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Discussion Paper 4 in 2003
First published in ejcjs on 13 August 2003

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Exceptionalism in Political Science

Japanese Politics, US Politics, and Supposed International Norms


Noritada Matsuda

PhD Candidate
Graduate School of Political Science
Waseda University

Department of Political Science
University of Pittsburgh

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“Japanese exceptionalism” – we see this term frequently in the literature on Japanese politics. Some regard Japan’s postwar economic success as a miracle and attribute it to Japanese culture (Nakane 1967; Muramatsu et al. 1992). The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is viewed frequently as organizationally distinctive. This distinctiveness is sometimes thought to be the result of culture (Thayer 1969; Curtis 1971) or the electoral system (Baerwald 1986).

However, Japan is not the only country that has been labeled exceptional. The United States, for instance, has been often seen as different from other countries. Numerous attempts have been made to demonstrate the exceptional features of the United States and the reasons for it. Some see the small role of the government as exceptional (Steinmo 1994; King 1973). Others emphasize the distinctive values and institutions in the United States (Lipset 1990; Kingdon 1999). Some attribute American exceptionalism to distinctive ideas (King 1973). Some stress its fragmented system (Steinmo 1994). Others explain its exceptionalism in historical terms (Kingdon 1999; Lipset 1990). Still others argue against American exceptionalism (Wilson 1998; Alesina and Rosenthal 1995).

More interestingly, some of the descriptions of Japan as exceptional could be applied to the Unites States and vice versa. The similarities between Japanese and American exceptionalism lead us to consider the question: what is exceptionalism? Referring to the similarity between Japanese and American exceptionalism, this paper is intended to demonstrate some problems inherent in the arguments surrounding exceptionalism. Those who study one specific country intensively tend to see it as “exceptional” without full consideration of other countries’ circumstances. As this paper will show, however, what is seemingly exceptional in one country may be found in other countries. Moreover, some similarities between exceptionalist arguments about different countries may be derived from different factors that are peculiar to each country. The main argument in this paper is that the understanding of a country requires comparative perspectives, not only an insightful analysis of the country itself.

Specifically, this paper will investigate Japanese and American exceptionalism. I will attempt to answer two questions. In what ways do both countries differ from a supposed common tendency of other affluent democracies and why; and in what ways are both similar to such a tendency and why? Hence, I will not make a direct comparison between the United States and Japan. Neither will I discuss the exceptional features which only one of the two countries has.

Needless to say, an exceptionalist argument about a country assumes certain common tendencies or norms in other countries and avers that, compared with such tendencies, the country is very unique. By a supposed international norm or a supposed common tendency this paper means what is expected to exist or does exist prevailingly in affluent democracies.

This paper will proceed as follows. The first section will examine the similarity of Japan and the United States to a supposed common tendency in affluent countries; as an example of the similarity, the infrequency of policy reform will be discussed. In the section I will demonstrate that a seemingly exceptional phenomenon might be not exceptional; if one compares that country with others, one may find the phenomenon can be explained by factors common to many countries, and not by features peculiar to only one country. The second section of this paper will deal with the difference between the United States and Japan and the supposed international norm. According to Japanese and American exceptionalism, Japan and the United States are distinct in the policymaking process. In this paper I will focus on the diversity within a party and on lobbying targets, which are seen as peculiar to the two countries. By attending to each of the two countries closely I will contend that some similarities between the two exceptionalist arguments may be derived from factors peculiar to each country. The concluding section will suggest what is crucial for understanding a country’s politics.


The conventional wisdom on Japanese politics says that it is difficult to bring out a major policy change in Japan. The process of drafting and introducing a bill is highly complicated; a bill should go through numerous formalities before being introduced to the Diet. In this intricate process, it is said that such various interests are represented that a major policy change requiring the hard task of resolving conflicts between these interests is difficult to carry out (e.g., Iwai 1988; Inoguchi and Iwai 1987; Murakawa 1994). Moreover, the close, often cozy, relationships among interest groups, members of the LDP, and bureaucrats make a major change unlikely (Murakawa 1994).

The difficulty of a major policy change holds true for the politics of the United States. As the primary reason for this difficulty, many stress the political system of fragmented power (e.g., Bond and Fleisher 2000; Keefe and Ogul 1997; Dodd 1994). The fragmented system in the US offers various actors numerous veto opportunities in the policymaking process. This system enhances the possibility to prevent a large change in public policy. A major change, hence, is considered to necessitate a system of centralized power.

Deregulation is one typical policy arena where a major policy change is unlikely. In the United States, the collapse of the savings and loans industry in the 1980s illustrates the difficulty of a large reform (Romer and Weingast 1991). Japan, likewise, is having much trouble in deregulating the financial community today.

Is such difficulty in making large policy changes peculiar to Japan and the United States? Some evidence demonstrates that other countries have had the same trouble. Here let us look into tax policy. Analyzing the historical trend of revenue-raising in contemporary western countries, Rose (1985) avers that these countries are similar in that they are reluctant to engage in a fundamental tax reform. To put it another way, there is a common tendency in western countries towards inertia in established tax laws and administration. A new tax is unlikely to be introduced whereas an existing tax is unlikely to be repealed. Moreover, the shares of some existing taxes have increased and those of others not.

Rose (1985) contends that this similarity can be explained by the uncertainty surrounding tax policy and the risk-averse behavior of legislators. We can find many arguments claiming that legislators employ credit-claiming strategies to gain political support. As for tax policy, one strategy includes large tax cuts. A fundamental change in tax system, however, does not necessarily lead to an increase in political support. People are not certain of the effects of tax reform on their lives. According to experimental findings in psychology, people are more likely to notice a loss than a gain (Kahneman and Tversky 1984). This implies that people may feel that tax reform will make them worse off. Legislators thus regard blame-avoidance strategies, not credit-claiming ones, as beneficial and rational (Weaver 1986; also see Ashworth and Heyndels 2000). The existing tax system, consequently, is unlikely to be changed fundamentally.

The uncertainty surrounding the effects of a large tax policy change and the resulting blame-avoidance behavior both serve to enhance the political importance of certain taxes – what are called “buoyant” taxes. Buoyant taxes tend to generate disproportionately more revenues than can be accounted for simply by the rate of economic growth and inflation. Buoyancy is considered to increase government revenues without any positive action by legislators (Rose, 1985). The most buoyant taxes are progressive income tax, value-added and sales taxes, and social security. Rose (1985) empirically demonstrates that a country with any of those taxes increasingly comes to rely on them.

This argument suggests that the conventional wisdom, which says that a large policy change is difficult to carry out, is applicable not only to Japanese and US politics but also to other Western countries. Japanese and American exceptionalism attribute this tendency to peculiar factors within each country: the complicated policymaking process in Japan and the fragmentation of power in the United States. From a comparative perspective, however, the infrequency of a large policy change can be explained by a common factor to most democracies: namely the blame avoidance behavior of legislators.


The preceding section argued that Japan and the United States are similar to other democracies in policy outcomes: the difficulty of a large policy change. Turning to policymaking processes, on the other hand, we find some differences between these two countries and other affluent democracies. This section will focus on two differences: the diversity within a party, and lobbying targets. The argument in this section will reveal also that, although both countries have common differences from other democracies, the factors responsible for the differences may not be the same.

Diversity within a party

The unity of a political party that is assumed in the responsible party model is supposed to be found in affluent democracies. A typical example might be the United Kingdom. British parties have strict party disciplines, and the members of those parties are required to support their parties’ platforms. Legislators, moreover, are regarded as representatives of the nation, not just their constituents. German parties also are strongly organized (Conradt 1996). Both in Japan and the United States, however, such strong party unity cannot be found.


We find diversity within the LDP in Japan. The LDP consists of several factions which can be seen almost as formal party agencies (Ishikawa and Hirose 1989; Muramatsu et al. 1992). The power of the LDP is not concentrated on the party leader (usually, the prime minister) but shared by leaders of factions, and meetings of faction leaders are routinely held. The formation of a cabinet, moreover, is affected by the relative power of each faction. Such factionalism often prevents the LDP from effective action.

Due to this factionalism, intra-party diversity has been viewed as one exceptional aspect of Japanese politics. Some attribute this to cultural and societal customs peculiar to Japan: for instance an emphasis on master-disciple relations (Thayer 1969; Curtis 1971). This view, however, cannot offer a good explanation, taking into account the longevity of factionalism for more than a generation. Moreover, the reasons for the existence of factionalism only in the LDP are not presented (Kohno 1991). Also we find arguments stressing the influence of the multiple-member district electoral system. Under this system candidates of the same dominant party, in this case the LDP, should compete in the same district. This creates intra-party divisions (Baerwald 1986) and leads the candidates to represent local interests (Takabatake 1978). Furthermore, Kohno (1991) explains LDP factionalism in terms of the principal-agent model and shows that this is rational for both LDP members and voters. Given the change in the Japanese electoral system, however, such explanations based on the multiple-member district electoral system need to be re-examined.

In addition to factionalism, the LDP is unique in the existence of zoku (policy tribes). Members of the LDP seen as zoku are experts on specific issues due to their experience in committees within the government and the LDP. They represent the interests relating to a particular issue, rather than national interests (Iwai 1988). The existence of zoku makes strong leadership unlikely and leads to a policy that attempts to please all interests represented by zoku. One notable example is public investment (Matsuda 1998). After returning to power through non-LDP coalition governments, the influence of zoku is still significant.

Zoku are seen as a product of the long period of LDP rule (Inoguchi and Iwai 1987). During this period, LDP members acquired technical knowledge and skills regarding particular issues. Consequently, bureaucrats’ information monopoly has been steadily broken down. This change can be called the “politicization of bureaucracy” (Harrop 1992). Various reasons for the long period of LDP rule have been demonstrated. They include an electoral system that favors rural areas which support the LDP (Matoba 1990), a quick response to changes in the political, economic, and social environment (Sato and Matsuzaki 1986), and success in extending its electoral support base (Miyake 1989; Yamaguchi 1985), or “creative conservatism” (Pempel 1982).

However such large diversity within the LDP infrequently leads to cross-voting in the Diet. Conflicts among various interests are usually ironed out before a bill is introduced to the Diet; the Policy Affairs Research Council (PARC) of the LDP plays the pivotal role in this task.

The United States

Diversity within a party applies also to the US. US political parties are characterized by their weak party discipline. Members of parties are more autonomous and consider themselves as more responsible to their own constituents than they are to their party leaders. The weak control of a party over its members is illustrated also in the electoral system. In the United States, unlike a common tendency in affluent countries, parties make small contributions to their candidates’ electoral campaigns. Hence, legislators need to be sensitive to the demands of interest groups that contribute to their electoral campaigns. This weak party control over members of Congress sometimes leads to cross-voting. In this sense, diversity, rather than unity, within a party is found in the US.

Why are US parties so weak? This question has provoked a great deal of controversy. One primary reason has been thought to be the peculiar ideologies existent in the United States (Kingdon 1999; Abe 1992). American people stress individualism and autonomy, and the idea of strong party discipline runs against such ideologies. These ideologies contribute to the US system placing an emphasis on a legislator’s individualism and autonomy. In addition to this ideological explanation, Kingdon (1999) presents another view. He attaches importance to the Progressive movements. In this way the adoption of direct primaries and the erosion of patronage as a serious party-maintaining mechanism led to a decline in the power of parties over their members.

Today, legislators are still representatives of their constituencies, even though the degree of party unity voting has increased. This is considered to result from the homogeneity of constituencies represented by members of a particular party and from a difference in constituencies’ preferences between parties (Aldrich and Rohde 2000).


Both Japan and the United States diverge from the supposed common tendency of affluent democracies. Political Parties in both countries are characterized by their intra-party diversity. This common exceptionalism, however, derives from different factors in each country. In Japan, diversity refers to the existence of both factionalism and zoku in the LDP. Various reasons for this have been raised, including culture, institutions, and history. In the United States, on the other hand, intra-party diversity appears in the form of individualistic legislators, and this can be explained by pertinent ideologies and historical events.

Lobbying Targets

When party discipline is strict, it would be difficult for interest groups to succeed in directing a legislator’s attention to their interests if they are in opposition to his or her party position. Today affluent democracies, moreover, are seen as administrative states where, compared with other branches of government, the executive plays a more vital role in society (Kataoka 1990). The movement from the Nachtwächterstaat (non-interventionist state) to the welfare state has enhanced the importance of government activities because policy formulation and implementation necessitate technical knowledge and bureaucratic skills. Nowadays we so often see the exercise of discretionary power by bureaucrats and delegated legislation. These factors imply that today interest groups tend to focus on administrative agencies in lobbying. This tendency is found in many countries (Curtis et al. 1993). In the United Kingdom, for instance, interest groups are more likely to try to influence the government and civil servants whereas they infrequently lobby members of Parliament (see Abe 1992). In France, traditionally the power of interest groups is relatively weak due to the Gaullist idea. Recently, however, their power has become stronger and, especially, the tie between interest groups and administrative agencies is now much firmer. In Germany, interest groups attach much importance to access to federal executive agencies, and contact between interest groups and agencies, moreover, is very direct and formal, partly due to the German corporatist tradition (Conradt 1996; Loewenberg 1967). Both Japanese and US interest groups, however, attach less importance to administrative agencies as lobbying targets.


Contrary to what one might suppose, in Japan, administrative agencies are not important lobbying targets. According to Tsujinaka (1988), parties, especially the LDP, are crucial targets. The access of interest groups to parties depends mainly on zoku and group members who are members or ex-members of the Diet.

The importance of parties as lobbying targets in Japan derives partly from the Japanese policymaking process. A bill is delivered by both administrative agencies and the LDP. Above all, deliberations within the PARC are seen as the most influential on policy outcomes (Murakawa 1994). The PARC is an arena for interactions among bureaucrats and members of the LDP. It is in the PARC that conflicts among various interests occur and are resolved. As Inoguchi and Iwai (1987) state, the PARC is a “tractor of the politicization of bureaucracy.” In this situation interest groups seek to have close relations with the LDP. We can discover this by attending to such issues as tax (Matsuda 1996) and budgeting (Campbell 1977).

The United States

Schlozman and Tierney (1986) show that all kinds of groups (business, industry, labor, and citizen) see Congress, and especially its members, as more important than other organizations (the White House, administrative agencies, and the courts). This can be explained by turning to the aforementioned issue of the individualism of legislators.

As mentioned above, members of Congress rely to a large degree on interest groups in electoral campaigns. Hence, members should be quite concerned about the demands of those groups. This high sensitivity to interest groups, combined with fragmented institutional arrangements, leads to clientism, or client politics (Keefe and Ogul 1997; Mucciaroni 1990). In client politics a limited number of specific interests get benefits from decisions Congress makes whereas the costs are paid by almost everyone. The prevalence of client politics enhances the degree of importance of Congress and its members as lobbying targets.


Contrary to the supposition that administrative agencies are increasingly important lobbying targets today, interest groups in both Japan and the United States tend to access legislators. The importance of access to legislators, however, is attributed to different factors in each country. In Japan, the large role of the LDP and the significant influence of zoku in the policymaking process lead to a legislator-centered lobbying strategy. In the United States, the weakness of party, combined with fragmented institutional arrangements, makes the role of legislators vital.


The politics of Japan is frequently said to be exceptional. US politics is also often seen as exceptional. Some of the exceptional features of one country could also apply to the other. An investigation into the similarities and differences between these two countries and supposed common tendencies among affluent democracies illuminates two problems in arguments about exceptionalism.

First, some features seen as exceptional may not be exceptional from a comparative viewpoint. One may refer to the delay in policymaking in Japan as a peculiarity to that country. One may also say that the US political system, with its fragmented power, is unlikely to produce a large policy change. The first part of this paper, however, reveals that the difficulty of a large policy change might hold true for all western democracies. This similarity, moreover, can be explained by focusing on factors common to those countries and especially the risk-averse behavior of legislators.

Second, even if some countries have common differences from a supposed norm, those differences may be attributed to different factors. The peculiarity of each country might matter. The second part of this paper deals with some exceptional features common to Japan and the United States, namely the diversity within a party, and the lack of importance of administrative agencies as lobbying targets. I have demonstrated that the reasons for these similarities do not seem to be the same.

As the editors comment in the first issue of Leviathan: The Japanese Journal of Political Science (1987), one tends to see one’s own country as exceptional (also see Peters 1998). Indeed it may be true that every country has peculiarities which would make its politics exceptional. The analyses in this paper, however, suggest that an examination of exceptionalism requires the arduous task of comparisons. It is imperative to investigate the reasons for the similarities and the differences between each country (see Tominaga 1988). In research into only one country, “almost every variable has an equal chance of being a cause; without some comparison (across time or across cases) there is no means to sort out the causes of the differences” (Peters 1998: 139). In order to understand a country, hence, it is crucial to study it from a comparative perspective.

This paper is not intended to contend that research into one specific country is of no use. Rather I aver that research of this kind, through the accumulation of evidence, can lead us to detect and re-examine a supposed international norm. By comparing various insightful one-country studies, we can categorize countries into some theoretically meaningful groups (Peters 1998). In this sense, thorough research into a country from a comparative perspective should contribute not only to a better understanding of that country but also that of the world.


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About the author

Noritada Matsuda received his BA and MA in political science from Waseda University (Tokyo, Japan) in 1994 and 1996, respectively. Currently he is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA) and Waseda University. His PhD dissertation compares 1980s tax reforms in the United States and Japan and analyzes critical factors responsible for the successful passage of both reforms. One of his publications is a contribution to Kuni-Betsu Gyosei Kaikaku Jijo (Country-by-Country Situations of Public Administration Reform) (edited by H. Kataoka).

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