Comparing Japanese and Italian Politics: A Personal Quest

Like many others in the field, my goal in studying political science is to make political science more scientific. Yet my idea of how to become “more scientific” seems to differ from the norm. The problem arose in high school when my plane geometry class failed to impress. Making deductions from ad hoc assumptions about imaginary concepts still does not seem like science to me. I also find the search for the structure of DNA and Darwin’s epiphanies in the Galapagos Islands as exciting as Galileo peering through a telescope.

My chosen strategy for studying comparative politics is to try every methodology I can think of to understand the politics of a single country as thoroughly as I can, analogous to the way biologists study single species in order to understand the principles of genetics and evolution (Weber, 2007; Ankeny, 2007). I chose Japan as my case because it seemed to represent the single “most different case” among industrial democracies. As the only “non-Western” case, the obvious question is, “How much difference does culture make?” and the obvious approach is to compare. Along with many others who study Japan, my conclusion was not much (Reed, 1993).

I taught a seminar on Japanese politics at both the University of Alabama and at Harvard University. For a variety of topics from parties and party systems to economic policy, I assigned three or four articles on Japan and one each on as many other industrial democracies for which I could find good articles on each topic. Every student was required to read all of the Japanese articles and to choose one other country and read only the articles on that country. Discussion soon eliminated any thought of Japanese uniqueness. One student would say, “Japan is completely different from Country A” only to be answered by another student who would respond, “Maybe so, but it just like Country B”. It was amazing how many different countries filled the “Country B” slot but it soon became clear that the theories that explain the politics of West European parliamentary democracies explain Japanese politics just as well. The best way to understand Japanese politics is to read research on the politics of Britain, Germany and Italy, and among the three the most helpful is clearly Italy. I told my students that, if one ignored geography and focused exclusively on politics, Japan was on the continent of Europe east of Britain, south of Germany and north of Italy.

First and foremost, I find simply reading about Italian politics surprisingly useful. For example, when I read, “On economic matters, the DC started out as a defender of the interests of industry and of independent farmers. But very quickly, as the links with civil society expanded and its electoral target groups multiplied, the party became an avenue for the advancement of the economic interests of every relevant societal and economic group.” (Bardi, 2004:128) I think, “That’s the LDP in a nutshell.” The comparison between the DC and the LDP is the most obvious, but I also found reading about the relationship between the DC and Vatican useful in understanding the relationship between the Komeito and the Souka Gakkai (Ehrhardt, Klein, McLaughlin and Reed, 2014).

Sometimes reading about Italian politics stimulates my research on Japanese politics. The idea of a “mass clientelism party” presented by Frank Belloni, Frank, Mario Caciagli and Liborio Mattina (1979) clearly applies to the LDP but I am not yet sure precisely how? I am now working on the idea of an “organizational vote”. The LDP uses quasi-governmental institutions and private corporations as campaign organizations in a clientelistic exchange which looks like a Japanese version of “mass clientelism”. However, I am still having trouble moving beyond journalistic accounts.

Other times reading about Italian politics confirms (at least to my mind) my interpretation of Japanese politics. When I described LDP nomination policy as “if you win, you are LDP” (Reed, 2009), a way of avoiding factional conflict and leaving the decision to voters, I was delighted to read, “For many years the DC was reluctant to force candidate turnover because of preferential voting. … Given that at the time Italian electoral slates allowed for the nomination of many more candidates than any party could hope to have elected, it was possible for the DC to confirm all incumbents and also include a number of potential challengers leaving the final outcome to the individual’s ability to attract preference votes.” (Bardi, 2004: 132).

Of course, nothing works every time. I am now working with Matthew Carlson on topic of political corruption in Japan. Though Japan and Italy share a history of serious corruption, the content and style of corruption varies much more than we had anticipated. Japanese corruption turns out to be less a matter of “corrupt exchanges” (Della Porta and Vannucci, 1999) than Italian corruption, but more a matter of economic and bureaucratic institutions spreading money around lavishly in an attempt to buy generalized access to the government and widespread embezzlement of public funds.

When Italy and Japan adopted comparable electoral systems in comparable circumstances, it represented a “natural experiment” and presented the opportunity to do more systematic comparisons. Many scholars analyzed this natural experiment as if it were similar to a chemistry experiment: “if single-member districts, then two-party system”. They found that Italy and Japan had electoral systems featuring single-member districts but did not have two-party systems. Chemistry experiments, however, only work properly when you use distilled water and purified ingredients. Natural social experiments are more like doing a chemistry experiment using seawater and dirt from the back yard. A better analogy would be field experiments in evolutionary biology (Thompson, 2013): change one aspect of the ecological environment and look for changing directions and dynamics. The question thus becomes, “Did Italian and Japanese politics move in the expected direction?” and the answer is a resounding “yes” (Reed, 2001 and 2007).

It was quite satisfying to find consistent movement in the predicted direction but many differences between Italy and Japan remained to be explained. Abstract thinking was not proving helpful and reading about Italian politics proved frustratingly insufficient. Much more detail was required. I needed to ask Japanese questions about Italian politics and answer Italian questions about Japanese politics. A project organized by Daniela Giannetti and Bernard Grofman provided the opportunity to do so.

The project paired a student of Italian politics with a student of Japanese politics. I was paired with the perfect partner, Aldo Di Virgilio. He could answer many of my Japanese questions off the top of his head and, if not, would come up with answers to other in a day or two. It often took time to communicate the Japanese questions and understand the Italian answers. I assume the converse was also true. Questions answered often generated further questions. It was a thoroughly delightful and stimulating discussion, one of the best experiences of my academic career. We were approaching a “thick comparison” between the Italian and Japanese politics.

I am quite satisfied with the result (Di Virgilio and Reed, 2011). Again analogous to an experiment in evolutionary biology, we found that similar subspecies of the genus “predominant political party” evolved in different ways in response to similar stimuli, not only because the stimuli were slightly different, but also because the parties had evolved in different environments. We made some progress, but much remains to be done. We continued to communicate by email and I would have loved to have another chance to work with Aldo but his untimely death has made that impossible. I am deeply saddened by this turn of events.

Comparative political scientists based in Europe are lucky. They can meet regularly and ask questions of colleagues who focus on other countries. Such discussions produce a shared vocabulary and research agenda. It is much harder for a comparative political scientist based in Japan.


  • Ankeny, R.A., 2007. “Wormy Logic: Model Organisms as Powerful Tools for Biomedical Research” in Angela N.H. Creager, Elizabeth Lunbek, and M. Norton Wise Eds. Science without Laws. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 23-45.
  • Bardi, L., 2004. “Party Responses to Electoral Dealignment in Italy” in Peter Mair, Wolfgang C. Muller and Fritz Plasser eds. Political Parties and Electoral Change. London: Sage Publications.
  • Belloni, F., M. Caciagli, and L. Mattina, 1979. “The Mass Clientelism Party: The Christian Democratic Party in Catania and Southern Italy” European Journal of Political Research 7:253-275.
  • Della Porta, D., and A. Vannucci, 1999. Corrupt Exchanges. London: Aldine Transaction.
  • Di Virgilio, A., and S.R. Reed, 2011. “Nominating Candidates under New Rules in Italy and Japan: You Cannot Bargain with Resources You Do Not Have” in Daniela Giannetti and Bernard Grofman (eds.) A Natural Experiment on Electoral Law Reform: Evaluating the Long Run Consequences of 1990s Electoral Reform in Italy and Japan. Springer.
  • Ehrhardt, G., A. Klein, L. McLaughlin, and S.R. Reed, 2014. Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan. Institute of East Asian Studies, The University of California, Berkeley.
  • Reed, S.R., 1993. Making Common Sense of Japan. Pittsburgh, PA: The University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Reed, S.R., 2001. “Duverger’s Law is Working in Italy” Comparative Political Studies 34:312-327.
  • Reed, S.R., 2007. “Duverger’s Law is Working in Japan”Senkyo Kenkyuu (Electoral Studies) 22:96-106.
  • Reed, S.R., 2009. “Party Strategy or Candidate Strategy: How Does the LDP Run the Right Number of Candidates in Japan’s Multi-Member Districts?” Party Politics 15: 295-314.
  • Thompson, J.N., 2013. Relentless Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Weber, M., 2007. “Redesigning the Fruit Fly: The Molecularization of Drosophila” in A.N.H. Creager, E. Lunbek, and M. Norton Wise (eds.), Science without Laws. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 46-58.

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