Starting from an interpretation of the cleavage theory as a dynamic model of "freezing" and "unfreezing" of party systems and voter alignments, in this talk I try to ascertain the major cleavage structures that are influential in shaping the Japanese party system and voter alignments.
Two social cleavages – one economic and the other a cultural cleavage – dominated the Japanese post-war party system since its formation in 1955 until the early 1970s, when a tendency towards an "unfreezing" of the system started. However, this did not result in the development of one of the two major parties into a "catch-all" party. Instead, the number of non-party supporters and floating voters increased dramatically, bringing about an instability of the system and a great fluidity in party labels in the 1990s.
None of the new opposition parties could organize the unaffiliated voters either, and the present system more or less exclusively represents traditional values and economic interests as embodied by the LDP. In contrast to the system of the 1950s and 1960s, it is barely based on social cleavages - political scandals and power struggles among competing elites seem to be more influential in shaping the current system. The "unfreezing" seems to have generated a huge discrepancy between the political system and the society’s interest structure. If this tendency continues, it could cause a further weakening of the acceptance of the system among the electorate.
Dr. Carmen Schmidt is currently JSPS fellow at Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, where she works on a study on the recruitment of Japan’s political elite.