Lord Buckethead, a political candidate who ran against UK Prime Minister Theresa May in the 2017 general election, became an internet sensation for his strange costume and outlandish election mandate. Joined by Elmo (from Sesame Street), Howling Laud Hope (leader of the UK’s Monster Raving Loony Party) and one “Mr. Fishfingers”, Lord Buckethead and his compatriots created a spectacle as strange as politics gets. They were well-received in Japan, appearing in comedy shows and morning newscasts – and contrasted sharply with the Japanese no-nonsense style of politics. The UK’s bizarre candidates may be extreme, but they highlight the very low level of citizen politicians who run for political office in Japan.
One of the issues in Japanese politics is the dominance of established party politics. Citizen participation in the Japanese democratic process is often limited to casting their “valuable votes” for a recognized political candidate. Average Japanese citizens are not expected to run for political office; politics is definitely a spectator sport. Though there are many explanations for this phenomenon, ranging from the consensus-focused nature of Japanese society to the power of political support groups, one often overlooked factor is the financial cost of entering into politics as an average citizen. Election deposits, or entry fees for participating in an election, prevent smaller parties and independent candidates from running for political posts. Getting elected is a costly business in Japan and is largely reserved for the elite.
Instigated by the Regular Election Law of 1925 during the Taisho period (1912-1926), election deposits, or kyotakukin [供託金], were created to limit the number of political candidates running for political office. Before the introduction of the 1925 law, suffrage was reserved for men who paid at least 3 yen in national taxes. The 1925 law expanded suffrage to all men over the age of 24, but the larger voter pool also caused concern among the Taisho bureaucrats that there would be a limitless number of candidates. The kyotakukin of 2000 yen (equivalent of the annual salary of a government employee in 1925) was thus borrowed from British election rules to limit political candidates. Although Japan adopted a new constitution in 1947, the election deposit system was kept in place to prevent the incursion of socialist parties.
Over the years, the election deposit grew significantly. Since an election deposit is required to run for political office in Japan (with the exception of positions on village councils and their equivalents) the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications sets the standard for election entry fees. Out of the six levels of elections, the highest deposits required are for the House of Representatives and House of Councillors – with entry to the proportional list and the electoral districts (single- or multi-member) costing 6 million yen and 3 million yen respectively (roughly 55,000 and 27,500 USD at current exchange rates). If the candidate wins the election, the deposits will be returned to the successful candidates, but the total return rate differs at each level; for the national elections, if the candidate gained more than 10 percent of total votes, the candidate will be refunded the total number of votes won divided by 10, effectively meaning that a majority of candidates will not have their deposits returned. Many candidates, in order to secure a win, run in both the plurality and the single member votes. Hence, many candidates running for national elections pay 9 million yen total (approximately 82,500 USD) in election deposits.
The most vocal opponents to election deposits are socialist parties and the Communist Party of Japan, which though less well-funded field candidates across the nation to run in both PR and single member contests. In response to the rule, such parties are likely to field candidates in smaller districts that guarantee representation and they thus rely on local donations from supporters.
Younger generations, without family support or a bank loan, simply cannot afford the 3 million yen minimum to run in a national political contest.
On the other hand, there is a low level of public awareness on the issue. Major parties are logically inclined to banish amateur politicians from taking their “valuable votes.” In order to increase public awareness, opponents of election deposits initiated legal action against the Japanese government. The campaign to abolish election deposits argues that the kyotakukin is a violation to Article 44 of the Japanese Constitution, but so far, the action has only received attention from left-wing groups.
There was a brief discussion surrounding election deposits in 2008. Faced with an imminent challenge from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) considered the feasibility of revising the election deposit rule, their goal being to support the Communist Party of Japan and socialist parties in order to divide the opposition vote. However, as the DPJ won a landslide victory in 2009 and following the return of the LDP control of politics in 2012, the discussions vanished.
The election deposit rule has a number of interesting implications regarding Japan’s political environment. First, the rationale that led to the creation of the election deposit law still prevails nearly a century later. Average citizens interested in running for office are excluded from politics because of the high entry fee. Second, the kyotakukin prevents the inclusion of all members of the society in the political process. Younger generations, unless if they gain family support or take a bank loan, simply cannot afford the 3 million yen minimum to run in a national political contest.
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promises greater inclusion of youths and ordinary members of society in the political process, mainstream elite politics still remains the most common path to political power. And unless the election deposit rule is amended or changed, politics will always remain a spectator sport for most ordinary Japanese citizens.
Leo Lin received his M.A. in International Relations from Waseda University and his B.A. in Asian Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. Currently a researcher based in Tokyo, his research interests include security policies in East Asia, and Chinese foreign policy with a focus on economic statecraft.