March 22, 2021
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Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities in Japan

Political Cleavages and the Representation of Social Inequalities in Japan, 1953-2017

In this paper, Amory Gethin exploits political attitudes surveys conducted between 1953 and 2017 to document the evolution of political cleavages in Japan. He analyzes the transformation of Japan’s one-party dominant system from the hegemony of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the disintegration of conservative forces into multiple splinter parties. Throughout Japan’s contemporary history, persisting divides based upon foreign policy and remilitarization have remained a key axis of democratic conflicts, manifested by lower support for conservatives among higher-educated voters. The strength of the LDP in postwar decades relied on a unique coalition of poorer rural areas and business elites, while socialist and communist parties found greater support among urban unionized wage earners. Urbanization, declining rural-urban inequalities, the expansion of education, and the subsequent fragmentation of the party system have put an end to this equilibrium and have been associated with a remarkable “depolarization” of Japan’s political space.


Key Findings

  • Japan’s party system has changed profoundly in the past decades, as the once-dominant conservative Liberal Democratic Party gradually saw its support base erode.
  • However, the decline of the LDP has not been associated with the consolidation of opposition movements. Instead, Japanese politics have been exceptionally chaotic since the 1990s, as new parties have constantly merged and split.
  • This transformation has led to a remarkable dealignment of traditional political cleavages linked to geography and class. While in the 1950s, the LDP relied on a “coalition of extremes” between business elites and poor rural areas, it has now become a catchall heterogeneous and volatile coalition.
  • This “depolarization” of Japan’s political space has been concomitant with the rise of economic inequalities and a significant decline in political participation, which did not exceed a mere 54% in the 2017 general elections.


Figure: Election results in Japan, 1946-2017


Elections Results in Japan


The figure shows the share of votes received by selected political parties or groups of parties in general elections held in Japan between 1946 and 2017. The Liberal Democratic Party received 33% of votes in 2017.




  • Amory Gethin (Paris School of Economics, World Inequality Lab):


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The author wishes to thank Kentaro Asai, David Chiavacci, Sébastien Lechevalier, Thanasak Jenmana, Clara Martínez-Toledano, Thomas Piketty, Carmen Schmidt, and Yoshida Toru for their comments and advices. I am also grateful to the teams of the Social Science Japan Data Archive, the Japanese Election Studies, the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, and the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research for making the data exploited in this paper available.