The Success and Survival of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party

From the Lecture Series: The Rise of Modern Japan

By Mark J. Ravina, The University of Texas at Austin

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has governed Japan almost exclusively since the end of World War II. It held power for 61 of the 65 years between 1955 and 2020, making postwar Japan look a lot like a one-party state. So, how did the party manage to stay in power for so long? How did it survive all the competition? Let’s find out.

Map of Japan with major landmarks, Tokyo, Osaka, Mt. Fuji, highlighted.
The LDP faced little competition to uproot its deep-seated reign. (Image: Jarretera/Shutterstock)

Threat from Socialists

In 1955, the conservative and liberal wings of the Japanese Socialist Party managed to stop fighting each other long enough to create a partnership. This left Japanese conservatives and the US government concerned that the socialists might form a stable center-left coalition.

As a result, Japan’s two center-right parties—the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party—merged to create a united front in the form of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

America Supports LDP

The United States was also convinced that the socialists were receiving help from Moscow. And so, the US covertly supported the LDP with millions of dollars. There were rumors about this for years, and it was eventually confirmed in declassified CIA documents.

But, by the late 1960s, US support was inconsequential. By then, the LDP was a self-sustaining political machine. It used a wide range of patronage schemes to remain in power. These ran the gamut from legal tactics like directing infrastructure projects to loyal districts, all the way to clearly illegal practices, such as steering government contracts in exchange for kickbacks.

Support from the Electoral System

But political patronage alone doesn’t explain how the LDP held on to power for so long. Another key factor was the electoral system itself, which favored conservative rural districts.

The Japan electoral system did have automatic periodic redistricting, so it was slow to react to demographic changes. And, therefore, farm districts kept their seats even as Japan’s population moved from the countryside to the cities. Consequently, farmers were consistently overrepresented.

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So, How Did LDP Win Seats?

Each rural district had one representative while urban districts elected multiple representatives. That gave the LDP safe seats in the countryside and the possibility of getting additional seats in the urban districts.

For example, if the socialists tried to get all four seats in an urban district, they might inadvertently split the vote and let an LDP candidate sneak in with only 10% or 20% of the vote. So, the LDP had a structural advantage.

From the 1960s until electoral reform in 1994, the socialists consistently got around 20% of the vote and the LDP between 40% and 50%. But even when the LDP fell under 50% of the vote, it almost always won a simple majority in the lower house—or so close to a majority that it could pull in some independents or small parties to form a government.

LDP’s Winning Streak Ends

Various long- and short-term factors came together at play in the 1993 general election. It seemed like a political earthquake—like the dawn of a new era in Japanese politics. After almost 40 years, LDP dominance had ended. However, the new government was weak and unstable.

Then in 1994, the socialists broke away to form a different coalition with—amazingly—the LDP. That coalition lasted about two years. So, the LDP was out of power for a total of about three years.

But none of those coalitions were strong enough or stable enough to address Japan’s collapsing economy. The strange alliance of the LDP with its former enemies—the socialists—ended in 1996.

LDP’s Comeback

Two people shaking hands against the flag of Japan
The LDP-Kōmeitō alliance helped revive the long-lost glory of LDP. (Image: Vepar5/Shutterstock)

The LDP enjoyed a resurgence from 1996 until 2009. The party did well at the polls, but part of its resurgence was also a new alliance that started in 1999 with the Kōmeitō party, usually translated as the Clean Government Party, but also sometimes as the Justice Party.

The LDP-Kōmeitō alliance was not as strange as the earlier LDP-Socialist alliance. But it was a strange coalition, nonetheless. For example, the Kōmeitō bent its pacifist principles to accommodate the LDP.

The Kōmeitō got social welfare programs for its constituents in return. (During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the Kōmeitō pushed the LDP to increase the size of direct relief payments.)

It also pushed the LDP on things like healthcare costs. And as part of a ruling coalition, the Kōmeitō can direct government money to its constituents for local development projects. It was a transactional but effective coalition.

LDP lost the elections once again in 2009 after enjoying a long run, only to bounce back in 2012.

LDP’s Winning Strategy

Working together, the LDP and Kōmeitō built a political machine designed for the new electoral system. They don’t compete in key districts. Instead, they tell supporters to vote for the other party.

The strategy aimed at yielding more seats for both parties. Then both parties can reward their districts with political favors. Vote for LDP or Kōmeitō, and your district gets more money. It might not be ethical but it’s legal. By contrast, the opposition remains fragmented and self-destructive.

No Worthy Opponents

Another factor contributing to LDP’s success is the lack of a clear alternative to the LDP, especially in foreign policy. The DPJ had promised a new, warmer relationship with China. When that failed, the party couldn’t formulate a coherent alternative.

In contrast, the LDP policy is clear, even though scary. The LDP wants to revise Article 9 of the constitution to give Japan a full army so that it prepares for a military contest with China.

Overall, the LDP’s success is something of a paradox. Japanese voters keep returning the party to power even though they oppose one of the party’s major goals: an enlarged military. The ambivalence shows up at election time when Japanese voters give the LDP majorities, but not enough of a majority to change the constitution.

Common Questions about the Success and Survival of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party

Q: For how long was the LDP in power?

The LDP ruled Japan for 60 years between 1995 and 2020. Its reign began in 1995 and continued till 2020 with a brief hiatus in between from 1993 to 1996 and once again from 2009 to 2012.

Q: When was the LDP formed?

The LDP was formed in 1955 when Japan’s two center-right parties—the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party—merged to create a united front.

Q: How did the LDP make a comeback in 2009?

The LDP did well at the polls in 2009, a reason for its resurgence was a new alliance with the Kōmeitō that started in 1999.

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