True Meritocracy

LDP and the Uncommon Democracy of Japan


Japan had all the formal institutions of democracy, though one party was able to dominate politics for half a decade. I will propose and test two explanatory hypotheses, one resting on LDP[1]´s socioeconomic track record and the other on east-west (collectivism-individualism) cultural differences. Factors used to test these hypotheses are LDP´s pro-business, pro-bureaucracy, clientelism and its economic theory. By analyzing central LDP strategies and the literature on east-west cultural frameworks I reach the conclusion that my first hypothesis is stronger than the second in relation to the aforementioned factors.   

KEYWORDS: Japan, LDP, clientelism, bureaucracy, business, conservatism, Robin Akert 

[1] The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan


Postwar Japan is similar to Sweden, Italy and Israel in being one of the “uncommon democracies” where one party has ruled from generation to generation. While it had all the formal institutions of other democracies around the world, LDP´s reign nevertheless stands as the most extreme example of how long a single political party can dominate politics. It virtually controlled all cabinet posts for 38 years by having approximately 2:1 majority over the largest opposition party.(Pempel, 2010, pp.232-233)


LDP dominated politics in post-war Japan right up until recent times. Which factor(s) best explains this one-party dominance in an otherwise democratic country?


Most westerners have a burning desire to spread democracy throughout the world, and many where pleased by the sight of democracy flowering in Japan. It did however seem like the soil only supported the flourishing of one particular flower called LDP, and that has evoked the interests of scholars with various theoretical backgrounds. Competition for political power is key to a vibrant democracy, so it´s important to uncover which of LDP´s strategies proved so effective and persuasive. How did LDP accumulate such power, and what can we learn from it? Is democracy a western cultural phenomenon and not an inevitable teleological unfolding of history?

The majority of theories on why and how political parties rise, stay and fall from power have arisen within the research fields of political behavior and comparative politics. The problem with these theories is that they are most accurate when applied to “normal” democratic countries, and might lose some of their usefulness when studying a peculiar and unique case like that of Japan. Applying theories on how non-democratic states maintain power might on the other hand be inappropriate since Japan actually did have all the formal democratic institutions in place. Since more general theories might prove inadequate in answering my research question and testing my hypotheses, I must base myself on the work of scholars who are specialists on Japan and east-Asian politics and history.

            Pempel (2010) argues that LDP´s rule was interdependent on economic growth, and more specifically on striking a balance between the interests of rural and urban Japan; i.e. the tension between pork-and-barrel spending and productivity. Reed, Scheiner and Thies (2012) have also looked at the difference between rural and urban Japan, but they focus more on how political strategies has changed and especially on how clientelism was favored by LDP in the past. Crespo (1995) argues that understanding the role of the bureaucracy is especially important when you want to understand LDP´s long rule, since many bureaucrats where conservatists. This focus on the bureaucracy is also favored by Johnson (1999), and his work on the developmental state-model; though both Crespo and Johnson would meet opposition from scholars who has a more market-oriented explanatory approach. LDP´s 2009 fall from power might be explained by sociologist Robert Merton´s theory of relative deprivation, i.e. that people feel bereaved when they get less than what they feel entitled to; a slowdown of economic growth in Japan would cause such a feeling.   

            Somewhat novel approaches in explaining the various developmental differences we see between the west and east come from social psychologists (Akert,, 2010; Jen and Lien, 2010) and consumer researchers (John and Monga, 2007) who argue that westerners and easterners literally think differently, and there are studies showing this to have a genetic basis as well. Gorodnichenko and Roland (201-) summarized various studies on individualism and collectivism and finds that genes that code for the amount of stress hormones to be released when one experiences social rejection, like G allele in polymorphism A118G, are more prevalent among people in collectivistic cultures (Gorodnichenko and Roland, 201-, p.9). Western individualism and eastern collectivism might partly be due to different neuronal mechanisms, and that LDP´s long rule might be connected to a collectivistic disposition among Japanese people. It’s however important to be aware that Sweden also is one of those uncommon democracies, and it actually scores high on individualism (Gorodnichenko and Roland, 201-, p.29).  Few social scientists will gladly accept such genetic findings or explanatory models, and the role of genes in explaining cultural differences is still taboo in the 21th century.


From the theories above I derive both a primary and competing hypothesis that are intended to answer my research question. These hypotheses will be set-up against each other and I will by the end of this paper figure out which one has most explanatory weight. 

H1) Primary Hypothesis: If a political party is interconnected with the main arenas of economic growth, then people will vote for it as long as growth is maintained.

H2) Competing Hypothesis: If a political party seizes power in a collectivistic nation, then it’s expected to be able to maintain power even if individual voter incentives change. 


There is empirical data supporting and negating both my primary and secondary hypotheses. It’s rare to find one factor being able to explain a phenomenon in the social sciences, but that should not lead one to relativism; there is still ample opportunity to uncover that some factors explain the cause of an observation better than others. I will first look at the context in which LDP did rise to power, and then look at its connection with business, especially clientelism, and the nature of Japans postwar bureaucracy and socioeconomic theory. These will be my cases and will be used to test my hypotheses.

LDP’s Winning Recipe: Growth, Growth and More Growth?

LDP was the result of the Liberal and Democratic Party joining hands in November 1955 after a long feud. Japans business community had become tiered over the feuds between the Liberals and the Democrats, and wanted a strong conservative union to dampen the challenges from the socialists.(Reed, Scheiner and Thies, 2012, pp.355-356).

A Japan ravaged by war literally had to start from scratch, and that forced public servants and businessmen to consider completely new ideas and ways to rehabilitate the formerly militaristic country. Much of Japans postwar industry was based on newly imported technology that mightily increased Japans productivity, and profit made where often invested in order to further increase growth. A highly educated and energetic workforce further contributed to growth, and their expertise made it possible for Japan to make automobiles and high-technology one of its main exports.(Ohno, 2006, pp.106-110) 

LDP politician Yoshida Shigeru played a key role in forming an alliance between LDP, the bureaucracy, and business (small and big, but primarily big) and agriculture; this became known as the ruling triad (Crespo, 1995, p.200). Yoshida is credited as being the architect that shaped Japans postwar political system, and studying this triad is central in order to understand LDP´s long dominance. Like the story of the blind men and the elephant, each part of this triad accurately explain certain factors contributing to LDP´s dominance, but it´s only by studying the shape these interlocking parts make-up that we can fully understand it. Cooperation between corporate and governmental sectors proved to be a great advantage since corporations then could take greater risks to maximize even greater rewards. This cooperation is unlike what we have seen in the west, especially U.S. in which a free and open market is central, and with as little government as possible being an ideal. U.S. companies have however claimed that Japan has engaged in predatory capitalism, and Japans Fair Trade Commission does have a list of unfair practices (Japan Fair Trade Commission, 2011). A clear example showing the benefits of the triad is the development of LCD technology, which required government R&D investment and private initiative. American companies failed to get government support[1], and the multi-billion dollar LCD industry is now in east-Asian hands.

LDP´s rise and fate would become gradually interconnected with ever increasing economic growth according to H1. With economic growth being the litmus-test either legitimizing or de-legitimizing its further hold on power, we would expect to see the fall of LDP happening concomitant with economic stagnation or recession. H2 would however predict that LDP could be doing fine even during bad times because it was a part of Japanese collectivistic identity. 



As aforementioned Yoshida placed economic rehabilitation as the primary national goal in the aftermath of WWII, and this became known as the Yoshida Doctrine. U.S. military protection stipulated in Article 9 meant that Japan did not need to spend much money on maintaining an army; hence it had more to spend on economic recovery. Richard Nixon did however, in the throngs of rising cold war costs and Soviet expansion, lament that Article 9 was a mistake since it made it easy for Japanese officials to refuse rearmament.(Ohno, 2006, pp.156-158) 

While Article 9 gave LDP more money to spend on recovery, it early became clear that big business and industrialization dances to a different tune than small business and agriculture. Urban Japan wanted to see high-growth and productivity, while rural regions demanded protection (pork-barrel-spending) against big business devouring small business and the threat of cheaper overseas imports (Pempel, 2010, p.235). This meant that LDP politicians where pulled in different directions depending on which constituency they represented. Hence, LDP and Japans politics where not homogeneous, and this goes against H2; LDP did have to cater to the individual wants of its various partners.

Japans socioeconomic growth philosophy continued over time, and became firmly etched into LDP´s existence, if not fate, by Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda. He was prime minister from 19 July 1960 to 9 November 1964 and played a central role in forming the socioeconomic ideology of LDP, also called GNP´ism. He promised a doubling of Japanese citizen’s personal income if LDP stayed in power; something that became reality by 1967 (Ohno, 2006, p.167).  Isolationism became another characteristic through which it started to look more like a trading company than a country. LDP´s socioeconomic policies favored productivity and growth over social programs and consumption (Pempel, 2010, p.232). The rapid economic growth in Japan and the strength of LDP seem to be mutually enforcing and this naturally made it very hard for the opposition to conjure up good arguments against the continuation of LDP´s reign.

When it comes to H1, this doubling of personal income would be expected to increase the risk of Japanese citizens experiencing relative deprivation because their standards had risen dramatically. LDP was not dethroned until it faced defeat in the 2009 election, and even though H1 would predict that it might lose ground during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, LDP weathered that storm since Japan was hit relatively little compared with its neighbors.  


José Antonio Crespo (1995) thinks that LDP´s alliance with the bureaucracy is central in understanding its success in the face of a post-war Japan teeming with progressive movements. He reasons that conservative ideas where common among bureaucrats since they were largely exempted from the post-war purge. Conservative parties in Japan moved long-serving bureaucrats into leading positions in their parties. The Diet was supposed to be the states sole law-making organ and center of power, but the strength of the bureaucracy further manifested itself in that half of the cabinet seats and every prime minister where former bureaucrats.(Crespo, 1995, pp.200-203)

            The aforementioned close cooperation between big business and government was central in increasing national productivity and hence GDP. Bureaucrats in the economic ministries where tasked with coordinating this interplay and provide the necessary technical assistance (Pempel, 2010, p.235). A study of Japans bureaucracy shows that LDP was tightly interconnected with it, and that indirectly supports H1.  


It´s understood as a principal-agent relationship in which the agent (politician) receives resources from the client (financier and/or supporter), with the agent being expected to transfer resources he gets from the principle (electorate) back to the client in the future. These bonds can be asymmetrical or symmetrical, and they become a breeding ground for corruption when the client sells his vote for services he is not entitled to.(McLean and McMillan, 2012)
            LDP politicians personal networks made it possible for individual candidates to win seats even when the party itself was unpopular. Clientelism was especially important for LDP´s work in rural Japan. The agricultural sector was very pleased by LDP´s ability to increase subsidies, the price of agricultural products and import barriers. LDP´s lax culture when it came to patronage played out well in rural Japan since local tax revenues was too low. (Reed, Scheiner and Thies, 2012, pp.359-361)

Clientelism had however gone so far in Japan that forces within LDP wanted politics to become more partisan and less personalistic. Ozawa Ichiro and Tsutomu Hata had both risen to power within LDP, but where becoming disillusioned when corruption scandals began to mount. The contending forces within LDP caused it to tear at the seams, with many being drawn toward Ichiro and Hata´s Renewal Party (Reed, Scheiner and Thies, 2012, p.361). The aforementioned close ties between corporations and government, that once where fruitful, started to lose its sweet flavor when inefficiency and corruption became its characteristics. Particularism in general faced mounting opposition partly as the result of a demographic change where a large amount of elders pushed for higher welfare spending. The urban population in general preferred programmatic spending since they did not benefit much from particularism.(Reed, Scheiner and Thies, 2012, pp.362-363).

A change of the electoral system itself was deemed necessary in order to bring about more partisan politics. By 1994 electoral system reform was introduced and 200 seats in the lower house Diet where now to be filled by proportional representation (PR) with single-member districts: PR gives people the choice between different parties and not individual candidates. Multimember-districts (single non-transferable vote) where used in the past, and that naturally incentivized voters to consider the candidate over party characteristics. Rational Choice theorists expected that such a change of voting system would profoundly alter the structure of LDP, but where met with disappointment (Stockwin, 2012, p.200). Stockwin´s findings support H2. H2 is however weakened by the fact that rural and urban voters shifted their political preferences dramatically since 2005; in the face of any expected party-loyalty (Reed, Scheiner and Thies, 2012, p.353). The various anti-LDP coalitions that had formed during its long rule, where later to morph and make-up the foundation of the center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) that dethroned LDP in the 2009 general election. 

After 38 years in control of Japan´s development, LDP faced defeat. Its success rested heavily on its ability to enrich Japan, and confronting the inability to do so spelled its downfall. But, LDP´s decline might not have been as rapid as that account indicates. LDP´s decline was gradual but noticeable. LDP´s share of votes had steadily declined from the 1960s onward (Reed, Scheiner and Thies, 2012, p.359). This supports H1, and weakens H2.

One of the most, if not the most, contentious political topic in postwar times is what kind of role government should play in economic growth. By the end of WWII you had a world ideologically torn between liberalistic or socialistic economic theories; respectively growth-from-below and growth-from-above.

A theorist that has argued that growth-from-above explain Japans growth is revisionist Chalmers Johnson, the man who coined the term “developmental state” to describe the cooperation between business and government in Japan (Johnson, 1999). The masterminds behind its economic miracle where stationed in the aforementioned bureaucracy, especially the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). Since LDP controlled politics for such a long time, it would then follow that it did play a major role in causing economic growth.

            Naturally, there are scholars who argue against the thesis that the state played a major role in causing Japans economic growth. Scholar leaning more towards liberalistic economic theories would argue that market-oriented factors better explain the growth of Japans economy. While other scholars focus on various cultural factors, development in international political economy, entrepreneurial spirit and other factors that detract from the idea that the state played a key role. There are good arguments on both sides of the fence, which might mean that the ground both contenders stand on essentially is the same and that this dichotomy is somewhat illusory. A hybrid theory would be that Japans economic growth is explained by interplay between growth-from-below and growth-from-below, i.e. growth-from-within. Japan can be argued to have opted for a third way, i.e. state guided capitalism.

[1] Government military spending did however benefit the development of U.S microprocessor industry; Intel, AMD and NVIDIA are all U.S. companies.  


LDP was interconnected with the arenas of economic growth and held on to power as long as it projected the image of being able to give Japanese citizens economic security. Its decline was however gradual and it met defeat in the 2009 general election concomitant with it being perceived as unable to give Japanese citizens economic security. This does support H1, but there are various other factors, beyond economic security, that contributed to LDP´s fall from power. H1´s strength weakens H2, H2 still needs to be researched more, but H1 does explain LDP´s hold on power more than H2. Internal divisions within the party where manifest, partly because of corruption and inefficiency, and it further seemed like the desire for power was the primary factor uniting the party.

            In calling Japan an uncommon democracy, it’s referred to how the country differs from most other democracies in that there has been very little competition for political power in the final half of the 20th century. This is why I wanted to apply theories from other fields who contend that there is a cultural, and even a genetic, explanation for the apparent individualistic nature of the west and collectivistic nature of the east. Certain genes are inheritable and more present among ethnic groups with higher degree of collectivism; Japanese are in the middle in this regard (Gorodnichenko and Roland, 201-, p.29).

Further research in the future could benefit from applying a more interdisciplinary approach in which the research on individualism/collectivism in relation to individual and societal attitudes is studied more closely. Uncovering the causal relation is very research demanding; like the chicken and egg paradox. There where allot more empirical data on LDP´s political strategies than I expected, and hence that cow might have been milked dry by now. 

Bibliography and Reference List

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Crespo, J.A., 1995. The Liberal Democratic Party in Japan: Conservative Domination. International Political Science Review [e-journal] 16 (2), pp. 199-209. Available through: JSTOR database [Accessed 4 October 2012]. 

Gorodnichenko, Y. and Roland, G., (201-). Understanding the Individualism-Collectivism Cleavage and its Effects: Lessons from Cultural Psychology. [pdf] Available at:<>. [Accessed 16 October 2012].

Japan Fair Trade Commission, 2011. Unfair Trade Practices. [online] Available at:<> [Accessed 16 October 2012].

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Johnson, C., 1999. The Developmental State: Odyssey of a Concept. In: Meredith, W.C., ed. 1999. The Developmental State. Cornell: Cornell University Press. Ch.2.

McLean, I. and McMillan, A., 2012. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. 3rd ed. [e-book] New York: Oxford University Press. Available at: Oxford Reference [Accessed 16 October 2012].

Ohno, K., 2006. The Economic Development of Japan: The Path Traveled by Japan as a Developing Country. [pdf] Tokyo: Yuhikaku Publishing. Available at:<>. [Accessed 16 October 2012].

Pempel, T. J., 2010. Between Pork and Productivity: The Collapse of the Liberal Democratic Party. The Journal of Japanese Studies [e-journal] 36 (2), pp. 227-254. Available through: ISI Web of Science database [Accessed 4 October 2012]. 

Reed, S. R., Scheiner, E., Thies, M. F., 2012. The End of LDP Dominance and the Rise of Party-Oriented Politics in Japan. The Journal of Japanese Studies [e-journal] 38 (2), pp. 353-376. Available through: ISI Web of Science database [Accessed 4 October 2012].  


Stockwin,  J.A.A., 2012. The Rise and Fall of Japan´s LDP: Political Party Organizations as Historical Institutions [review]. The Journal of Japanese Studies [e-journal] 38 (1), pp. 199-204. Available through: ISI Web of Science database [Accessed 4 October 2012].


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