1994 Electoral Reform in Japan: Background, Process, and Impact on Governance and Public Policy

  • Etsuhiro NakamuraEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3263-1



The causes and processes of Japan’s 1994 electoral system reform and its consequences.


In Japan, four bills concerning electoral reform were passed in 1994, which finally changed the Japanese political landscape dramatically. In this section, the background of this reform, the process of the enactment of the laws, and the impact of the reform on governance and public policy will be discussed.

In the first part of the section, outline of the features of Japanese politics before the electoral reform is presented. Japan has adopted the single nontransferable vote multimember district (SNTV-MMD) system with moderate district magnitudes since 1925. SNTV-MMD, Chusenkyoku in Japanese, is the system where typically three to six seats were assigned to a district. Voters cast their vote by handwriting the name of one candidate. The candidates were ranked by the votes they got and elected if their ranks were within the number of seats assigned to the district. It is expounded upon why this system gives the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians the incentive to cultivate the personal vote and develop factions within the party.

In the second part, the process of the electoral reform is described. The triggering event was the Recruit money-for-influence scandal occurred in 1988. It is explained how this event finally resulted in electoral reform.

In the final part, the impact of the electoral reform on governance and public policies is described. The reform significantly strengthened the power of party leaders and the prime minister. In addition, public policy also changed to reflect the preference of urban voters because electoral reform partially resolved malapportionment. Simultaneously, reform of administrative institutions occurred such as decentralization and municipal mergers, which were the basis of the traditional distributive politics.

Electoral Politics Under the SNTV-MMD

SNTV-MMD had been used for the elections for the Japanese House of Representatives since 1925 until 1993 except for just one election in 1946. The introduction of the SNTV-MMD was said to be the compromise among the national parties at 1925. Since then, SNTV-MMD has strongly affected the development of Japanese politics and postwar LDP dominance. Under this system, parties that intended to have the majority of seats need to endorse several candidates in a district. In addition, the vote was not transferable, which means candidates from the same party fought each other for votes. The vote share for assuring the win is much smaller than the first pass the post-single member district (SMD).

This electoral institution had several effects on the strategy of candidates and parties. In this chapter, two points will be explained: SNTV-MMD encouraged so-called personal vote backed up by Koenkai and decentralized structure of LDP which internally have several factions. (For the more detailed comparison of the Koenkai and decentralized Factional politics before and after the electoral reform, see Krauss and Pekkanen 2010.)

First, under the SNTV-MMD, the electoral value of the party endorsement was not so high because there are usually several LDP candidates within the same districts. For the compensation for this weakness of the party label, candidates’ personal support organization, Koenkai, has been developed. Activities of Koenkai were said to become first prominent in the late 1950s, just after a few years since LDP was formed in 1955 (Kitaoka 2008). LDP originally utilized personal networks in rural agricultural areas as a major campaign instrument. However, the ties among people got weaker as the area economically developed and urbanization progressed. Therefore, LDP candidates began to develop Koenkai in suburban of metropolitan areas during the high-growth period in the 1960s because LDP candidates tried to compensate now weakening local ties by making their own personal support groups. Another type of Koenkai was created by economic purposes, whose members were small business owners and board members of companies and basically had economic purposes, aiming to join the distributive projects. Using survey research, the Associations for Promoting Fair Elections estimated the rate of persons who are the member of Koenkai (The number includes the Koenkais of both national and local politicians.). As shown in Fig. 1, the rate especially rose up during the 1970s when LDP’s popularity declined due to the oil shock and scandals.
Fig. 1

Estimated rate of Koenkai Members. (Source: General election survey by the Association for Promoting Fair Elections)

Koenkai provided several services for its members. Firstly, it provided recreational activities such as bus tours for sight-seeing. This type of recreational activities bonded the ties among members and important activities even now. Secondly, candidates tried to respond petitions for private matters, such as the job hunting for members’ family. Thirdly, the most important activities were the responses for petitions for local economic matters, such as the social infrastructure development, subsidies for local business and agriculture, and government approvals and licenses for local business activities.

Huge cost of maintaining Koenkai had been the source of money scandals. Under the SNTV-MMD era, it was said that maintaining one large Koenkai required a hundred million yen per year and senior legislators had several Koenkai (Ishikawa and Hirose 1989. For the overview of the history of money politics in Japan, see Carlson and Reed 2018). The money for maintaining them was legally and/or illegally provided by private companies in reward with the help for their business.

From a larger viewpoint, Ramseyer and Rosenbluth (1993) pointed out that this Koenkai strategy related to the coordination problem. In order to efficiently maximize the seat share under the SNTV, LDP should nominate an appropriate number of candidates and divide votes evenly to them. However, LDP could not have the party organization strong enough to tell its supporters which candidate they should vote for. Therefore, candidates had to divide their votes with a decentralized manner. One answer to this coordination problem was Koenkai and specialization on specific policy areas. LDP politicians usually have their own expertise such as agriculture and road construction. These policy areas are the territories of LDP legislators, and Koenaki were formed with the help of these sectoral associations of their expertise. By assuring their own territories, LDP politicians secured a portion of votes, which helped the equalization of vote share among LPD candidates.

In addition to the distributive politics through Koenkai, another conspicuous effect of SNTV-MMD is the rise of factional politics and the decentralized power structure in the governing party. It is said that factional politics, which existed as early as the LDP formed, has been boosted under the SNTV-MMD and rapid economic development after war.

Factions in LDP were the group of legislators whose aim was to get the leader to be the prime minister. There are at least two reasons why most legislators participated in a faction. The first reason is electoral. Under the SNTV-MMD, the formal organization of LDP could not focus on a specific candidate to help her election. Thus, factions played an important role in electoral politics recruiting potential candidates, instructing them how to prepare elections and so on. Factions also provided financial supports for young candidates and campaign assistance such as the public speech of senior factional members. They also encouraged the LDP election headquarter to endorse the candidates and helped them even if they could not have the endorsement.

In addition to the help in elections, factions also assured the carrier of their members. Typical carrier path of LDP legislators during the SNTV era began with an ordinary member of a division of a policy research council in LDP. Then they experienced several important posts, such as a director of a division of a policy research council of LDP and a vice minister, and finally they became a minister after they got reelected fourth or five times. To follow the path, they needed supports by other legislators as well as the knowledge of their expertise. Factions assured the carrier by backing up the members, especially when a member of a faction was behind the promotion race.

The development of factional politics curbed the powers of prime ministers. Officially prime minister of Japan has full authority to appoint ministers. The authority was limited in fact, because prime ministers could not neglect the recommendation list from each faction. Therefore, ministers’ loyalty and policy congruency to prime minister were also limited. Ministers are loyal to the head of their faction instead. In addition, bills should have been approved by the policy research council and the general council of LDP prior to the introduction to Diet. This custom was confirmed in as early as 1962 and still basically in effect since then. Therefore, it was sometimes referred as “strong party, weak government” phenomena. Although prime minister was powerful, the leaders of factions were so powerful as him that the LDP organizations were not amenable to them.

Process of the Electoral System Change

In this section, I shortly describe the process of the electoral system change (see Ohtake 1997, Curtis 2000 for more detailed explanation). Electoral reforms in 1994 originated from the Recruit money-for-influence scandal that occurred in 1988. The scandal involved many LDP politicians, as well as some opposition party politicians. Ezoe, the chairman of Recruit Co., gifted the stock of the Recruit Cosmos, which was the affiliated company of Recruit, for increasing his influence on politicians. The scandal involved Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, ex-prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, and other politicians who are/were at the center of power.

The Recruit scandal encouraged younger LDP politicians to recover the popularity of LDP by emphasizing the reform of the money politics. Especially these young politicians, including Yukio Hatoyama, considered the SNTV-MMD was the cause of the money politics, forcing them to engage distributive politics in their home districts. Thus, in 1999, the Political Reform Committee of LDP, Gotoda committee named after the committee chairman Gotoda Masaharu, proposed the reform of the electoral institution. The original idea was to introduce the SMD combined with the proportional representation. In Japan, severe restrictions of the campaign period and finance do not allow candidates to use extensive media campaign such as broadcasting huge amount of TV CF. Instead, candidates use traditional “rally” as the major tool to campaign themselves. Therefore, the size of a district directly affects the amount of campaign funds. Thus, it is natural to introduce the single member district to set up lower-budget elections. However, the proposal of the idealists of such young politicians was not smoothly accepted in LDP. Although the electoral reform bills were proposed in the Diet, they were not enacted (see Table 1 for reference).
Table 1

Timeline to the 1994 Electoral Reform. (Source: Otake (1997) and Asahi Shinbun Newspaper)



LDP established the Political Reform Committee (Gotoda Committee)



LDP confirmed the Outline for Political Reform, which included the reform of the electoral institution


LDP established the Headquarter of Political Reform (Chairman Masayoshi Ito)


Kaifu administration started



39th General Election


8th Electoral System Council (advisory board to prime minister) reported to introduce a new electoral system. 300 SMD seats and 200 PR seats with 11 blocks



General Council of LDP confirmed the party-line vote for the three bills concerning the electoral system reform


Kaifu cabinet approved the three bills concerning the electoral system reform


Kaifu cabinet proposed the bills to Diet


The Special Committee on the Political Reform at the House of Representatives turned down the bills


Parties agreed to make a council on political reform of parties


Miyazawa administration started



Hosokawa build Japan New Party


16th Election of House of Councilors


Ozawa built a new faction



LDP submitted bills that proposed SMD only system


Japan Socialist Party/ Clean Government Party submitted bills that proposed 200 SMD seats and 300 PR seats


The Special Committee on the Political Reform at the House of Representatives agreed to introduce a new electoral institution, which paid regard to LDP bills and JSP/CGP bills


Passage of the no confidence motion against Miyazawa Cabinet


Sakigake formed


40th General Election


Hosokawa administration started


Hosokawa submitted bills that proposed 250 SMD seats and 250 PR seats


LDP submitted bills that proposed 300 SMD seats and 171 PR seats



Hosokawa and Kono, the president of LDP, agreed the compromise

Ichiro Ozawa utilized the opportunity and set the agenda of the electoral reform too. Ozawa created a new faction and put forward the political reform after he failed to succeed to the largest faction in LDP. This strategy of Ozawa created conflict among LDP politicians, and Ozawa blamed some factions as anti-reformists.

Another key factor was the emergence of the Japan New Party. The Japan New Party was built by Hosokawa Morihiro, the former governor of Kumamoto prefecture, and did not have strong intention to reform electoral institutions originally. However, in order to keep the reformist image, they set the political reform as an important political goal. Politicians joined to the Japan New Party were not laymen in politics in fact, but they did not have strong district-level organizations. It was the advantage to reform electoral institution because the local district-level organization did not strongly resist to the redistriction.

After Miyazawa cabinet failed to enact the political reform bills in 1993, Ozawa and his faction split the LDP and formed a new party, Japan Renewal Party, and approved no-confidence motion against Miyazawa cabinet. As the result of the 1993 election, neither LDP nor opposition parties had the majority of the House of Representatives. Sakigake, which was formed by the younger idealists of ex-LDP legislators and the Japan New Party, thus had the casting vote for making a new cabinet. In order to keep the reformist image, they cooperated with other opposition parties and build Hosokawa cabinet. The logic of the cooperation was the reform of money politics, blaming LDP was reluctant to reform its money politics. Although Prime Minister Hosokawa said he would resign the job if the political reform laws were not passed in 1993, difficult negotiation among parties continued, and the laws were finally passed in March 1994.

As for the electoral system reform, the basic framework for the reform was the same as the Gotoda committee has submitted to LDP and been rejected under the Kaifu government. The proposed electoral system was the mixed electoral system of SMD and party-list proportional representatives (PR). It is also called parallel voting system because voters have two ballots for two separate elections, SMD and PR, held simultaneously. Reformists did not intend to introduce PR only system. Party-centered politics, which was the original goal of the reformists, should have been attained if the closed list PR was introduced. However, the system was not popular when the House of Councilors used it (1983–1998) because candidates did not work seriously for parties during the campaign periods.

The ratio of the SMD and PR was the most difficult point to agree with because it affects the big impact on the seat share of elections. Therefore, LDP insisted that the ratio of PR should be small and the PR district should be 47 prefectures. On the other hands, small parties tried to enlarge the ratio of PR seats and insisted PR district be an entire country. After the difficult negotiation, the PR system with 11 geographically divided blocks was introduced.

Finally, in 1994, the discussion was ended with the compromise that 300 SMD seats and 200 PR seats with 11 PR districts. Redistricting could be the cause of great conflicts but was not determined then, and the law requested to make a special committee for the redistriction later. As of Dec 2017, the total number of seats is 465 as the results of several reforms of the law. The geographical distribution of 11 blocks and the number of seats for each block and prefecture as of Dec 2017 are depicted in Fig. 2.
Fig. 2

Geographical distribution of the seats as of Dec 2017. (The figure is adopted from the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. http://www.soumu.go.jp/senkyo/senkyo_s/naruhodo/naruhodo03.html)

On the other hand, reforms on political funds did not cause a serious conflict among major parties. According to the new law, political funds from private companies, labor unions, and other groups were more strictly restricted while public funds was newly introduced. The Japan Communist Party was at that time rich in funds and only one party which strongly resisted the introduction of public funds. The law said 250 yen per citizen, about total 3.2 billion yen, was distributed to parties according to their seat share in the Diet and vote share in national elections. Originally, the amount of the public funds was limited up to two thirds of the revenue of the previous year. This limitation was severe so that it was abolished next year.

Effects of Electoral Institutional Reform

Because of the electoral institutional reform, Japanese election became more party-centered and policy-oriented. However, it was not clear during the 1990s and early 2000s. From the current perspective, voter-party relationship at that time was extremely unstable. After 1993, parties merged and dispatched frequently. The percentage of independents among voters tremendously rose as shown in Fig. 3.
Fig. 3

Ratio of independent voters. (Source: Monthly Opinion Poll by Jiji Press)

However, election in Japan got increasingly party-centered since then. Figure 4 shows the ratio of voters who weight the party more than the candidate. As shown in the figure, the ratio increased especially in the 2000s. Contrary, the ratio of voters who weight the candidate more has been decreasing. (For more systematic analysis of party-centered election, see Maeda 2008.)
Fig. 4

Which weight more, Party or Candidate? (Source: General Election Survey by the Association for Promoting Fair Elections)

Adopting the concept of manifesto was one reason for the party-centered election too. After the electoral reform, political movement occurred that insisted manifesto should be introduced emulating the United Kingdom. However, under the Public Office Election Law at that time, manifesto could not be distributed in the form of brochures. In 2003, the law was revised to allow candidates to distribute brochures, and the DPJ started the campaign that the voters should choose the party by comparing manifestos. Other parties followed the move of DPJ.

It is also notable that the electoral influence of Koenkai got weaker. As shown in Fig. 1, the estimated rate of membership gradually dropped after the 1990s. Partly the reason was economical: because of the longtime depression after the babble economy and companies saved membership fee. In addition, the national government reduced the amount of public works, which reduced the attractiveness of joining a Koenkai too. From the candidate viewpoint, it is also true that the role of Koenkai was less important in determining the electoral outcome than that under the SNTV-MMD era. The number of newly elected legislators was 77 in 2009 and 93 in 2012, which were much larger number than before. In both elections, the main theme of the elections was whether voters would approve the current governing party or not. In such elections, candidates who only have weak local personal organizations can collect floating votes by the name of their party. Although still candidates need Koenkai for their campaign purpose because the formal organization of LDP (and some other opposition parties) is weak, the era of Koenkai-based personal vote has ended, and the presidentialization of electoral politics started.

The premise of manifesto election is the centralization within LDP and government. In Japan, traditionally the leadership of prime minister had been limited. Instead, public policies were strongly influenced by the LDP expert legislators, Zoku giin in Japanese. Zoku giin, meaning the tribe legislator in Japanese, has deep knowledge and influence in particular policy areas. For example, the post and telecommunication tribe is the group of LDP legislators who experienced several important positions concerning the post and telecommunication policies in government and LDP. However, during the administrative reform occurred in the late 1990s, several reforms on administrative structure have been made to strengthen the prime minister’s policy leadership. For example, staff organizations as well as the number of staffs directly reported to prime minister were strengthened. These reforms allowed prime minister to deprive the policy leadership from the LDP expert legislators.

Koizumi government utilized these new administrative structures. Prime minister Koizumi used the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, newly established staff organization for determining the fundamental policies for government, and set the fiscal framework first. Koizumi also neglected factions’ recommendation lists for ministers and virtually abolished the custom so that newly appointed ministers and other cabinet members were loyal to him. Using these strategies, Koizumi could decrease the distributive projects and advanced the reform of the fiscal decentralization and privatization of post office (see Kamikawa 2010 and Maclachlan 2012 for the leadership of Koizumi and privatization of post office).

The 2005 House of Representatives election revealed the power of the president of the LDP under the new electoral system. Koizumi proposed the privatization of post office. However, some LDP legislators strongly opposed the proposition because postmasters of small commissioned post offices had long supported LDP. The General Council of LDP, which has the authority to decide party-line votes for a bill, adopts the unanimous rule. Because some legislators strongly opposed to the bill, the General Council exceptionally made the decision by a majority for the privatization. In the Diet, the bill was rejected because 37 LDP legislators voted against the bill in the House of Representatives and 22 legislators did it in the House of Councilors. Although the 37 legislators included ex-ministers and leaders of factions, Koizumi called the election and did not endorse them. Moreover, he sends new and potent candidates against them. As the result, LDP gained a big victory in 2005 election, and almost half of revelers were not reelected.

This political event revealed two facts. First, the president of LDP did have a strong policy leadership now and it was difficult to resist it even if revelers contributed to the LDP a lot until then. Under the SNTV-MMD, they could run an election as independents, and their factions could help them during/after the election. However, now factions could not help the revelers. Second, voters really understood the fact that, under the SMD, the landslide victory occurred, and they could use the election to choose the next prime minister. Thus, in 2009 and 2012 elections, they strongly punished the governing party in turn.

The electoral institutional reforms encouraged the centralization of power to LDP president. With the administrative reforms occurred in the early 2000s, now prime minister does have a stronger power and policy leadership. Still, the policy council of LDP has strong influence on each policy area, and the LDP decision-making is basically a bottom-up style. However, Koizumi government showed that top-down decision-making was possible if a prime minister was willing to do so. In addition, the result of the election changed power structure of LDP itself. Koizumi did not have a strong factional support and thus had difficulties to penetrate his leadership in the first half of his government. However, after the election in 2005, his power became strongest, and nobody could challenge him (Kamikawa 2010). Now LDP legislators understood the power of the president of LDP although still only Koizumi and Abe showed strong policy leadership (Krauss and Pekkanen 2015).

Traditional distributive policy of LDP changed too. First, because electoral reform partially resolved malapportionment, LDP got more sensitive to the preference of urban voters. During the 1990s, the LDP government provided large amounts of public works in order to recover the depression after the bubble economy. However, it was very unpopular especially among urban voters. Therefore, from the 2000s, the amounts of public works have quickly reduced under the Koizumi government. Currently, even LDP cannot neglect urban voters, where the popularity and votes of LDP are especially volatile.

Institutions that traditionally supported LDP’s clientelistic politics have been changed too. For example, the number of local politicians is dramatically reduced due to the municipal mergers. Once, local politicians were considered an important campaign resource for LDP. However, it was so costly maintaining large number of municipalities and politicians that the national government encouraged municipal mergers and the number of municipalities reduced to about half. Decentralization has also been progressing. Traditionally, the important role of LDP legislator was to bring the pork projects into their home district utilizing the large fiscal transfer (Scheiner 2005). However, decentralization weakened the local-central fiscal ties and reduced the clientelistic relationship. These phenomena occurred, from a larger perspective, because the SNTV-MMD was abolished and incentive structure has changed.


In this chapter, the 1994 Electoral Reform in Japan is explained, focusing on the background, its process, and electoral, administrative, and policy impacts. The 1994 electoral reform had big effects on Japanese politics. However, still party system is volatile. In addition, although 20 years have already passed since the mixed electoral system was introduced, still electoral reform is ongoing. Especially, in this chapter, the disparity of values of votes between constituencies is not mentioned, which is a cause of ongoing electoral system reforms. These problems should be targets of future scholarly research.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Policy StudiesAichi Gakuin UniversityNisshinJapan