(Oimax/Creative Commons)

This is a guest post by Sean Richey, who is a Fulbright scholar visiting the University of Tokyo and Japan’s Women University.  The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fulbright program.

The arcane subject of malapportionment is big news in Japan this week.  This is a topic that rarely features prominently in American politics.  Since the seminal Baker v. Carr decision, the redistricting process at the federal, state, and local levels has been governed by the “one person, one vote” rule.  Districts must now have very nearly equal populations, and this led to a dramatic shift in political power away from rural areas, as documented in Stephen Ansolabehere and James Snyder’s important book. This in turn led to much greater political equality:

…equal votes mean equal power. The equalization of representation led directly to an equalization of the distribution of public expenditures – who got what.

But malapportionment is alive and well in Japan.  And as in the United States, malapportionment in Japan matters a lot for pork barrel politics.  Yusaku Horiuchi and Jun Saito show that rural districts receive vastly more government spending than urban districts.

The news this week was from the Japanese Supreme Court, which just ruled that elections in the national legislature, the Diet, are “in a state of unconstitutionality” due to malapportionment. Japan has no automatic way to reapportion and redistrict, so as the population has urbanized, rural districts have gained political power.  The Supreme Court has been trying for several decades to get the Diet to lower the imbalance in the population ratio between urban and rural districts. On past occasions, the Supreme Court admonishes the Diet for not acting to reduce the imbalance, and then the Diet makes a minor reform.  Then, as the population continuously urbanizes, the problem gets worse again.  Now, the population ratio is about 2.4 to 1 when comparing the most rural to the most urban district.  The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has proposed several reforms, most of which seek to limit rural areas to 2 to 1 advantage by eliminating districts in rural areas — thereby leaving these districts far short of the 1 to 1 ratio implied by “one person, one vote.”

Why has there been so little progress toward real reform, or at least toward an apportionment system that the Supreme Court thinks is constitutional? One reason is that the ruling LDP benefits from malapportionment.  Its popularity among rural voters translates into more Diet seats than it might have under “one person, one vote.”  Research by Andrew Baker and Ethan Scheiner estimates that malapportionment has given the LDP a boost in the Diet, although rarely a large enough boost to produce an LDP majority that it did not “deserve.”

Another reason is that the LDP feels little public pressure to reform reapportionment.  In April, The Nikkei Poll asked Japanese respondents what they wanted to do about malapportionment.  Only 40 percent wanted “one person, one vote.”  About 27 percent favored no change at all, and 14 percent favored limiting the 2 to 1 ratio.  Nearly a fifth of respondents, 18 percent, had no opinion.   I examined these opinions in more depth, and found little evidence that they depend on typical demographic or political factors, including even factors related to urban or rural residence.  This suggests that the public does not fully understand what is admittedly a complex issue.  Without greater public understanding or significant opposition, the ruling coalition can support only incremental reforms without fear of a voter backlash.

Ultimately, the potential for real reform likely depends on the Supreme Court.  It has been unwilling so far to take more dramatic steps, like nullifying elections over this issue.  If it does not take further action, then Japanese electoral politics will continue to perpetuate at least some political inequality between districts.