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  • Dynasties and Democracy: The Inherited Incumbency Advantage in Japan by Daniel M. Smith
  • Arthur Stockwin (bio)
Dynasties and Democracy: The Inherited Incumbency Advantage in Japan. By Daniel M. Smith. Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2018. xviii, 359 pages. $65.00, cloth; $30.00, paper.

In one particular aspect of its political system, Japan is an international outlier. The Japanese since 1945 have elected to their House of Representatives a higher proportion of members belonging to political "dynasties" than any other comparable democracy or semidemocracy. The nearest comparator is the Republic of Ireland, where political "families" are a widely recognized feature of the political landscape. Daniel Smith, in one of the most fully researched studies of Japanese politics to appear in recent years, combines close scrutiny of such Japanese "dynasties" with international comparison. His theory combines rational choice with historical institutionalism, and his methodology involves complex statistical analysis.

Having many parliamentary representatives related to others from the same biological family has implications for democracy. This may be especially serious where a member of Parliament (MP) "inherits" a parliamentary seat, in other words where a close relative of the existing holder [End Page 145] (typically son or son-in-law in Japan's male-dominated society) is elected in his place for the same electoral district. Smith opens chapter 7 with a telling quotation from Tom Paine, who in 1776 declared that since hereditary succession in politics "opens a door to the foolish, the wicked and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. … and when [hereditary politicians] succeed to the government [they] are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions" (p. 239).

As a rational political scientist, Smith does not engage in such polemics, but he is concerned with the normative implications of hereditary succession in politics. His prime task, however, is to unearth the nature and causality of this phenomenon in Japanese politics. He uses the Japanese House of Representatives Elections Dataset (JHRED) and, for international comparison, the Dynasties in Democracies Dataset, which covers 12 advanced industrial democracies. Even though his research covers Japanese parties in general, he concentrates on the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been politically dominant since 1955 and where dynasties have been most prominent.

Following historical institutionalism, Smith examines Japanese episodes of institutional reform, especially the electoral reform to the House of Representatives that occurred in 1994. This reform replaced a system originating in the mid-1920s, but which operated in its mature form between 1947 and 1994, when it was referred to as "SNTV in MMDs" (single nontransferable vote in multimember districts). Nearly all electoral districts elected three, four, or five members of the Lower House. This meant that for the LDP, different candidates for the same district competed with each other as much as they did with candidates of other parties. Smith rightly argues that under that system, conservative electors were voting for a candidate rather than for the LDP as a party. This in turn privileged name recognition, giving the son of a previous candidate a distinct advantage over his rivals. The heyday of political dynasties came in the years leading up to 1994.

Under the post-1994 system multimember districts were replaced by single-member districts plus a minority of seats decided by proportional representation (PR). However, the seats elected through PR provided a second chance for LDP candidates defeated in single-member first-past-the-post (FPTP) districts. In much-diluted form, this recreated competition between fellow LDP candidates in the same geographic area. The reform decreased the number of dynasties, but many of them still survived. Smith is inclined to explain this by path dependency, reinforced by the weakly counterbalancing element of the parallel PR districts. Moreover, leading politicians such as Koizumi Junichirō, Abe Shinzō, Fukuda Yasuo, and Asō Tarō were all members of family dynasties. He accepts that not only do dynasties remain, but that they are particularly numerous in the cabinet, where dynasty members in recent cabinets have touched 60 per cent. He admits on [End Page 146] page 215 that "keeping track of dynastic politics at the top levels of power is enough to make one's head...

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