Japanese Politics and Law

Like many comparativists, my perspective builds on a deeper foundation of knowledge and interest in a particular region. In my case, the bulk of my early research career focused on Japanese politics and democracy. I spent four years living in Japan, working and conducting extensive research in Japan, and I have published multiple articles and book chapters in Japanese as well as in top-tier English language political science journals. My research has focused on many aspects of Japanese democracy, including work on corruption, political leadership, electoral dynamics and democratic reforms. Although Japan-focused work is a smaller share of my portfolio in recent years, I continue to produce some work that is focused primarily on Japan. I currently have two forthcoming book chapters on Japanese democracy, one focused on the legislative process and dynamics in the Japanese parliament, the other focused on electoral corruption, and am currently developing a project situating the evolution of Japanese election law in comparative perspective.

Forthcoming Research and Current Projects

Mikitaka Masuyama and Benjamin Nyblade, “The Japanese Diet.”

Book chapter draft completed for inclusion in the Oxford Handbook of Japanese Politics.

The Japanese Diet has a rich history, dating back to 1890, making it the oldest non-Western national parliament. This chapter provides an overview of the workings of the Diet, with a focus on the central role played by parliamentary groups in structuring parliamentary behavior. The role of negotiation, and the breakdown of negotiation, between parliamentary groups in the Diet is illustrated in the first part of the chapter through an exploration of specific incidents and parliamentary practices that seem curious to outside observers. The second section reviews how parliament operates across a typical year, beginning with the annual process of budgeting, and emphasizing the important role the calendar plays in the establishment of the daily practices, rules and institutions in the Diet. In the third and final section, we turn to an examination of how key structural features of the Japanese political system that strongly influence parliamentary behavior, focusing in turn on the importance of the legislative process, bicameralism, parliamentary elections, and relations with the executive.

Kenneth Mori McElwain and Benjamin Nyblade, “Electoral Corruption in Japan.”

Book chapter in progress for edited volume on electoral fraud in Asia.

Japan has a longer history of elections, and a longer history of electoral manipulation, than any country in Asia, with national elections in Japan dating back to 1890. This chapter focuses on how governing parties and incumbent politicians have strategically altered and systematically violated electoral laws in the postwar period. High profile cases of electoral fraud prompted tighter regulations of electioneering and campaign finance in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the ruling LDP also designed those rules to most effectively target the marginal votes necessary to reelect their incumbents and stay in power. Further changes in electoral competition have affected the nature of electoral manipulation, as greater electoral volatility and alternation in political power since the 1990s has altered the costs and benefits of common electoral strategies. Though there is credible evidence that electoral corruption in Japan has declined in recent decades, strong incentives for electoral manipulation remain.

Benjamin Nyblade, “The Evolution of Japanese Election Law in Comparative Perspective”

What drives change in election law? Which changes appear to be common across different countries and which are more specific to the particular legal and political histories of a country? In this project I plan to examine the evolution of postwar Japanese election law, identifying key changes and the dynamics that drove those changes. By combining an in-depth narrative discussion of the changes in Japanese election law with a broadly comparative lens on election laws around the world, I suggest that there are underappreciated global similarities in the evolution of election law.


Benjamin Nyblade, “Political Legitimacy, Satisfaction and Japanese Democracy.” Chan, Shin and Williams, eds., East Asian Perspectives on Political Legitimacy, Cambridge University Press, 2016. Link

Abstract: When included in either global or regional comparative studies of democratic legitimacy and political satisfaction, Japanese popular opinion has often been seen as anomalous. Despite a long history as a stable and established democracy, it is striking how low political satisfaction has been. Political reforms over the last two decades, intended in part to respond to the causes of political disaffection, have been ineffectual to date in raising political satisfaction. This chapter suggests that it is important to separate political satisfaction from legitimacy conceptually and in practice for the Japanese case, arguing that even though Japanese people have been dissatisfied with politics, democratic legitimacy is high. Recent political reforms may not have increased political satisfaction, but they have enhanced the responsiveness of the political system to the will of the people, likely further enhancing democratic legitimacy in the long run. Japanese citizens of all walks of life are committed to playing by the democratic ‘rules of the game.’ Greater democratic legitimacy does not necessarily ensure better governance or greater political satisfaction, and as the Japanese experience demonstrates, political dissatisfaction and perceptions of ineffectual governance should not be equated with low levels of legitimacy.

Benjamin Nyblade, “Japanese Party Politics at a Crossroads?” (Review Essay) Journal of Asian Studies 74(2): 443-7. May 2015. Link

Abstract: In 2009, the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan, which had successfully formed governments either alone or as the largest partner in a coalition government for all but a single year since 1955, suffered a devastating electoral defeat when the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won nearly two-thirds of the seats available in the House of Representatives. The landslide DPJ victory was seen by many commentators and academics as the culmination of a decade-long trend toward two-party politics, driven in large part by party and voter adaptation to the electoral reforms of the 1990s, which introduced single-member districts as the means for electing a majority of members of parliament. The three books reviewed in this essay were written primarily in the two years following the 2009 DPJ victory, and each attempts, in quite distinct ways, to update our accounts of electoral and party politics and policymaking in Japan to account for the changes in Japanese politics in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Robert J. Pekkanen, Benjamin Nyblade and Ellis S. Krauss. “The Logic of Ministerial Selection: Electoral Systems and Cabinet Appointments in Japan.” Social Science Japan Journal 17(1): 3-22. Winter 2014. PDF

Winner of the ISS-OUP Prize for Most Outstanding Article in SSJJ in 2014

Abstract: Does the kind of electoral system affect the type of members of parliament appointed to the cabinet in a parliamentary system? The literature on electoral reform has investigated many political consequences of changing an electoral system, but whether appointments to cabinets change too has not been investigated. Conversely, there have been many analyses of cabinet selection but they have not investigated any linkage to the type of electoral system. One reason for this is the lack of theory concerning how electoral systems impact party strategies for ministerial appointments. We suggest that the intervening factor is how parties balance their competing goals of vote-seeking, office-seeking and policy-seeking. If cabinet appointments provide an arena where parties balance these three goals, then we should observe a change in this balancing strategy, and in ministerial appointments, following the introduction of different incentives inherent in a new electoral system. To that end, we conducted an empirical test of Liberal Democratic Party cabinet appointments before and after the 1994 electoral reform. We demonstrate that the change in electoral system led the party to rebalance its priorities and consequently adapt its strategy for ministerial appointments.

Mikitaka Masuyama and Benjamin Nyblade, “Ministerial Selection and Deselection in Japan.” Dowding and Dumont, eds., The Selection of Ministers around the World, Routledge, 2014. Link

Abstract: In this chapter we provide an overview of ministerial selection and deselection in Japan in the postwar period, highlighting the distinctive patterns seen in Japan and discussing their underlying political logic. While certain aspects of ministerial selection and deselection in Japan are well-trod terrain, we present new data on the proximate causes of ministerial termination in the postwar period as well as explore the retention of ministers across cabinets, both areas which have received little previous attention, and highlight several crucial changes that have occurred over the past 65 years.

Mikitaka Masuyama and Benjamin Nyblade, “Japan.” European Journal of Political Research Political Data Yearbook (Vols. 51-53: 2012-2014). 2012 2013 2014

For three years, Prof. Mikitaka Masuyama and I contributed the narrative and data for the Japan entry in the EJPR’s Political Data Yearbook.

Go Murakami and Benjamin Nyblade, “Japanese Party and Electoral Politics.” Oxford Bibliographies Online, 2013. Link

Abstract: Outside of western Europe and its former settler colonies, Japan has had the longest history of parliamentary government and is regularly hailed as one of the most successful non-Western democracies. Japan’s first parliamentary elections were held in 1890, albeit an election held with the franchise restricted to a small subset of the population. Japan has been an appealing country for scholars of party politics and voting behavior in large part due to the ready availability of data, its unusual electoral system, and history of one-party dominance. Reliable “modern” survey data in Japan dates back into the 1960s and regular election studies started in the 1970s. Furthermore, a substantial flow of Japanese graduate students to English-speaking (primarily US) political science graduate programs, who often returned to Japan but maintained their ties to the English-language political science community, led to frequent collaboration and greater integration of studies of Japanese politics into the broader political science community than has been typical for non-English speaking countries. That being said, much of the cutting-edge work on Japanese politics is published only in Japanese, and it is incumbent on scholars of Japanese party and electoral politics to keep up with the very active Japanese-language scholarship in these areas. Although the majority of the references in this bibliography are to English-language works (given that we expect most readers to not read Japanese), we have also included both foundational and recent works published in Japanese that we feel are important for scholars of Japanese politics to know.

Benjamin Nyblade, “Keeping it Together: Party Unity and the 2012 Election.” In Pekkanen, Reed, Scheiner, eds., Japan Decides 2012. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Link

Abstract: This chapter explores the foundations of party unity, both theoretically and empirically in Japan, and examines factors influencing the DPJ split. Specifically, the chapter argues that landslide victories (as of the LDP in 2005 and DPJ in 2009) are often counterproductive for party unity and leader durability, as forward-looking MPs expect that the landslide will not be repeated in the subsequent election. Most of the mechanisms for ensuring party unity in Japanese party organizations and legislative structures create incentives for career politicians over the long-run. However, these institutions and various strategies are insufficient for ensuring party unity when a large number of backbench MPs can foresee electoral defeat if they stick with the party and those MPs see a feasible alternative that might improve their electoral chances. What differentiates the LDP in 2009 from the DPJ in 2012 is that there was no viable alternative for LDP MPs to turn to in 2009. Vulnerable and disaffected DPJ MPs had viable (although risky) options available to them that LDP MPs in 2009 did not have. And while most of those who left the DPJ were unsuccessful in gaining re-election, almost all of those MPs would likely have been unable to secure re-election even if they stayed within the DPJ.

Benjamin Nyblade, “The 21st Century Japanese Prime Minister: An Unusually Precarious Perch.” Journal of Social Science 61(2): 195-209. February 2011. PDF

Abstract: The nature and rapidity of turnover of prime ministers in Japan in recent years (2006~2010) is nearly unprecedented both historically in Japan and in comparison to other developed parliamentary democracies. This paper contextualizes the recent high degree of turnover in the post of prime minister both in historical and comparative perspective. The central argument of the paper is that the recent rapid turnover in the post of the prime minister is a perverse consequence of the increased prominence and influence of the post and the greater electoral importance of the party label in a time of great electoral volatility and voter dissatisfaction. As a greater proportion of rank-and-file Diet Members of the governing party are dependent on the prime minister’s coattails and overall voter evaluation of the party’s performance for re-election, the incentives to replace unpopular PMs with a fresh face (and a new honeymoon period) is strong. In a time of strongly divided government and weak economic performance leaders may find it particularly difficult to maintain the support of swing voters and the perch at the top may be particularly precarious.

Revised and translated version published as “首相の権力強化と短命政権” in 樋渡展洋 and 斉藤淳, eds., 政党政治の混迷と政権交代. Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 2011.

Benjamin Nyblade and Steven Reed, “Who Cheats? Who Loots? Political Competition and Corruption in Japan, 1947-1993.” American Journal of Political Science 52(4): 926-41. October 2008. PDF

Supplementary Documentation, please contact me for replication code and data.

Abstract: When do politicians resort to corrupt practices? This article distinguishes between two types of corruption by politicians: illegal acts for material gain (looting) and illegal acts for electoral gain (cheating). Looting generally involves a politician “selling” influence while cheating involves a politician “buying” votes. Individual-level analyses of new data on financial scandals and election law violations in Japan show that the determinants of cheating differ from the determinants of looting. Most notably, political experience and electoral security increase the probability of looting, but electoral insecurity combined with intraparty competition increases the probability of cheating.

Benjamin Nyblade, Review of Alisa Gaunder, Political Reform in Japan: Leadership Looming Large. In Pacific Affairs Vol. 81(1). May 2008. Link

Abstract: Alisa Gaunder’s new book, which aims to demonstrate the importance of political leadership in explaining the outcome of political reform attempts in Japan, is an excellent read. It examines six cases of successful and failed political reforms in Japan over a span of 30 years, ranging from the passage of political reform under the watch of Prime Minister Miki in 1975 to the more recent postal reforms enacted under Prime Minister Koizumi in 2005. While some scholars may disagree with Gaunder’s interpretation of specific events, her work is thoroughly researched and the links between evidence and interpretation are clear, allowing subsequent debates to be continued in a constructive fashion.

Robert Pekkanen, Benjamin Nyblade and Ellis Krauss, “Electoral Incentives in Mixed Member Systems: Party, Posts and Zombie Politicians in Japan.” American Political Science Review 100(2): 183-93. May 2006. PDF

Abstract: How do electoral incentives affect legislative organization? Through an analysis of Japan’s mixed-member electoral system, we demonstrate that legislative organization is strongly influenced not only by the individual legislators reelection incentives but also by their interest in their party gaining power and maintaining a strong party label. Electorally vulnerable legislators are given choice legislative positions to enhance their prospects at the polls, whereas (potential) party leaders disproportionately receive posts with greater influence on the party’s overall reputation. Members of Parliament elected from proportional representation (PR) lists and in single member districts also receive different types of posts, reflecting their distinct electoral incentives. Even small variations in electoral rules can have important consequences for legislative organization. In contrast to Germany’s compensatory mixed-member system, Japan’s parallel system (combined with a “best loser” or “zombie” provision) generates incentives for the party to allocate posts relating to the distribution of particularistic goods to those elected in PR.

Translated as “小選挙区比例代表並立制と役職配分” and published in 曽根 and 大山, eds., 日本の民主主義: 変わる政治、 変わる政治学. Tokyo: Keio University Press, 2008.

Benjamin Nyblade, Review of Steven R. Reed, ed., Japanese Electoral Politics: Creating a New Party System. In the Journal of East Asian Studies Vol. 5(2). May/August 2005. Link

Abstract: Explaining election results is always an important and challenging task for political scientists, and a book that accomplishes this task so well is a valuable book indeed. Japanese Electoral Politics should be of interest not only to scholars who seek to understand what occurred in the 1996 and 2000 general elections in Japan, but also to those with broader interests…

Ellis S. Krauss and Benjamin Nyblade, “‘Presidentialization’ in Japan? The Prime Minister, Media and Elections in Japan.” British Journal of Political Science 35(2): 357-68. April 2005. PDF

Abstract: Both academics and journalists have given increasing attention to the rising importance of prime ministers – a phenomenon often referred to ‘presidentialization’. This phenomenon has been observed primarily in Britain and in West European parliamentary democracies – no one has ever described the Japanese parliamentary system as even remotely ‘presidentialized’. However, recent political changes, most prominently the selection and popularity of Junichiro Koizumi as Japan’s prime minister in the spring of 2001, have led to a surge of interest in the prime minister. This article focuses on one core aspect of the ‘presidentialization’ argument: the relationship between the prime minister, the media and elections. We seek to put the focus on the apparent sudden increase in importance of the Japanese prime minister in perspective, arguing that the newly noted importance of the prime minister is the culmination of a trend that began two decades ago.

Reprinted in Hood, ed., Politics of Modern Japan. Routledge, 2008.

Translated, reprinted as “日本は「大統領制」になったのか–日本における首相、メディア、選挙の関係” in「奈良法学会雑誌」21(3/4), 91-116, 2008.

Ellis S. Krauss and Benjamin Nyblade, “Japan and North America: The Vital and Variable Relationship.” In Krauss and Nyblade, eds., Japan and North America, Routledge, 2004. Vol. 1 Vol. 2

Abstract: The year 2003 marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of US-Japan relations. This set includes forthy-nine articles on the relationship between Japan and North America during this period, from the ‘opening’ of Japan to the West following the visit of the black ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 to the response of Japanese and American governments to terrorism at the dawn of hte 21st century. As in any work of this nature, there was much more that we would have liked to include; nevertheless, this set should serve as an excellent overview of the complex, multifaceted relationship between Japan and North America.

Mikitaka Masuyama and Benjamin Nyblade, “Japan: The Prime Minister and the Japanese Diet.” Journal of Legislative Studies 10(2/3): 250-62. Summer/Autumn 2004. PDF

Abstract: Traditionally, executive leadership has been considered weak and largely irrelevant in Japanese politics. The prime minister from 1955 to 1993 was selected from the dominant Liberal Democratic Party and was constrained by the strong internecine factional conflict in his party and, for much of the 1970s and early 1980s, a razor-thin parliamentary majority. Since 1993, coalition politics have become the norm. While most scholars suggest that coalition politics would constrain the executive even further, the decline of factionalism and increased efficacy of ‘going public’ has allowed a greater potential for executive leadership in Japan.

Reprinted, Baldwin, ed., Executive Leadership and Legislative Assemblies, 2006.