disconnected the nation from all relations with the outside world. Therefore, all concentrations were on the internal politics of Japan. With this internal focus, the Tokugawa Shogunate completely changed the legislature of Japan on an unprecedented scale. By many standards, this was the first time the Japanese government had a true legislative branch. The Tokugawa Shogunate implemented a legislature very similar to a system of committees that you would see in modern legislatures. These groups were known as the Roju and Wakadoshiyori, the Ometsuke and Metsuke, and the San-Bugyo.

The Roju and Wakadoshiyori were responsible for ensuring smooth relations between the imperial court, the Buddhist temples, and the Shinto shrines. As Buddhism and Shintoism were the two most prominent religions in the country at the time, non-hostile relations between these religious institutions and the government was very important to Japanese stability.

The Ometsuke and Metsuke were responsible for monitoring the imperial court. They were appointed to do so in order to spot and thwart any form of rebellion against the government before it could truly take off. As the Tokugawa Shogunate was a military regime, rebellion was a genuine concern that needed to be monitored. Therefore, the Ometsuke and Metsuke were a pivotal part of the Edo Period legislature.

The San-Bugyo were, in modern terms, the accountants of the Tokugawa Shogunate. They were responsible for monitoring and organizing the funds and economics of temples, shrines, cities, and the Shogunate itself. As they dealt with the economics of the nation, they were a necessary component for the functionality of the Japanese government.

The conglomeration of these various groups composed a political institution that is very reminiscent to a simplified modern committee-based legislature. It was the first time Japan operated with a somewhat modernized government system. However, due to intense isolationism, the Edo Period prevented Japan from modernizing at the pace of the rest of the world. This issue would shape Japan, and the legislature of the nation, for the rest of its history.

As evident by the modern condition of Japan, the nation’s isolationism had to come to a close. With the dawn of the era that is known as the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan, as a nation, was completely reshaped. With what is perhaps the most drastic transformation of the nation (other than in the aftermath of World War 2), Japan ended its isolationism. The emperor at the time, Meiji, saw the technological, political, and imperial progress that western nations had made while Japan was isolated, and wanted to emulate it. For the first time in Japan’s history, a semi-democratic constitutional monarchy government was implemented. However, the slightly democratic components of the Meiji regime did not last for long. Using a variety of influences from a multitude of European nations, Meiji constructed a culturally appropriated government, borrowing what he considered to be the “highlights” of European culture. In essence, Meiji created a “European” nation in East Asia.

With the onset of the Meiji Restoration came the construction of a formalized legislature as we understand the term. Based on the success of bicameral legislatures in multiple European nations, Japan constructed their own bicameral legislative branch known as the Imperial Diet. What was unique about the Imperial Diet, and the other political institutions of the time, was that the emperor was actually a part of it. He was a member of all of the institutions below him, and used his membership to actively pass and uphold statute.

The Imperial Diet was composed of two branches, the House of Representatives and the House of Peers. Members of the House of Representatives were directly elected by voters. However, who was allowed to vote at the time was very limited. Male, purely Japanese citizens were the only people allowed to vote, with some limited exceptions. Members of The House of Peers, on the other hand, were all aristocrats, given positions based on their nobility.

The process of passing legislation in the Imperial Diet was somewhat similar to how it works in the current Japanese legislature. A bill must pass through both the House of Representatives and the House of Peers. However, after passing through both, it must also be approved by the emperor. The emperor had the final say on the passing of all statute within his empire, with no exceptions.

The Imperial Diet operated successfully for the rest of the 19th century, and most of the early 20th century. However, international history has prominent impacts on not just the members involved, but the world as a whole. While Japan wasn’t actively involved in World War 1, it suffered tremendous consequences from the conflict. After the war, most of the world entered a period of economic depression, Japan being no exception. This was not aided by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

The earthquake nearly destroyed Tokyo, which was the current capital of Japan. Tokyo was the center of Japan’s imperial power, and the hub for all of the nation’s political institutions. This devastated the government of Japan at the time, and only amplified their intense economic depression. The Japanese imperial government, including all of the political institutions that composed it, were on the brink of collapse, and needed to find a way to survive. They found savior in the abandonment of any democratic tendencies, and the conquering of neighboring territory.

Japan had been enemies with its western neighbor China since its ancient inception. China served as a threat for imperial Japan, due to its sheer size and influence in the region. Before there was any official alliance, Japan was already receiving aid from Germany, and actively aggressing China. However, in order to ensure that the Japanese empire would be safe from its enemies (mainly China) during this time, the Japanese legislature decided to enter the Tripartite Pact. The pact, signed between the three major world powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, ensured that each would be there to protect each other if they were to be attacked by a non-pact nation. “The Pact also recognized the two spheres of influence. Japan acknowledged the leadership of Germany and Italy in the establishment of a new order in Europe, while Japan was granted lordship over Greater East Asia” (This Day in History, September 27th 1940, history.com). In other words, while Italy and Germany were busy conquering the rest of the Europe, Japan would begin the acquisition of East Asia. The Tripartite Pact was responsible for officially entering Japan into World War 2 in 1940.

World War 2 was a disastrous time for Japan. Even after the defeat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the European front, Japan continued to battle the allied forces in the East Asian front. Imperial Japan was officially defeated in 1945, when two atomic bombs were dropped on the major Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With these bombs, the Japanese were given an ultimatum: surrender, or the rest of the archipelago would be destroyed. The emperor at the time, Hirohito, surrendered on the strict, non-negotiable terms of the allied forces. This is where the greatest legislative transformation in Japanese history took place.

The conditioning of Japan’s surrender was written in a document known as the Potsdam Declaration. This document was collaboratively drafted by the United States, the United Kingdom, and China. The requirements stated in the Potsdam Declaration, while seemingly simple, would completely transform Japan as a nation. Japan was to end all forms of imperialism. In other words, the nation was required to give up all of the territory that it conquered during its time as an empire. The territory that made up Japan was limited to the four largest islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Specific smaller islands were also allowed to remain under Japanese rule. This created the borders that define modern day Japan. To further prevent the threat of imperialism, the emperor was stripped of all of his power, and the title was reduced to a ceremonial status, similar to that of the queen in England. In other words, the emperor no longer had any political power. The allied forces were also allowed permanent military occupation in designated areas, in order to ensure Japan wouldn’t fall back into its imperialistic tendencies. The Japanese military was to be disbanded, and restructured on the terms of the allied forces. All Japanese industry and economics were allowed to continue, and actually encouraged, in order to foster capitalism. If not evident by the previous requirements, Japan was required to become a full-fledged democracy. The government was to promote freedom of speech, religion, and thought; something that was previously unheard of in the nation. However, what is pivotal to this discussion is the restructuring of every key political institution in the Japanese government; including the legislature

The modern Japanese legislature, while operating on a similar basis as its imperial predecessor, was ultimately transformed by the Potsdam Declaration. Japan has maintained this legislative system to date. Replacing the emperor, the legislative branch currently holds the largest amount of power in the Japanese government. The current legislature, located in the capital of Tokyo, was renamed from the Imperial Diet to the National Diet. The maintained bicameralism of the legislature is present in its division between an upper and lower house. The lower house is called the House of Representatives, while the upper house is called the House of Councillors.

The House of Representatives is made up of 480 members, who serve four year terms, unless removed from their positions earlier. However, not all of these members are elected in the same manner. House of Representatives elections are conducted in two ways. 300 representatives are elected through a single-member plurality, or first past the post, electoral system. The other 180, however, are selected via party-list proportional representation. In other words, each political party composes a list of potential candidates. As Japan has an open list electoral system, individual representatives are specifically chosen off of these lists based on popularity.

The House of Councillors is made up of 242 members, roughly half the amount of the House of Representatives. While half serve three year terms, the other half serve four. 146 are chosen through single non-transferable votes. These elections take place within each of the 47 prefectures that make up Japan. In other words, you can only vote for a representative in the prefecture that you reside in. The other 96, however, are selected proportionally. Since Japan uses an open list system, councillors are are individually chosen by the people, as opposed to the people voting for a party as a whole, who then decides on members for them. Councillors are voted upon off of a national list. In other words, if a person is not on this list, they can not be voted upon to occupy one of the 96 seats available.

Perhaps the most drastic institutional change with regards to the Japanese legislature is in power. As an imperial nation, the emperor had ultimate power. He had the final and strongest say over statute, as well as any other matters of the nation. However, as the Potsdam Declaration stripped the emperor down to a purely ceremonial position, the legislature is currently the most powerful institution in the Japanese government. The reduction of the power of the emperor position also allowed the legislature to be the only political institution in the nation able to pass statute, or make laws.

The legislature of Japan gained other prominent powers with the implementation of Potsdam reformations. The National Diet currently controls both the budget and international treaties of the nation. They also have the ability to investigate both specific members of government, as well as governmental institutions as a whole, if they begin to sense corruption or wrongdoing. To further this power, the Diet has the ability to impeach any government official, including the Prime Minister, if they are deemed unfit to serve. As many other legislatures do, they are also able to ratify the constitution, if necessary.

Both chambers of the legislature are required to have a single annual meeting, but are permitted to meet multiple times a year if necessary. In order for a meeting to count as legitimate, at least ⅓ of the members of each respective house must be present. Meetings are ceremonially begun and concluded by the emperor, regardless of his lack of ability to participate in said meetings.

The House of Representatives has more legislative power than the House of Councillors. However, to combat any unfair balance, the House of Councillors is able to postpone any budget or treaty decisions made by the House of Representatives. Regardless of this legislative structure, any bill must still be voted upon in both chambers, and must be given final approval by the emperor. However, unlike in imperial Japan, the emperor is required to approve every bill, making the action a tradition, rather than a legitimate political act.

Evidently, Japan has undergone multiple legislative transformations throughout its history as a nation. From isolationist, to imperial, to democratic; Japan’s legislature has been restructured to fit each period of the country’s history. With the fall of imperial Japan at the end of World War 2 came the transformation of Japan from an empire to a democracy. This major political transformation reshaped the legislature of the nation into the format it currently operates under today. As Japan is currently one of the most prominent world democracies, this legislative change is anything but unimportant.

Sources Cited:

  1. The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (Edited By: R. A. W. Rhodes, Sarah A. Binder and Bert A. Rockman)
  2. Lecture Slides (Constructed By: Professor Kreppel)
  3. Websites Used
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