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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Japan

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: March 2014

Government and Politics

The State of Japan is governed according to the post-war (1947) constitution, which is mostly in line with Western constitutions. However, there is a notable article that forswears any aggressive military action. In July 2014, ostensibly in response to a resurgent China, the Cabinet passed a motion that reinterprets this article, allowing Japan to act in the ‘collective self-defence’ of its allies when they are attacked.

Japan is a constitutional hereditary monarchy, and the only country in the world still to have an emperor as its head of state. The current emperor, Akihito, acceded to the throne in 1989. The emperor’s role is even more ceremonial than that of other constitutional monarchs. Among other duties, he appoints key figures such as the prime minister and chief justice of the Supreme Court, opens and dissolves the National Diet and awards honours. However, he cannot take any of these actions without the cabinet’s express approval.

The person with the most political power in Japan is the prime minister, currently Shinzo Abe. Historically, the role of prime minister in Japan has been more consultative and persuasive than directorial. It is only in the last decade or so that this has changed, and Shinzo Abe has increased his powers further since he was elected in 2012.

The prime minister must be the leader of the party with the most seats in the Diet. He is the leader of the Cabinet, which forms the executive and contains up to 14 ministers of state. A majority of cabinet members must also be members of the Diet. The prime minister has free rein to appoint and dismiss Cabinet members, and more power than is usually the case to control and supervise them.

Election of the Japanese legislature, the National Diet, is by means of universal suffrage of all adults aged 20 and over. The Diet is bicameral; the lower house is the House of Representatives, in which 480 representatives sit for four-year terms. Of these, 300 are elected to single-seat constituencies and the remainder are elected by proportional representation. The House of Representatives takes precedence over the House of Councillors in key matters such as passing legislation and controlling the budget.

The upper house, the House of Councillors, consists of 242 councillors who are elected by means of simple majority for six-year terms. Councillors are elected in two batches that are three years apart. Most (146) of the councillors are members of multi-seat constituencies, the remainder are elected as a result of proportional representation.

Although the government is more interventionist than those of Western countries, Japan has no major leftist parties. The four largest political parties are the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP, right-wing), Japan Restoration party (more right-wing), and the Democratic Party of Japan and New Komeito (centrist). Currently, the LDP is in a coalition government with the New Komeito.

Legal Systems

The Japanese legal system is based on civil law as it is codified; there are five major codes. The basis of the judicial system is European (especially German) law, though there are additional influences from English and US common law. This is mostly seen in the large body of case law, which is especially important in the fields of commercial and tax law.

The highest court in the land is the Supreme Court, which reviews legislative acts made by the Cabinet and conducts judicial reviews of the National Diet. The next highest courts are the high or appellate courts. Each prefecture also has a district court and a family court (Hokkaido has four of each.)



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