Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga shows the name of new era “Reiwa” at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on April 1, 2019.

This is an interesting and important subject to cover given that Japan is currently going through an imperial transition. Its current emperor, Emperor Akihito, is expected to abdicate his position on 30 April 2019 to his eldest son, who will soon become Emperor Naruhito. With this imperial transition, there will also be a change of era from “Heisei” to “Reiwa.”

This is an opportunity for us to understand the structure of Japanese government and to answer the question that many of us may already have: what does the Emperor actually do?


Executive Branch

Head of State – Emperor

The government of Japan is a constitutional monarchy. So, Japan actually has a constitution. The Constitution of Japan defines the Emperor to be “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people”. He performs ceremonial duties, which include the promulgation of amendments of the Constitution, laws, cabinet orders, and treaties, the attestation of Ministers, the awarding of honors, receiving foreign Ambassadors and Ministers, and many others. However, the Emperor does not hold any power related to government. The Emperor holds some political power as he appoints the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, both of which are nominated by the Diet and the Cabinet respectively. The modern Emperor is very different from its prewar equivalent, who was the source of sovereign power.

The Cabinet & The Head of Government

Executive power is vested in the Cabinet, which consists of the Prime Minister and Ministers of State. The Prime Minister, who is appointed to a four-year term, is the head of the executive branch and the Cabinet. The Prime Minister holds the power to appoint and dismiss the Ministers of State. There should be no more than fourteen Ministers but can be increased to nineteen under exceptional circumstances. Both the Prime Minister and the Ministers are responsible to the National Diet.

As the head of the executive branch, the Prime Minister is also the head of Japan’s self-defense forces. He presents bills to the legislature (the National Diet), signs laws, and can declare a state of emergency. Meanwhile, the Ministers of State is responsible for conducting the affairs of the state, manages foreign affairs, concludes treaties, administers civil service, and prepares the budget.


Legislative Branch

The Diet

The National Diet is composed of two houses – the House of Representatives and the House of Councilors. Both Houses have the same power with some exceptional cases in which the decision of the House of Representatives precedes that of the House of Councilors. Being in the legislative branch, the National Diet holds the sole responsibility of law-making.


Judicial Branch

The judicial branch is made up of the Supreme Court and the vast inferior courts, which include the High Courts, the District Courts, the Family Courts and the Summary Courts. The Emperor appoints the Chief Justice while the Cabinet appoints the other court judges. Unlike in the US, the Chief Justice has a 10-year time period.


Elections in Japan

What I find interesting here is that the Japanese people do not choose their own prime minister since it is done through the National Diet and the Emperor. However, Japan holds three elections:

  • Election to the House of Representatives held every four years
  • Election to the House of Councilors held every three years
  • Local elections in the prefabs and local governments held every four years

Hopefully, this information will help us understand the structure of Japanese government and its implication to the Japanese lives. And with the current imperial transition, we’ll have more to talk about.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry provided an English-language interpretation of Reiwa as “beautiful harmony,” although the translation is neither an official translation nor legally binding. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe said that Reiwa represents “a culture being born and nurtured by people coming together beautifully”.

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