TIT ELECTION In July the Japanese upper house was “remarkably unfair,” Kazuhiko Tomita, a judge on the northern island of Hokkaido, said in October. Worse, it took place in a “state of unconstitutionality”. He was referring to Japan’s grossly poor distribution – the country’s division into legislative districts with very different populations.
In Miyagi, there are nearly 976,000 registered voters for each member that the prefecture sends to the upper house of the Diet or parliament. In Fukui Prefecture, the equivalent figure is less than 326,000. This means that Fukui voters are three times more represented in the upper house than their Miyagi counterparts. The gaps in the lower room are not as bad. The most populous district of Tokyo has only twice as many voters as the least populated of Tottori, a predominantly rural prefecture on the west coast.
The constitution of Japan is a little vague about how the districts should be drawn up. It gives the power to do so to the Diet itself, but declares: “All persons are equal before the law” and “There will be no discrimination on the grounds of race, beliefs, sex, status social, family, education, property or income. “Campaign lawyers have repeatedly used these clauses to challenge mismatch in the courts. Hidetoshi Masunaga heads the group that brought the case decided last month to Hokkaido. As he observes,” A man, 0 , 5 votes ”is not exactly democratic.
Courts have repeatedly ruled against bad distribution, although they generally refuse to reject the results of elections held with biased cards. Instead, the judges established a principle that the largest constituency in the lower house should not have more than double the voters of the smallest. The maximum gap in the upper chamber is 3: 1.
The Diet has repeatedly adjusted the boundaries of districts to try to comply with this rule. But lawmakers have been reluctant to abandon the idea that there should be at least one member in the two chambers of each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Distribution is a problem in many democracies. The US constitution assigns two senators to each state, regardless of population, which means Wyoming has one senator for 290,000 residents, compared to one for 20 million Californians. In Malaysia, the largest legislative election district in the past year had eight times the population of the smallest. In addition, the difference in Japan has narrowed considerably since the courts began to weigh. The ratio between upper room quarters was up to 6: 1, says Taku Sugawara of the University of Tokyo.
But in Japan, the poor distribution is particularly persistent and severe due to the country’s unusual demography. Large cities like Tokyo continue to grow, even as the population as a whole declines. Some rural prefectures are losing more and more people.
Population disparities will once again exceed limits set by the courts in the next election, said Kenneth McElwain of the University of Tokyo. The population of Hokkaido is expected to decrease by a third over the next two decades. Three-quarters of its municipalities could disappear in the coming years, according to the Japan Policy Council, a think tank. It is huge, representing 20% of Japanese territory, but only 4% of its population. His MPs will eventually represent larger and larger districts. This will mean less contact with voters, who will already feel left behind by demographic change.
In addition, the rapid decrease in the rural population means that each new electoral map quickly becomes biased in favor of relatively old and conservative rural districts, to the detriment of the big cities. This benefits the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is stronger in rural areas than in urban areas. He dominates the Diet and its MPs have naturally been reluctant to adopt comprehensive electoral reform. This is why, explains Mr. Masunaga, this is why he and his colleagues rather turned to the courts. The next step, says Noriyuki Okuyama, a lawyer involved in the Hokkaido trial, is to bring the case to the Supreme Court. “A person, a vote is a prerequisite for democracy,” he insists. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Self-reinforcing bias”