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Japan: Beacon of Democratic Light?

Japan has a problem of overrepresentation of rural voters in their political system, as does the United States. Is Japan making progress?

May 29, 2013

Hinomisaki Lighthouse in Izumo, JapanCredit: 663highland - Wikipedia (CC BY 2.5)

Liberal Democratic Party leader Shinzo Abe’s landslide victory in December 2012 has been touted as a victory for those tired of the revolving door of Japanese leaders.

Certainly, hopes remain high that Abe will finally put an end to the cycle of Japan having seven prime ministers in as many years.

Yet criticism is bubbling up across the nation that the electoral system is skewed in the LDP’s favor.

In fact, a number of regional courts across Japan have declared the latest election results as invalid as they violate the constitution’s guarantee of one person, one vote.

Long seen as a champion of agriculture and conservative interests, the LDP has benefitted from the fact that rural districts are overrepresented under the current voting system.

For instance, one vote in Chiba, a Tokyo suburb, is equal to 2.43 votes in the rural southwestern prefecture of Kochi.

That kind of over-representation of non-urban areas mirrors that of the U.S. system, which ensures that each of the 50 states is represented by two senators, regardless of size.

Small population, rural states like Montana and Wyoming thus each have two Senators but only one representative each in the House of Representatives, while California has 53 members — and still just two Senators.

Yet in the United States, any public outcry over the existing unfair system of voter representation has been muted.

In Japan, however, disgruntlement about Abe’s victory last December has spurred some of the country’s top legal minds to challenge the authorities.

In March 2013, a judge in Hiroshima ruled that the parliamentary election results were invalid on constitutional grounds, as the existing system was unfairly skewed in favor of the ruling party.

Never mind that the district she presides over includes the seat of foreign minister Fumio Kishida, a formidable political force within the LDP. In pronouncing her decision to void the two seats in her jurisdiction, Judge Junko Ikadatsu gave the government seven months to come up with an alternative voting system that would better reflect public voice.

Meanwhile in Okayama, western Japan, judge Noriyoshi Katano also ruled last month that the December 2012 election results are invalid and called for a revote.

In announcing his ruling, Katano said that the Japanese supreme court had left “enough time to fix the disparity.”

Indeed, the country’s supreme court had ruled in 2010 that elections held the previous year were held in a “state of unconstitutionality.”

It said the present voting system did not reflect the fact that more and more people were moving out of the rural districts and going to urban areas.

The court left it to the politicians, however, to fix the problem of rural voter over-representation.

The question now is whether outrage from within the judicial system, coupled with heightened disgruntlement, will lead to electoral reform any time soon?

Certainly, numerous options including slashing the number of lower house seats, have been considered.

Yet, given that there is only a short time left before the upcoming upper house elections in July, there will certainly be no chance for any systemic reform before then.

What’s more, if Prime Minister Abe’s ruling party wins outright as expected, the LDP will control both houses of the Diet.

This is bound to cement Abe’s leadership still further. As a result, any hopes for the prime minister to take a firm stance on the issue of equitable voter representation are in doubt.

It is quite likely that a plethora of pressing issues — North Korea’s nuclear threat, territorial disputes in the East China Sea, and negotiating entry into the world’s largest trade deal in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement — may mean that electoral reform may once again be put on the back burner.

After all, hunger for political stability may well outweigh desire for more equitable voter representation, even as the momentum for reform is now in its favor more than ever.


Japan's system of overrepresentation of nonurban areas mirrors that of the U.S. system.

A judge gave the government seven months to come up with a new voting system that would better reflect the public.

Hunger for political stability may well outweigh desire for more equitable voter representation.